Toronto continues to be Canada's home of the blues despite other small blues supporting pockets throughout the country. How appropriate then for a major blues festival to be held in the pretty lakeside village of Port Credit located a few miles to the west of downtown Toronto. It's a unique event where all the village's clubs and restaurants book nothing but blues and jazz entertainment for the 4 day duration. It also features a main stage located in the huge Fram Park plus the Street Shuffle where 20 acts bop in front of the stores and patios in the village. This is a review of the events at the main stage on Saturday September 9.
First up was Toronto's most diverse blues and roots band, Fathead. They were celebrating the return of lead singer John Mays. He had been in hospital after recently being diagnosed with diabetes. His soulful voice paced the band through a tight set of tunes from their 3 CDs.
For 15 years, Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, played his traditional "shuffle" style drums for Muddy Waters. Willie can thus be regarded as the heart and soul of the Chicago blues sound.
After performing with Waters, Smith established his own niche within the tradition of the Delta Blues Sound by co-founding the Legendary Blues Band with other various Waters band alumni. The group won six Grammy awards.
Big Eyes is immensely popular in Toronto and released his most recent CD called "Nothin But The Blues, Y'all" on an independent label based in Toronto. The support band on that effort was a bunch of stalwart musicians from the Toronto blues scene called the Northern Blues Legends. They are recording another CD with Willie and backed him at the Shuffle. The band included harp ace Al Lerman of Fathead, keyboardist extraordinaire Michael Fonfara of Downchild, hardened guitarist Morgan Davis and bassist Alec Fraser.
They began with a couple instrumentals that showcased their immense talent. Then Willie lead them through a set of relaxed, traditional blues featuring originals and covers such as "You The One", "Key To The Highway", "Chicago Bound", and "Hoochie Coochie Man". Smith's voice does not have much range nor is it too strong. Its subtle just like his kit of 3 drums.
Michael Pickett has been a major force on the Canadian blues scene for thirty years. As the leader of seminal bands Whiskey Howl and Wooden Teeth, he successfully pushed the envelope for roots music in the Toronto area. He is once again a regular on the scene and fronts his own dynamite band. He is very fortunate to have the amazing, hot blues guitarist Shawn Kellerman in his band. Even though Kellerman is only 27, he is used to touring 175-230 nights a year with national headliners such as Deborah Coleman and the legendary Bobby Rush. In fact Shawn lived in Mississippi for 2 years so he could play the famed Chitlin Circuit with Rush. The time spent in the deep south helped the self-taught guitarist to further hone his craft.
Michael hit the stage smokin' with energy and left it dripping with sweat. While on stage, he was having the time of his life. Pickett is far more challenged by performing original songs than rehashing blues standards. Not surprising then that his set included originals from his two most recent CDs.
Pickett's gritty vocals and razor sharp harp thrilled the crowd as he and the band stormed through "Walkin'", "1988" and "All of These Blues". Michael is an absolute harp whiz and puts 110% into every tune. At times he fell to his knees from exhaustion but continued to blow his harmonica. It was like he was possessed and just couldn't stop blowing. On "Shake", Kellerman played a blistering solo that was surely heard throughout the village. It was definitely felt by Shawn himself, you could see it in his face. His playing style is contemporary but it was still nothin' but the blues. This was a pure pleasure to experience as so many of today's young blues guitar wizards are really nothing more than mislabeled rock guitarists.
For some reason, Pickett seemed to take exception to the over crowded beer tent, challenging them to leave it and come to the front of the stage. Since booze was only available in the tented portion of the park, it helped to nicely segregate the crowd between the families/blues enthusiasts and the party animals. After more bantering with the people in the beer garden, he continued with a pile of songs from his latest CD. "Big Train" featured Kellerman sounding very Albert Collins like, while "Love Don't Mean It", and "Cecil & Spadina" where an eclectic bag of roots music. Pickett added innovative melodies to his music which resulted in diverse modern blues.
The Downchild Blues Band are still as popular as ever and are affectionately known throughout North America as Canada's Blues Band. This respectful moniker shows the love for this long running blues act. After 31 years, the band is still fronted by founding member Donnie 'Mr. Downchild' Walsh. He writes the majority of the band's material and remains one of the most enthusiastic musicians to be found anywhere.
Upon being introduced by late night talk show host Mike Bullard, the band blasted into their party blues with a double harp attack instrumental called "Soarin". Walsh then remained on harp, blowing up a storm, for a few more tunes while Chuck Jackson exchanged his harp for a microphone. With unparalleled confidence, Jackson belted out the words of "I Know You're Lyin", and "Tell Your Mother" using his booming voice. These tunes were jump jivin' and hot rockin'. You know, the type of blues that inspire you to get up and dance! Well, much of the crowd did just that.
At one point, the band stopped and left Walsh wailing on harp by himself. Jim Casson climbed from behind his drumkit to keep the beat for Donnie on a microphone stand! Just when you have come to the conclusion that Donnie is one of the best harp players you have ever heard, he astounds you with his exhilarating guitar playing. He picked up an Epiphone guitar and ripped ferociously into some blazing slide on "TV Mama" and "Madison Blues". Then he pulled out his Stratocaster and let out a flurry of notes on the pounding "Wednesday Night Blues". It's a dramatic number that Chuck sang effectively as he told the story of coming home from work and finding the unexpected. They performed it far stronger and heavier than the studio recording.
On "Annie's Got Sister", Pat Carey played an extended solo showing why he was voted as the top Canadian blues saxophonist. Carey made it sound as if the band had an entire brass section! Then a fitting tribute to a fallen blues soldier who we lost earlier this year. He was the lead singer of the band for many years. Of course, I am talking about Rick 'Hock' Walsh. The band reached back to 1973 for "Shotgun Blues". This slow blues Downchild classic featured emotional solos by Michael Fonfara on keyboards in addition to Carey on sax and Donnie on guitar.
They continued with one house rockin, boogie blues'n song after another. Eventually they performed their most famous songs from the 70s which are most frequently associated with the Blues Brothers Band. Chuck played harp and sang while Donnie kept crankin his guitar on "Everything I Need (Almost)". This was followed with the swing jump anthem "Flip Flop Fly" with all the band members getting solos as a chance to bring the set to a climax and bid farewell. The large crowd wasn't going anywhere until the band returned for an encore. They returned to the stage and played the all too appropriate "Last Chance to Dance". A New Orleans style marching band then lead the crowd from the Park to the streets of the village for the Street Shuffle portion of the festival. Other bands featured throughout the festival were: Rockin' Highliners, Rod Piazza and the Mighty Flyers, Tyler Yarema, Jack DeKeyzer, Chris Chown and Danny Brooks.
This review is copyright © 2000 by Tim Holek, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.