It’s a long and crazy road from the basement to the top, but for much of the emerging blues community, that is the road musicians need to take if they want to make any sort of real impression.
Traditionally in the music business, radio has played a key role in making an emerging act’s career. “Flip, Flop and Fly” was a radio hit for Downchild, as was, “I've Got Everything I Need.” Powder Blues Band charted with “Doin’ It Right,” “Boppin’ with the Blues” and “Hear That Guitar Ring.” Even British blues pioneer Long John Baldry, who called Vancouver home for almost 30 years, was big on the radio with “A Thrill’s a Thrill.” And then, of course, Colin James and Jeff Healey saw the richest rewards of the Canadian radio star system.
For the hard-working blues acts of today, however, commercial radio airplay is a thing of the past, and CBC or campus and community radio is probably the best that they can hope for. So what is a young band to do? Most likely, they have to go the DIY route — the approach acts like Toronto’s Irene Torres and the Sugar Devils have decided to take.
At Blues Summit 6, held in Toronto in January, I spoke with Torres, who fronts the bluesy R&B band of 20-somethings. She explains the need for a strong, self-motivated work ethic.
“There is no magic producer or management company that is going to appear one day at a gig and scoop me up from where I’ve been and begin my beautiful life as an established musician,” she says. Torres clearly sees the overall value of doing it yourself. “In this experience of being involved in every single part, every single cog and gear in this machinery, it’s been a learning experience, it’s made us better musicians,” she notes.
Torres and the Sugar Devils were in the studio in January to record their second release. For this outing, they enlisted the help of some pretty heavy hitters: Cornell Williams, who plays with Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen out of New Orleans and has appeared on the hit HBO series Treme, is sitting in on bass; Ike Stubblefield, from Atlanta, Ga., who has worked with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, B.B. King and countless others, brings his incomparable Hammond B3 talents into the sessions. The assistance of Williams and Stubblefield means a lot to Torres.
“The notion that these great people are giving us moral support and musical support, it’s a big honour and we definitely want to earn that,” she says. However, Torres doesn’t allow herself to be carried away by the hype. “I think the do-it-yourself approach is a great way to keep real about what it is you can expect from the industry and to keep yourself grounded.”
Just how does a band, barely two years in business, convince such world-class talent to come all the way up to Toronto to record? Simple! They book some shows, jump in a van, drive to the southern states and show their heroes what a young Canadian band has to offer. That sure beats sitting on the couch dreaming about it.
It may be a long and crazy road, but for Irene Torres and the Sugar Devils, it’s well worth the drive.
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