Friday, October 28, 2016

Not So Crazy: Party at the Riverview Asylum

Hard travel. Terminals at night. Canada is starting to cool with the season, and other ports are calling. Next week the Zulu Skies Tour will reach South Africa, but tonight I'm playing on darker roads in Vancouver. I'm playing the 10th Anniversary party of Cottonwood Lodge, a modern residence for the mentally ill, set on the sprawling grounds of the original, Riverview Hospital asylum.

This is a giant tract of land, slowly being brought into the modern age. But the connections to a recent, dark past are everywhere on these twisting roads: barred facilities. Places where people were subject to electro shock, brain surgery to quiet them down, sterilization. Cages. Haunted? Absolutely. The dripping overgrowth, the moss-faced buildings with wire fencing, holes in the walls, twisted old depots. This was a town once. With it's own bank and transit. Crazytown.

Movies are frequently shot in the surviving, old school buildings.

Cottonwood Lodge, I'm pleased to report, is a modern, friendly, mostly unlocked facility. I played Cottonwood's little coffeehouse, and had a nice time with staff and patients here. It's always a pleasure to be able to give something back to the towns that have supported me over the years. In recent times some of these, off-the-radar stops have been among my favourite Canadian, west coast shows. Worth doing. Blues is healing music, and sometimes it really needs to go to places that need it the most. Both the Artist and the Audience escape the Asylum, if only for a few moments time.

Left Coast: In Which I Travel Without the Big Lincoln

I break with tradition. The Big Lincoln safely parked, I'm now at the mercy of taxi drivers, bus terminal directors, airline baggage handlers, rental clerks, and ticket sellers. Street hustlers. Lunatics. People who love the blues, and know more about it than I ever could. God knows what will happen if my credit card is declined somewhere. Usually I can sleep in my car, or point it to the next, friendly destination. I've cleverly shopped for a massive canvas bag to carry my guitar cases in. It's a professional, hockey goalie's bag. It holds two guitar cases easily, and doesn't look like the property of a traveling rock star. The bag is half empty, but still looks gigantic. I wheel it awkwardly through the airport and check it as sports equipment. The tag on the outside says I'm on the "National" Team. For the first time in years I escape the "random" full body security search. In a pinch, I could probably sleep in the bag.

I'm headed for Canada's left coast. Politically as well as geographically. But with a change in travel plans, I can't buy a direct flight to Victoria, British Columbia from Toronto at a reasonable cost. Nor can I purchase one to Vancouver at a reasonable cost. Instead, I get a budget ticket with two stops. That's fine, I'm not rushed this day. Little do I suspect that my cheap flight will not stop in a linear fashion, but will instead take me to Vancouver, and then Edmonton, before Victoria. Three half-empty planes. Over the Rockies three times. An extra eight hours. Extra thousands of kilometres in the air. If only I could of got my guitars out of baggage, I could have fled the Vancouver airport and caught the ferry to Victoria. Then again, flying direct to Vancouver is an expensive trip, so they say.

My big bag seems to have made the trip nicely. I'm met at the airport by local bandleader Ian Walls. He's kindly signed on to be my bassist, driver, bar man and landlord for most of the Vancouver Island dates. There's a typhoon coming, and the Island is hunkering down, checking it's battery supplies, sump pumps, fresh water. There also seems to be a brisk business at the wine and spirits store. With a couple of cheap, California reds in hand, Ian and I head back to his place for an evening of rehearsal. The McKinley Wolf band has backed me up here in recent years, but this season it will be Ian and I playing duo up and down Island.

Up Island. Duncan, British Columbia. We point the van into the lashing rain, and make it over the pass. It's dark early. They say the typhoon might make shore in just a few more hours. Not many on the road this afternoon. You could feel the old, Toyota van lurching in the wind. Load-in and soundcheck to the Duncan Showroom. It's a great sounding room I've always enjoyed playing. Tonight we are set up and sounding good in a scant, few minutes. The sound techie even remembers where I place my mics. I wish every stage was as simple, and professional as this. The Elks are serving steak next door, but soon they too are loading their cars, heading off into the night. With the meat draw over, there is nothing in the street but the rain and the wind. Plenty of empty seats in this little theatre tonight. Two sets later, we're back on the highway, southbound. We didn't make gas money, much less dinner. Not a great start to the Left wing of this Tour. There are leaves whipping through the air. It's cold and damp, and I'm wondering about Africa. By the time we reach Victoria the rain has all but stopped.

There's always tomorrow, and in Victoria that means we'll be playing at the storied Victoria Blues Society jam. Always a great chance to make new friends, and meet up with old ones. Here's a snap of Mark Crissinger and myself. He's based out of Cedar, up Island. Mark was kind enough to sit in and play guitar with the little "band" I put together from the available players. A cosmopolitan crowd, with players and fans from England, Germany, South Africa, USA and Canada enjoying each other's company and music. A good bunch– and they keep the music alive.

I wish every bartender was as friendly as this one. The staff here were good to everybody. It's taken me a dozen years of visiting Victoria to get this gig. Hermann's Jazz Club. Legendary west coast venue. As a performer it's always a thrill to play a venue stage that has hosted so much musical history. Nice to play on boards that thumped so nicely under my foot, boards that knew something about time and place. Boards with secrets about the fleeting moments of music and the artists who make it. So much of it is fleeting. Like life itself. Moments not written down, photographed, posted or recorded. Just lived. Howlin' Wolf down on his hands and knees, pounding the stage with his fist, roaring through the dust, soaked in sweat. Hubert looking on, blinking. The girl that grabbed my arm, briefly, and then vanished. The old guy that used to come through and play that club, I forget what they called it, down by the station. Fleeting. Like some kiss you want to keep forever, perfume on the wind. There and gone. Breathe it in when you can. Taste it. Swallow it. Fleeting. Life.

Up Island once more. This time we're going to Port Alberni. It's an old mill town with picked over thrift stores and beat up pawn shops. Dreadlocked surfer kids on route to Tofino stop here to look for cooking oil to feed their rusting busses. Beamers on holiday from Vancouver buy a few litres of gasoline to get themselves past this, up the twisty road to their timeshares. Tonight, Ian and I will play here. An old church in the shadow of the mill– now a concert venue. Our route takes us through some of the mighty old growth trees that have survived the loggers.

I'm praying that we'll have an audience for tonight's show. My lodgings are in the Prayer Room. Ian spends time in the adjoining Cry Room. If I had a god, mine would laugh and smile with me. And would free the wage Slaves from the Mill. It's another quiet night. That typhoon's not gone yet, not yet forgotten. Still fodder for the bored world of the WeatherNet. Not counting the cheap red wine we drank, I've lost a couple of hundred dollars to walk in the mud under the giant trees. Ian and I play well together this night. We chat into the small hours, bridging the distance between the Prayer Room and the Cry Room with the last of the wine. After twelve years, and several thousand shows, this great Canadian tour seems less sustainable than ever.

The drummer was a little stiff...

The smell of money didn't reach into the concert hall that night...

Safe in urban Victoria for a couple more shows. My friends and fans are propelling this bit of the Tour in spite of the now spent storm. Storms. The storm of the Tour. Here's a little shelter from it. Some respite for a couple of days. I rest here by the kindness of my friends. Rested. Recharged. A little coffee. A little scotch. A little bourbon. Books, blues, Bix. Hope for the soul! Hope for the storm of the Heart! I open the little, virtual office, and scratch out details for Africa. The car, the phone, the cds, the reception at the High Commission. I walk the beach before prepping for the next show. A house concert. A good one.

Best show of the Left Coast, so far. Great blues fans, friends. Southern cooking. I helped move these chairs in, and then moved 'em out again. I also helped eat the ham and biscuits, drink the rare bourbon, and played the show. Sometimes it's nice to wear all the hats. Rain on the roof of the guest house. Sleep.

These deer are the scourge of Victoria's beautiful gardens. This four pointer watched me walk by with some distain. "Whatzamadder? Never seen a deer, dude?"

Most cities are at their best when the sun comes out. Victoria is no exception. For a few short hours the rain snuck back behind the horizon. This is a place to walk, or run, or take small children and big dogs. All of these appeared like magic, with the sun. As did I. Walking, not running this day. Oak Bay.

As I return to my quarters, Buck shows his distain for walking bluesmen.

My last show of the Tour on Vancouver Island. It's an early show at the Victoria Folk Club. I've played here before. It's among Canada's oldest folk clubs– I'm going to guess close to 40 years old. Somebody will probably correct me. Electric instruments are not allowed here, no pick-ups, DIs, or mics, either. You might say it's very traditional. The fact that I've brought an electric bassist with me this evening has been lost in the debate over the new, overhead, ambient microphone that has been installed in the old wooden hall. It's a big room, and some of the members don't hear well anymore. On this night some have boycotted the show because of the new microphone. From the back, where Ian and I are discretely sipping our wine from teacups, I cannot tell whether the microphone is even on. Numerous members apologize to me for the new contraption. When the time comes we play our set into a warm, standing ovation and encore. I certainly don't need a microphone in a beautiful room like this. Even the Queen looks somehow pleased, gazing over my shoulder at the spectacle. A nice way to wrap my shows on the Island.

Vancouver Island behind me, I've arrived on the British Columbia mainland. It was a good trial for my new, gear carry bag. I managed to wheel it through the terminals, up and down the ship gangplanks without too much difficulty. Meanwhile the Zulu Skies Tour is building momentum in Africa. I'll be there in less than a week. Just a handful of Canadian shows left on the schedule.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Canadian Maritime: Bare-Fisted Blues behind the Wild Atlantic Roar

Eastbound. It's night time on the Big Road. Blowing out of Toronto on a twenty-four lane, black snake. I've got a full tank of gas, and a big, big cup of coffee. Late. I should of left at noon, not nine. But that's the blues. That's a tour start. This is a tour start. Driving all night: Lincoln on cruise, passing semi trucks decked out in lights, their strange electric faces looming and groaning oncoming, then winking, moaning behind me. Slick sports coupes: Montreal bound. Appearing in the rear view, then gone. Gone cat, gone. Blood red tail lights flashing, vanishing. The vanishing footprints of the broken line: now drifting behind me in the rear view. Drifting. Truck stops. Convoys. This road is getting smaller: just four lanes now. Rigs pulled off, down for a few hours. Motors humming under the mercury vapours. I sleep among these grumbling giants for a short, half dream– and then I'm back on the run. East. East. I don't keep a log book like they do. I'm driving into the sun as it teases, then rises and shakes off the night. For a few moments I'm in a strange, exotic world. Maybe I always am on the Blues Highway.

How many coffees later. Ordering in french now. Lumpy hills. Tail end of the Appalachians. Almost Laurentian. I'm headed down the St. Lawrence River, now through Quebec, past Quebec City. You can still see the original land grants carved into the earth. Narrow tracts foraging back from the river. Always the silver roofs of the Catholic churches, spires like pins holding down these little villages, holding them to the earth, to the mysteries of this place. Black robes. Cigarettes and warm beer, crosses casting shadows over it all. I used to play here for weeks on end. Beer in quart bottles. Girls who'd flash their tits at you– when they thought their boyfriends weren't looking. Everybody seemed to love the blues. You never had sex, but it was always there. Or at least you could easily image that it could be, or might be, or was. A sensual place where the sacred and the profane found a little harmony, worked together to keep the whole thing on edge. Six nights a week. Now I'm blasting through it on the Big Road, the Twenty. Sometimes I sneak a night in when nobody's looking, and play some little biker joint. But today: I'm steady on the pedal, bound for the Maritimes, the smell of ocean, the roar of the tide.

I didn't see any moose– but that's not a bad thing. New Brunswick has plenty of them. Big, dark. Hard to see at night. Hit one and die. They can put a semi in the ditch. If you hit one straight in a car it will probably come straight through your windshield. Take the legs out and a bloody ton of meat will crush the cab. The big roads have some moose fencing now, but I wouldn't count on it. People die. Daytime, you can rock at 130 kph. Dusk brings caution to the wheel. It's festival season in this part of the country, so I'm going past the larger towns to the places less often visited. I stop to do a little house concert and we have moose stew after the show. It's a couple of weeks early for moose, if you need a tag. Coyotes are howling in the distance.

Prince Edward Island always comes and goes too fast for me. Stories told in cabins. Songs written there, too, sometimes.

I hole up in the red dirt hills. The Dunk. Yes, the river, and the place. Out my window I see the Man Trailer II. There is a little festival held here, and occasional concerts. My late friend Hal Mills built all this. It was Hal who put Africa in my ear. Coming in late from a show elsewhere on the Island, I sit in my cabin and play Sugarman for him. I play it badly, and forget some of the words, but it doesn't matter. I came half way across North America to stop here on route to Africa. To play this tune, to get some of Hal's driveway splattered on my car. Sugarman.

Walking with Catherine MacLellan. She's a great, Canadian songwriter. Her dad, wrote a few good ones, too. I always enjoy hanging out with Catherine and Chris on the Island. On this day Melonie, Catherine and myself walk the abandoned railway path. Fall crops edge in from the back acres of the farms. Much is now grown over and given back to the wild. We pilfer apples from a long forgotten orchard, go back to the Dunk for coffee and more conversation. For a time, the world seems easy. Airports and highways are far away. A black lab puppy commands our attention. My pockets are crammed full of those strange old apples. Hugs, and we are all back to our virtual offices: booking shows, making arrangements.

I'm up Island for a couple of shows. Bull rush country, where the land is a little boggy and rough. Here, you look to the sea for your money. The people are supposed to be rough here, too. But I'm always treated well. At the show I have drinks with an Irish doctor who moved here long ago. Wouldn't live anywhere else. Plenty of room on Main St. to park the Lincoln in front of the venue. Plenty of room for a country doctor and a blues doctor to share a few stories.

Chris Roumbanis runs the weekly blues jam in Charlottetown. It's now in a downtown bar called the Factory. I'm their guest again- and we have a ball playing a set together. Chris has done so much to foster a music scene in his community. He gets the young players up. He shows them what to do. He brings in the old, road dogs as guests, mixes it all up. There are a whole lot of fine, polished players in this little place now. The blues is universal, and there are little places like this around the world: run by unsung heros who do so much to keep this music alive. Far from the bright lights, they get the kids up to play, they play Willie Dixon and Robert Johnson, they make people happy and build community. You can hear anything, or anybody in a place like this. Here's a sincere thanks to Chris and the others like him who do what they do.

Blues can never really be measured by a musical form, by a place on a map, a collection of objects. Maybe it's more like the wind on your face, like fleeting shadows. Something that ceases to be the moment it is too carefully, or too carelessly defined. Something to be discovered at the secret shrine of the heart. Celebrated. Excised. Healed. You know what it is when you taste it. Prince Edward Island behind me: I played an old barn in the red dirt hills. We drank beer under a big moon, and laughed at the night. Up west I touched the coast. A pub in bluefin territory. A club in the heart of Charlottetown. Raw oysters washed down with South African wine. Songs written to the sound of rain on a tin roof. The Island is always very good to me. It's not about the money.

Tied to the southern swamps by more than a thread, I walked into the dark woods, dank mud on my shoes, in my shoes. My shoes. Now, pushing through brush, through a cold autumn rain, past the dolls in cages, past the plastic bottles hanging wildly from broken trees, past the last place you might yell and be heard by anyone, or anything. Far beyond the abandoned old house, the broken glass, the faded signs, here secreted: this shrine. Not new, not yet swallowed by the creeping spruce. But soon. Soon. Another fifty years. In time another soul may stand on this spot: offering a candle to the night. A lucky dollar. A couple of guitar strings. Who knows what this day will bring? What this day might take?

I'm both glad and frightened at the sudden loud start of the motor. Soaked through now. My shoes won't dry for days. I edge the car around, and find my way out to the dirt road, out to the highway. The wipers slap over the fogged up windows. I'm looking for coffee. Looking for fuel. I'm outta here feeling as unsettled as I always do. Madness and strangeness. The lingering darkness. The unanswered questions. It's a strange walk through the secret corners of the world. Now I'm glad to be driving.

I'm in Nova Scotia: an event at the Atlantic International Film Festival, then I'm busking a music festival that didn't hire me, playing a stop in a small fishing village way up the coast, a couple of house concerts, and a bare-fisted show in a boxing club.

John Hopkins premiered his new film, Bluefin, at the Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax. A sold-out event, the film was a huge success and has been picking up awards and nominations ever since. I was honoured to be invited to the premier- and to play at the afterparty event.

When I'm in central Nova Scotia, Lindsay and I often bomb around in his '39 Ford. Cars and bikes and beer and blues. How can you go wrong with a schedule like that? The rural, farm area has remained largely unchanged over the last 50 years.

I had a house concert cancel on short notice, so I thought I'd hustle what I could on the sudden down day. Nearby, the Deep Roots Festival has declined to hire me for the last 10 years, so Calliun and I set up in front of opening night to scrape a little silver off the rainy day. Had a good crowd for our three hour set, although the cases got a little damp. Later, we drove back to the house, soaked in a wood-fired hot tub, drank home made beer, and listened to the coyotes howl. Not a perfect day- but not too shoddy. In the end, the days are usually what you make them to be.

Now, up the wild, Nova Scotia coast. Up the winding road from Halifax through places with names like Ecum Secum. My first stop is Charlos Cove, a little fishing village which is much closer to Cape Bretton than it is to the bright lights of Halifax. Still a long run on a twisting road, pot hole traps waiting to take off a wheel, rip open a tire.

I'm lucky enough to play an old inn, the SeaWind Landing. The original historic building where I stay post show is haunted. Hey, I don't believe in these wandering spirits, anyway. Or do I, now? For two nights I thought that there was somebody else staying in the next room. The low, cough. The clearing of the throat. The footsteps on the wood floor. I wouldn't lose sleep over it. I was also lucky enough to get to hang out with one of my special friends for a while. It means a lot to me that some folks come back year after year to connect. That's a reward for the heart that can't be bought or borrowed.

Taking a down day in Charlos Cove, Nova Scotia. I walk the beaches at low tide. It's a place where my own footprints are the only ones I see all day. There's something to be said for that. It somehow clears the mind to be this alone sometimes, and the day fades quickly, thoughts and memories rolling in like the gathering tide.

Time to leave this place again. Saying good-bye is the hardest part of my life as a traveller. Now, I'm headed south, catching the little cable ferry that will send me on my way into the historic communities of East Preston and Bedford.

I reach Halifax, Nova Scotia early enough to do a round of media interviews and station ID's. I wish I had some big shows to promote here this time around. It's ironic that sometimes you get the most help when it's least needed! But, gosh, I had fun with all of these folks. Mostly hard core blues fans who really know their stuff. Good questions. Good stories. Here's a picture of me with "The Wolfman" Wayne Schnare, who does a weekly, east coast blues show. Great, classic FM Wolfman voice. He could be syndicated. Big fun.

Bedford, Nova Scotia. Near the place where Africville once stood. Near the place where garbage trucks evicted residents of a historic black Loyalist community. Oh, I know– there's different points of view about what it was, about how the church was burned at night, where the smoke drifted, where the cinders fell. And yet, that was long ago for the children and grandchildren that make up today's rainbow. Canada, like many other places, is still engaged in healing. Some wounds forgotten, forgiven. Others still hidden, or spilling out in the papers, demanding resolution.

I'm standing in a boxing club in Bedford. The air carries hints of sweat. Load in. Tube lights glare overhead. Richard is moving a punching bag off to the side. Mics are going up on stands. Buckets of ice shifted to the back, under a table.

I chat for a while with Ricky "The Gentleman" Anderson, a two time Canadian boxing champion. It's been a long while since he stood in the spot where I'm going to sit, but when he grips my hand there is still a gentle, but crushing power in it. The blues is healing music– colour blind, even when the people who buy and sell it are not. Ali said that the real work was done out on the road, long in advance of dancing under the bright lights. I've always thought that this was the case for music, too– but it does seem that there is a universal truth in what he said. Social change as well. Building the kind of world we'd like to live in. Ordinary people do the real work far in advance of the politicians under those bright lights.

My friend Judy Corkum took this picture, and a few more, at my East Preston show. A cool venue at the end of a dark road. Brave folks drove out from the city. We had a time. Next day I'm pointing the Big Lincoln west. It could be a while before I see Nova Scotia again. One never knows.

Durham Bridge, New Brunswick, Canada. Can you find it on a map? Up a little river that I can't pronounce. Well, yes I can, but I can't spell it, so I'm not saying it here. Up the Marysville road, up Canada Street, up some highway with some numbers, up a dirt road and a twisted drive. It wasn't my turn to play the nearby Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival this year, but local blues fans made a show happen anyway. Not just a show but a backwoods, New Brunswick party. They probably have a word for it, if anybody can remember it!

The next day I backtrack. A classic, Doc tour zig-zag of three hours. Down towards Fundy, the place with the highest tides in the world. But I don't get to see the water. Instead I'm pushing the Lincoln into the near abandoned hills. The old, farm villages are swallowed by the forest again. Second and third generation growth over these rough and rocky lands. Acadians, and then Irish. Cheap land. Opportunity. And heartbreak. As if the small farm would survive in a world of machines, anyway. The rocks and the toil and the wicked winters took care of the rest. There are still folks here- and some of them are coming to my show tonight- but many work elsewhere, up the big road in the city.

Playing fields used to surround this place. I roll in early. This is tonight's gig. I stroll around the edge of the yard and pick blackberries, and then sleep for a couple of hours while I wait for the hall to open.

A guy from India rented a car and drove in the dark for hours to find this show. It was a blast to play for him. Later he told me his story of immigrating to Canada as a young man so he'd be able to see shows by Led Zepplin and other blues-rock acts. Now he's an IT wizard in Nashville, and his kids live on a First Nations reserve in New Brunswick. He married into all that. I tease him about being a "real" Indian. We laugh. Next time I go to Nashville, we'll be taking in some music together. Or I may just take him through to Mississippi. Blues heaven. Clarksdale...

Soon enough, I'm waking up in somebody's living room. Hustling out to start the motor, I'm going way up river into potato country. Covered bridges, mud on the roads, y'all come back now.

It's a beautiful concert hall set in an old church. We put some mics up, but hardly use them. This Sunday night I have the biggest crowd of the Maritime district. Thank goodness. I've got to buy a plane ticket to the west coast in just a couple of days!

Big Lincoln on cruise. I'm on a reach for Ontario. I'm going to get over Quebec in overdrive on one tank of gas because the tax is so high there. I'm going to stop and sleep once in a while. Because I can. The trees are beginning to change to bright colours. There are geese, wheeling overhead in formation. South. South. A Canadian autumn. Bright beauty getting ready to fade. Overnight the naked trees under grey skies, and then the harsh call of winter wind. I won't be risking my life in it again this year. At least not as much.

And now, the Canadian Pacific coast. Vancouver Island. The Lower Mainland. In a few more days: Africa. I'll be doing short, daily blogs again once I reach Africa.