Launch day seems so long ago. Here I am on my street with my Tour wheels ready to go. I'm alone on the road, but there is a great little team I assemble to help make this all go. Long and McQuade– Canada's biggest and best music retailer– provides much of my PA support. Their Canada wide network of locations means I am never more than a few hours away from bigger, smaller, or alternate equipment. I really like the way this company does business, and how it gets involved in it's communities. It's a family organization, and it makes a real difference. I did a bunch of in-store, master classes on this Tour– and they were all a real pleasure. I only wish I had been able to schedule more of these.
Meanwhile, I've got friends all up and down the line. Here's Andy and Dale meeting up with me in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for Canada's best blues and jazz festival, the Harvest. These boys hail from Nova Scotia, and they know their blues. Always a pleasure to meet up with these guys, and with other blues fans across Canada. I can't describe what a boost their enthusiasm brings to the artists.
Over the Confederation Bridge here! It's a great ride in from New Brunswick, and I love playing Prince Edward Island. Getting here in good weather is always part of the fun for me. In the early fall it is still green, with little flashes of colour here and there. It is surprisingly cosmopolitan, and you never know who will turn up at your shows. I guess if there is one thing I've noticed over the past few years it is that nobody is isolated anymore. It's a small world now, and smart, informed people are everywhere.
Red dirt roads leading to a show. What a set up for me. What a great life. I'll go out and run these roads before leaving the Island. Great air. The crunch of your feet on the ground. Ten or twenty km will roll by before I know it. I didn't get as many runs in this year as I have in the past. It's partially the fatigue factor, and then access to shower facilities as well. I need to deliver a show every day– and sometimes there is just too much driving. Also the Hotel Lincoln doesn't have running water, so on Lincoln days there is no running. I think I ran something like 85 communities across Canada last year. This year it was just harder to fit it in.
Speaking of people showing up at shows— here's a parliamentary delegation from the Faroe Islands doing a guest set at my Breadalbane, PEI show. That's the Minister of Culture playing guitar. I gave him a Tour jacket and he promised to wear it "once" in Parliament! They were in Charlottetown for a conference, and their driver brought them out to the country for their last night in Canada. They had a blast! And so did everyone else, including myself.
Catherine MacLellan kindly rescheduled her show at the Dunk to accommodate my tour schedule. While we didn't end up doing the split bill I had hoped (hey, not so strange), we did end up swapping new songs at the Dunk until the wee hours. PEI is like that. I spent a few hours stacking firewood for our host the next day. I love that wood heat! Outside of the big cities, Canada has a whole lot of wood heat. It's got a certain smell, a certain warmth, a rich comfort in its embers. When I'm not around it, I miss it.
It's a clear sky, in the picture, but the winds are wailing. As it happens, I am the last car to get over the Confederation Bridge before it is shut down. Hurricane! Newfoundland gets hit hard. In this business you never know what the weather is going to deliver. I build these big Canadian tours to go out in the autumn months, as these are the safest for travel. Leaving in summer weather, I arrive back in winter— so I guess it's really a three season Tour. I travel as equipped as I can be, with good winter tires, shovel, flares, candles, car blankets, and a hand winch. Still, you can't be too careful, and every year I know I will have bad weather periods on the Tour. This year was no exception, but I did miss the worst of the weather in the Maritimes. Hurricane in the fall, and flooding in the early winter. The thing about playing as many places as I do is that I have friends in every region, so I worry over every severe weather report.
I got to Tatamogouche, Nova Scotia, to find that I had a new opening act– the National Film Board of Canada. We had an interesting time, and I pitched my ideas to the Chairman in person. In short, I asked them to consider funding incentives for film makers which could serve to encourage the commission of local composers for soundtracks. Canadian films should properly have Canadian soundtracks, unless there is a creative reason for doing otherwise. The NFB prides itself on funding films in and about Canada's many communities. My point is that the accompanying musical soundtracks should also be, where possible, drawn from the communities where the filming takes place.
Gordon Lightfoot is a great songwriter, but the boys and girls back on the Rock can provide their own accompaniment nicely...
I went for a run before leaving Tat. It's the best way to see a place– and the best way for me to keep from gaining weekly layers of fat. When I'm not on the road I train hard. It's my pension plan. Life. I'm going to have to keep working until I die, and illness would certainly spell poverty and destitution for me. So I run. I may get struck by lightening, or some cancer may take me, but I'm determined not to have a stroke or a heart attack! Seriously, as I always tell other musicians– you've worked all your life to get where you are, you've been through years of hard times– now you owe it to yourself and your family to enjoy the fruits of your labours for as long as you can.
Now, that's better! On this Tour I enjoyed fantastic and thoughtful hospitality from coast to coast. The gift of space, conversation, a place to relax, reflect, a good cup of coffee, a breakfast to fuel me for the rest of the day... I need to thank all of my hosts for being part of the team that has again made this Tour possible. Without host support along the way I would surely fade. Sometimes I enjoy the seclusion of a hotel, but more often than not it is the time spent with my hosts that is the most cherished and most valuable. You will never know just how much I have appreciated your concern for me, and how much it may have helped the next show in the next town!
Back at it! I don't have as many performance pictures on the Darker Ways blog as I have in the past. I've had a lot of stuff on my mind, and I simply haven't remembered to hand the camera out as often. And, as some people have mentioned to me, I am aware there's not necessarily much about the actual shows on the Blog. To re-state, it's not my place to review my own shows. I have reported various facts about the performances– sold out, or encored, or whatever– and sometimes I have expressed my own level of enjoyment of particular shows. The rest is up to the actual audiences. This is– after all– a Blog, and people can post to it pretty much whatever they want. My hope has been that people who have attended shows might write them up here. The real shortcoming, I've come to understand, is that my demographic generally does not Blog. You are reading this– but most of my audience is not. And of those who do, very, very few are comfortable participating or contributing to the Blog. Most folks have computers now and use them, but not everyone uses them as an interactive media. For some of my people, just turning on their computers and finding the Blog is a pretty substantial achievement. I do thank all of you for reading and following along– whether or not you have chosen to post. Every time I get to a show I am surprised at the numbers of people who say they have been following the Tour as it crosses Canada. It's a real pleasure to share what I can of this remarkable adventure.
Sudbury, Ontario, was put together by this great young band, Sulfur City. Without their efforts I would not of stopped here. I want to mention just what a pleasure it is to meet as many local artists as I do. It is almost always wonderful to have a local show on the bill. This is a way in which touring artists can give back, and help local artists get a leg up. Sometimes a little more exposure and recognition in their own communities goes a long way. It still works that way for me when I'm invited to open for various international shows. Usually the agencies, the managers, and the record companies get in the way with their own, side deals– but that's the biz, and another story. I'm an indy guy, and at my level I really enjoy being able to help promote local artists. Chances are I've occupied a prime venue on a prime night, so it's often fairly easy to do something for the local scene. This stuff all comes around. When I was in my teens and twenties I'd often get to open for John Hammond– and I'm not the only one, there's guys in every town that will tell you the same story. Muddy Waters, same. Willie Dixon. Sonny and Brownie. I don't forget, and I'm not special.
My Man!! Big Dave McLean and I made a rusty but cool night of it at Times Changed in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was our only show of the Tour together, but great fun as always. I had really torn my voice to bits at a bar show in Kenora, Ontario, the night before, so I was really glad not to have to sing as much, and the next night I took off altogether. I rarely let my voice get buggered up– I can't when I do so many shows back to back! In this instance I borrowed a little recovery time courtesy of Big Dave. The rest of my Tour was much better for it! I had one other "bad voice" incident in Smithers, British Columbia, about 50 shows later. Five songs into my set I felt something strange happen in my throat, after which my range collapsed over the remainder of the evening. I got through, but had to refuse a second encore– not a note left! I thought about trying to re-schedule or cancel the next evening's performance, but it was late and I elected to wait until morning. Breakfast time was hot honey tea. I sang a few bars and thought "go for it, crazy man." NeoCiteron, hot honey tea, ginger, vitamin C. Got the job done. I sounded better the following night in New Hazelton, and was pretty much recovered by Prince George, British Columbia.
Big Dave and I under the neon of Times Changed High and Lonesome, Winnipeg's cool, roots bar. Dave and I will be touring in the fall of 2011. The National Steel "Bad Boy" Blues Tour will be rolling out for about 50 shows, beginning in September. It's not officially announced yet, but I'm now taking expressions of interest on dates. Based on our past 185 shows, I'd have to suggest that this is Canada's most popular acoustic blues show. This Tour has a bunch of new stuff, a couple of new CDs, it will be a blast– our craziest outing yet! Planning this one has been a whole lot of fun. My challenge, as always, will be to pull it off according to plan.
Here's a little place I played in Wadena, Saskatchewan. This is a wonderful, vintage wooden church I've performed in before. Great acoustics. You can see my set-up: one chair, two guitars! With or without fifty people in this room it sounds tremendous. I love this type of show in this type of town. I've got friends now in many places that look a lot like this one. It's always a thrill to play for them, and I'm always honoured to be invited back. In some of these small town halls the guys who framed the building might be sitting in the front rows with their grandchildren. I'll tell you something – that gives me a real thrill. These places are where Canadian culture comes from. These are the places that support the artists, develop the artists. And not just music. Book clubs, film societies, theatre, dance. These are places that take chances and support the arts. "We've never had a blues singer before," said one small town arts council, "so we hope we like you." These are places where people take chances and explore new things. As an artist you are going to give them your very best. Back in the big city you may not fill a hall unless 10 thousand other people have said the show is good. Small towns take chances. Big cities are conservative. Small town Saskatchewan develops the arts while, more often than not, Toronto and Vancouver simply consume them.
I stay in a lot of older motels. Sometimes it feels like Apocalypse Now. Remember the scene with the fan blades morphing into helicopters? Anyway, you never know what's going to go down in these places. Most are pretty decent in spite of themselves. In other places you keep your shoes on, and don't crawl beneath the covers. It's great when they have heat, and I guess I prefer the "too much rather than not enough" style. One place in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, the Al Capone, has a room where both the heater and the air conditioner run constantly– both on maximum. If either one failed, you'd boil or freeze. As it is they make an unholy noise which masks the screaming tires and the breaking glass on the main drag outside. I've had the same room three years in a row. Broken thermostat. Money is no object here, except when it comes to paying the artist, or charging him for a room.
My pal Emil is working on a beard like mine. Emil invited me to play his town in rural Saskatchewan. Of course an invite that sincere is pretty hard to refuse, so here I am with Emil, in Saskatchewan. Better? Absolutely!
Of course being on the road by myself– for months on end, in all kinds of places– exposes me to all kinds of nasty people as well. I've travelled rough for most of my life, so I'm now quite prepared for whatever. Believe me, I don't look for trouble, but when it looks for me, I'm equipped. Visiting as many places as I do can result in being in the wrong place at the wrong time and, yes, that can be pretty scary for everybody involved. But this Tour was pretty good. The only real criminals I encountered carried police identification!
My old friend Holger Petersen and I, busy here with the annual fundraiser for Canada's best radio station, CKUA, Edmonton, Alberta. It covers all of Alberta and it is what CBC used to be– a cultural force, listened to by the masses. I'm sorry, I love the CBC, too. But it has never recovered from its many restructurings. When I roll into Alberta I always lead with a visit to CKUA. The rest of my shows in the province will be sold out. For a guy like myself who has never played the Edmonton folk or blues festival, or the Calgary or Canmore folk festivals, this is important. Even if I wasn't a performer this would be a worthy cause. I encourage all of you, where ever you are, to support your local radio. It matters.
Live music may not always be best. But it is usually interesting, and sometimes it is amazing. Playing live on the radio is pretty neat. How many people are out there listening? Where are they? And what are they doing? Who knows? I don't really think about it at the time. Live radio is cool because I can just go for "the zone." Nobody's looking at me. Well maybe just the host and the producer and the tech people. You just kind of go where it takes you. You don't have to look a certain way. The music is pretty real. Where it goes, what happens, an adventure. Jeez, I notice here that my beard is pretty white now. Being an old blues singer is not nearly as romantic an idea as it was when I was a teenager following Son House around.
I rolled West with mainly good weather. Quite a few shows in British Columbia again this year. You know, I play pretty much everywhere now in this province. Everywhere except the summer festivals. Sure would be nice to get here in the high season, but I do enjoy myself on these fall trips. And I've got a lot of fans here. Always a pleasure.
Niki and Caleb run a great bookstore and cafe in Golden, BC. For once, my drive in did not involve black ice on the Kicking Horse pass!
Here's a Long's store in Kamloops. I've never had a big crowd out to this one, but I've never done a workshop here on a Saturday, either. It's another friendly store with great gear, great service, and is well respected in the community. Kamloops is a bit of an odd town. Despite the support of a local television appearance, guest spots on two radio shows, airplay on CBC, and a masterclass at Long and McQuade, I was unable to book a Thursday night gig there. All dressed up with no place to go. People were stopping me on the street for autographs, but I could not give a show away to any venue. Kamloops now joins Medicine Hat, Alberta, Brandon, Manitoba, and Sarnia, Ontario to form a quartet of unbookable towns. Come on, folks, the rest of the country has been on board for years...
They love me, too. Well, OK, I'm popular. It's always gratifying to see familiar faces in the crowds. Here's a jacket winner in Spence's Bridge, British Columbia. Big fun.
The Lower Mainland. The west coast arrives fast when you roll down out of the mountains. This is one of the bridges into New Westminster, better known as "New West." My first west-coastal show of the Tour this year was a fabulous house concert in New West. About 30 of my 90 plus shows this tour were house concerts. Boy, these are fun. I meet great people. I'm well fed, wonderfully looked after. And I get to play to amazing audiences old style– no mics, in a big room. Did I mention that I also get paid to do this? And sell CDs? Booze is not driving the music business anymore. The beer fuelled days of four, five, six night gigs are past. Smarter kids, and more aggressive drinking and driving laws are slowly killing the rural bars and taverns. The urban joints have high overhead, and generally get a big piece of the night. House concerts. Semi-formal concerts in people's homes and outbuildings. Big fun, no problems, very social. I think we are going to see a big revival of acoustic music, via the rising popularity of house concerts. No doubt future tours will have more and more of these concerts. It used to be that I would try and fit these in around the bar and cafe gigs– now it is just the opposite.
Larry and his pals had the smokers going for days prior to our Blues, Booze and BBQ event. Great fun! Great food! Red wine and some single malts... Very nice.
Yes, "God's Country," but heavily bought up by folks years ago. Buy a boat and the whole thing is yours for a fraction of the cost. Maybe when I get too old to drive cars safely I'll do a marine route up and down the west coast. Yeah, maybe...
Duncan Garage Showroom in Duncan, British Columbia. One of Canada's top acoustic rooms and always a pleasure to perform in.
Headliners. A joint presentation by the Nanaimo Blues Society and the Headliners School of Performing Arts. A great room. Exactly what Nanaimo needs to present roots shows in a less commercial setting.
I had a couple of down days in Nanaimo, and I came to like it more than I expected. It's a port town, and on the west coast this means needle trade. So by night there are too many addicts and young hookers out on the streets. By day, it is a really pretty town with lots going on. I went for a 10 km run along the harbour and through the town, visited the library, checked out the coffee joints. One of the things I enjoy most about my life as a performing artist is the opportunity to get out on foot and explore the places I go. I meet people. I dig in. I hear stories. Places are almost always much more than they might appear to be, and there are some great surprises, some hidden gems to be found along the blue highways.
Pre-show, the Wild Pacific Trail outside of Ucluelet, British Columbia. Here, the Pacific is pretty wild most of the time. Night life is wild in a young sort of way– surfer culture is big. I came out on the wet trail with light fading. To hear the crash of these waves, and feel the power. I never tire of this and it never fails to impress. On the way back into town I heard my pal Ross Neilsen on the radio. He was coming to play in a few days time. A Maritimer, but I hope he had a chance to connect to these waves, too.
I stopped for breakfast in Port Alberni and ran into some folks who had come to see me play in Nanaimo a couple of days previously. Before I knew it I was off to an airport for a tour of the region!
Back on the ground all too soon, I drove to Victoria in the rain. Could of flown if I'd abandoned the Lincoln at the airport. Not likely! Thanks for a great day, Don. It's these little gestures up and down the line that make it worth while. You can make money just about anywhere, but you can't buy friends and experiences.
The booked shows in Victoria were pretty marginal this year, but all the stuff around the edges was great. Ed, and his partner Mildred are old friends who surfaced in Victoria to become my hosts and guides to music in the city. I had a great post-show jam at their house with another member of Ed's McKinley Wolf band. The next day we went and played the Victoria Blues Society jam and had a great time. I was really pleased at how friendly everybody was, and very glad to be invited to play. The band thing was way more fun than I had thought it would be. It has been a while since I've done that, but I thought our little set was pretty cool.
Back on the mainland. Vancouver. The club scene has been pretty fluid here for several years now. Without an operational blues society or other organizational presenter on side it has not been easy for me to come in and connect. Big cities are like that. Yet Vancouver is the location of one of my favourite venues. Actually, a non-venue: Vancouver Native Health, on East Hastings, near Main. Playing here, for free, to mostly homeless, marginalized people, was again one of the most rewarding stops on the Tour. You can read about it on the Blog for that particular day. East Hastings Street is like a war zone, and there is nothing like it in North America. When Canadians fall through every crack and safety net they land here. It's as far west as you can go without actually falling into the ocean. It's the shame of our cities. It's the stain on our veneer of good government and social justice.
Vancouver behind, I'm off to do a couple more shows on the Lower Mainland before crossing the mountains again. The route may have seemed a little crazy this year, with its big backswing into British Columbia, but it was all part of the plan.
Here's a snap of White Rock Blues Society President Rod Dranfield introducing me. These guys put on some great shows in White Rock, and have close ties to the Victoria Blues Society.
To the prairie on the other side... A quick stop in Calgary to record a CBC Canada Live show at the Ironwood. It was 30 degrees below zero, cold enough to freeze the air suspension on the car. The Tuesday night at the historic Old Fort Gary Theatre was not as well attended as we would of hoped. Brutal weather. The next day I drove south to Lethbridge. After the show I found that there was a storm was raging outside. Packing out quickly, I got the Lincoln fired up. The suspension was still frozen in the lowrider position. I started driving and sixteen hours later I arrived at my next show, in Hinton, Alberta.
Hinton was significant because it was the first of twelve shows not booked directly by myself, but by a Winnipeg based organization called Home Routes. Founded by Mitch Podolak, the same visionary who launched the Winnipeg Folk Festival, Home Routes places musicians on organized tours of house concerts. It's an amazing idea which threatens to revolutionize not only the ways in which acoustic music is delivered, but also the content and context of the music delivered to Canadians. I'm nervous about seeing such adventures organized because big organizations make me nervous- but I'm also very excited at the prospect of such a groundswell, such a rediscovery of home music, of folk music, of music as part of real people's lives and stories. I believe that we are on the cusp of some very interesting times, and that perhaps the cultural cycle that I rode into my life in music is coming around again. My series of Home Routes shows took me across northern British Columbia. These were very successful shows, and I'm really quite proud to have been invited to play under the Home Routes banner. Many thanks to everyone in the Home Routes organization. Congrats, Mitch. This is exciting stuff.
This was a cool night in Fort St. John. I like it when a man brings his saw out to one of my shows. Many can play with an axe, but only a few can cut the music so cleanly...
Speaking of clean, the big Lincoln took a beating on these northern roads. Plenty of dirt. You can't see the multiple chips in the windshield in this Terrace, BC, snap.
New Hazelton, British Columbia. Text didn't join the photo Blog for that day (yet), but I can report here that a Yeti was reported on the same day as my show. As hard as I looked at these mountains, I didn't see it myself.
A pleasant run to the coast, a last Home Routes show, in Prince Rupert, and then I was on board a ship– bound for the land on the edge of the world. Haida Gwaii. The apex, if you will, of this Tour. My destination. Perhaps my destiny. I didn't know why, but I can tell you I felt strangely compelled to make this journey. It was a great relief to actually arrive, in part because the open sea was a little wilder than me, but also because I could face this obsession directly. Before leaving Prince Rupert, the old Navajo ring I've worn for the last twenty years broke on my finger, twisted into my flesh and cut me badly. It didn't want to go.
It's a Pacific island. As far north and west as you can go in Canada. As far west as you can drive a car, or walk. It's a bit wild, a bit misty. There's a sadness about the place that was unexpected.
The shows were really a joy to play, and the people I met were wonderful. My hosts became dear friends whom I look forward to visiting again. I spent an afternoon drinking with an old Haida man in the Mile Zero bar, learning about him, learning about fishing, about logging, about Haida language, about how to say "thank you" in Haida. How-a. I don't know why I needed to go to Haida Gwaii. Nothing was revealed. But I came, answered this call, and came back unchanged. So far, anyway.
Forty cars and a couple of semi trucks crashed just a few seconds ahead of me on this road. I forgot to take pictures, but I did sit in the car for over three hours while the highway was cleared. Very scary. Highway 16. This is a wild road on many counts. The Highway of Tears. The Yellowhead. I respect this road. But my ride on it wasn't over yet.
The good weather just kept on as I travelled east. Just inside Ontario I was subject to an illegal search of my vehicle by the OPP, the Ontario Provincial Police. Constitutional rape. A man with a gun and a badge and no witnesses. Two men on the side of an icy road, and one of them is a criminal– the one with the police badge. The officer said he couldn't read my plate in the snow. Yet when he drove away his was also obscured. He didn't require my ownership or insurance. Only my driver's licence. Had I ever been in trouble with the police? Was I sure? Did I have anything dangerous in my vehicle? Anything he might be interested in? Where was I going? Where was I coming from? Would I step out of my vehicle? Would I open my trunk please? What's in that box? What's in that bag? I stood by as he rifled through my belongings.
Hey, the rest of my day was great. And I want to add that I met several police officers on this tour who were absolutely wonderful. I could see their pride in their work, and I could see their community's pride in their efforts and accomplishments. One RCMP officer came into a club I was playing. It was his last shift before being transferred to another community. He was just dropping in to say good-bye. He got a standing ovation. Great individuals making real contributions to their communities. That's what small town policing is all about. Keeping people out of trouble, helping them when they need it.
Just a few more shows at this point. The trip around Lake Superior is always beautiful, but it's as dangerous a road as any. Snow, ice, moose, deer. For the first time in over a week the roads are clean and dry. I'm headed home. Great show in Thunder Bay in support of the Underground Gym, a fabulous, volunteer funded project which helps street kids. Cold town in which to be a street kid. Next time through I'll not only play the Gym, but I'll work out there as well. I remember what it's like to be cold and hungry. It's something to consider as I motor down the road in my warm car.
Coming south out of Barrie, Ontario, the big Highway 400 reminds me of what a wild ride really is. Cars going at high speed, passing on the right, tailing, cutting in, racing... to the Big Smoke. Sweet home Toronto. I'm back. It's expensive and noisy, and I'm already well into planning the next Tour.