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It may have its roots in the Mississippi Delta, but the first place most people think of when they hear the word “blues” is Chicago. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and so many others travelled the blues highway — Highway 61 — from the deep south up to the Windy City. But now, Canada may be challenging Chicago for the title “home of the blues.”

Take the International Blues Challenge, for example, being held this weekend in Memphis, Tenn. Bands and solo acts from all over the world are converging on Elvis Presley’s hometown to face off against each other, to determine the best of the crop. Among those competitors is a handful of promising Canadian acts, and their chances are better than good.

While at Blues Summit 6 last week, hosted by the Toronto Blues Society, I asked folks from the blues industry their thoughts on the position Canada currently holds in the blues world.

Mark Stenzler is a DJ living in Switzerland, who has been hosting Blues Zeppelin, a blues radio show, for almost 30 years on Radio Bern. The ex-pat American has seen a lot of bands coming and going through Europe over the years. In his eyes, and ears, Canadian artists have been quickly rising to the top.

“Canada has usurped the city of Chicago as being a better producer of blues in the last number of years,” Stenzler told me while in Toronto. “I have had a number of Canadian artists on my radio show, folks like Shakura S’Aida and Donna Grantis, Jimmy Bowskill and others. The reason I am here is because Shakura told me I had to come check out the blues in Toronto and in Canada.”

Brian Slack, producer of the Tremblant International Blues Festival, reasoned that “the Canadian acts don’t get a lot of chances to play at the American festivals. We are sending our best [to the IBC], and they are slowly discovering them one by one.”

If Stenzler sees Canada taking over from Chicago as “the” centre of blues, is there such a thing as a Canadian blues? I asked Slack.

“There definitely is, in fact there is quite a few of them,” he answered. “In Quebec we have a reputation of blues-rock. We like our blues with a heavier edge. In Ontario it’s a little more conservative, a little more traditional. There are a lot of West Coast-style acts in the west. In every province you got a little different thing going on.”

But it’s not the sound of Canadian acts that are turning heads so frequently. It’s the quality of the artists. Slack noted that in the International Blues Challenge over the past few years, “MonkeyJunk finished third, Shakura finished second, Matt Andersen finished first. We are making noise. It’s an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, look at us.’”

And why not look at us? We are the new Chicago, aren’t we?

Related:

International Blues Challenge recognizes Canadian talent 

Harrison Kennedy and Shakura S’Aida nominated for 2013 Blues Music Awards

Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer, 24th Street Wailers on writing new blues songs

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Has Canada ousted Chicago as home of the blues?

It may have its roots in the Mississippi Delta, but the first place most people think of when they he…

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Amelia B.
#1 posted by
Amelia B.
on Feb 01, 2013

Interesting argument, Chris.  But it's a little unbalanced to compare a whole country of 35 million people against a single city of 2.7 million.  All else being equal, one would expect 12 times as many Canadian acts just by population alone.

But beyond the numbers, there is a significant difference between a blues community or industry spread across five time zones and one concentrated in one metropolis.  There is no Canadian city that can compare to Chicago in the number of blues acts making a steady living within the city, or in the number of clubs featuring blues music, including multiple clubs with shows on weeknights.

But Chicago's status as an established centre of the blues is also a limitation.  Most of those blues clubs depend on tourists to keep them full, and most of those tourists come expecting traditional Chicago blues.  The acts that play multiple gigs a week seem to be dominated by an older generation and play a standards-heavy repertoire.  

In contrast, the most fundamental aspect of the Canadian blues scene is, from my perspective, an emphasis on originality.  Bands that end up touring successfully, and whose names show up in the Maple Blues Awards nominee lists, are those who have managed to establish a unique sound.  Even if the songs they are playing were written by the great American blues legends, they make it sound their own. Not that there aren't plenty of "weekend warrior" bands in every major Canadian city, faithfully recreating the standards on a Friday or Saturday night.  But the musicians who make a name for themselves beyond their home town are the ones who don't sound like everyone else.

Chris Martin
#2 posted by
Chris Martin
on Feb 01, 2013

Hey Amelia,

Very good points indeed.

A little overt sensationalism never hurts I suppose , if it helps get the conversation going.

I have been making an effort to highlight some of the acts that are making an effor t to keep the blues new: http://r3.ca/0TpQ

I'd be keen to hear who you think is keeping the blues alive in Canada (or elsewhere).

Thanks for the great contribution!

Amelia B.
#3 posted by
Amelia B.
on Feb 03, 2013

The 24th Street Wailers and The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer are both good examples of new Canadian bands putting their own style on the blues. But I'm also talking about bands that are considered established members of the Canadian blues scene.

MonkeyJunk's second album was really more roots-folk in style than straight blues.  Suzie Vinnick is happily claimed by the folk and indie-adult-contemporary communities.  And that doesn't even count musicians like Harry Manx or Carlos del Junco who overtly challenge people's expectations of blues music.  But they all still happily self-identify as blues musicians, play at blues festivals and clubs, and support and work with other members of the blues community.

I don't have the link but you recently featured on SNB an interview with Treasa Levasseur where she mentions all the different styles of music she has experimented with before finding a comfortable identity within the welcoming and accommodating boundaries of the Canadian blues community.

I think it was Sue Foley who came up with the disparaging term "Blues Police" to describe people with very strict ideas of what is and isn't blues.  It always makes me think of a night, nearly a decade ago now, at Ottawa's the Rainbow, when a rather drunk and self-important fellow started to explain to me that, while the music was very nice, it wasn't really blues since "blues" had a very strict chord structure (and he proceeded to describe the standard 12-bar form).  While I didn't waste my breath calling him an idiot, I pointedly ignored him and concentrated my attention on the fine juke-joint boogie being laid down by Mel Brown and his band.  For those who don't know, that's about as traditional and genuine as the blues come in this country.  

Of course, that doesn't mean that I'm willing to accept anything and everything into the genre. There are plenty of rock bands (and for that matter, folk guitarists) who can play a standard 12-bar structure, or even cover a great blues standard, without it sounding like blues to my ears.  My definition isn't about chord changes or repeating lyrics.  It isn't even about a shuffle or jump on any particular style of rhythm.  It's about whether the whole musical package insinuates itself into the most visceral corners of my brain, until my breath rises and falls with the cadence of the melody and my heart is beating in time.

So by that definition, MonkeyJunk funk-ifying a Hank Williams country tune or even JW-Jones finding the rhythm in an old Bryan Adams hit (song starts at 4:55) are blues songs.  So is Carlos del Junco adding jazzy flourishes to reinvent a well worn Muddy Waters standard, or Rita Chiarelli adding a symphony orchestra to B.B. King's best known ballad.  (Uninspired covers of overplayed songs, however, often fail to make the cut, by which I mean they fail to make that visceral connection.)  

To get back to the original topic of this article, all the above artists are considered successful and well-respected members of the Canadian blues scene.  That embrace of originality and genre-blending in the blues -- within a framework of respect for the fundamental musical form and its emotional purity -- is to me the best thing Canadian blues has got going for it.  Even if it makes it hard to explain what Canadian blues is or is not.

 

P.S.  If there is anyone else out there reading these blog posts, please, chime in.  I'm starting to feel like I'm monopolizing the conversation here... 

 

Chris Martin
#4 posted by
Chris Martin
on Feb 05, 2013

I saw catl.'s last gig at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, while I was in town for Blues Summit 6. I had heard their recordings but had never seen them live. On CD they came across as a grittier, raunchier extension of Delta blues.Live, however, they were more like a California surf punk band with blues accents: kinda like the Cramps meet Son House. Not quite what I was expecting, but even better -- cooler than just a simple re-working of an old style. With original material and authentic motivation, catl. were a step forward for the blues genre as a whole. But, yes, blues police would have walked out appalled that anyone would even put the blues name in the same breath.



Dustyroads
#5 posted by
Dustyroads
on Feb 11, 2013

Where are these blues police can someone call them after me? I am a recognized "Blues" Artist out of Winnipeg. But for the life of me am having a very hard time getting out of this town... Locals say I play blues and the rest say i ain't blues enough.....All and all I feel like I'm just Killin' Time  

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