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Topic: Blues gives birth to artistic resilience (nsc) Return to archive
November 21st, 2004 08:42 AM
Ten Thousand Motels Blues gives birth to artistic resilience


We're not big on homegrown awards in Canada. Let's face it - the Genies draw flies compared to the Oscars, and the Geminis are no Emmys. We're a small populace with small awards shows. And when it comes to blues and roots music, we stage itty-bitty, teeny-tiny awards shows. The Maple Blues Awards are an example of such restraint. They're our equivalent of the U.S.-based W.C. Handy Awards, which no one has heard of either.

Both were designed to honour the best in blues music. Our show, however, might actually better reflect the state of one of the oldest forms of popular music, thanks to one rather large detail: this year's biggest nominee isn't a blues band.

John and the Sisters - a project headed by Kevin Breit when he's not busy playing guitar and writing songs for Norah Jones - put out one of the best albums this year with their self-titled first release. It's a crazy, fun mixture of gospel, blues, soul, funk and folk that would seem almost calculated to touch on every aspect of roots music. It's brilliant.

And it's not a blues album, five Maple Blues award nominations last Monday notwithstanding. Instead, it reflects what blues has become, largely since its transition in the late 1960s and early '70s to a white audience, and since it had to start competing without the aid of pop radio: a hodgepodge produced by roots survivalists.

You're as likely to mistake it for the Mamas and the Papas as for Albert King or Buddy Guy.

"I don't see it as blues, but it certainly has heavy blues influences on certain songs and I think the deeper you get into it the more bluesy it gets," says city blues impresario Holger Petersen. The Stony Plain Records founder, perhaps Canada's most influential blues voice, is an unabashed fan of the disc. He programs its songs on Galaxie, CBC's digital radio arm that includes a blues channel (413 on Shaw Digital in Edmonton). "I guess the debate is always going to be how much blues does there have to be in something for it to be blues."

The blues hasn't really entered new territory, Petersen notes, since the heyday of the electric era in the late '50s and early '60s, when British rock bands incorporated it into contemporary white music. "No really new styles have come about from blues in many years; you can hear some blues in rockabilly and honky tonk, and to an extent in big-band jazz. There certainly are places where it has had great influences. But it hasn't been a dominant new form in quite some time. And certainly a lot of that has to do with money."

Roots music - that strange brew that generally seems to include folk, blues, bluegrass and country swing - has learned it must package itself as a whole to get noticed, Petersen notes, because commercial outlets won't pay attention to its individual genres. Launching albums or tours that are purely blues can be a much riskier proposition.

"I don't think traditional blues will ever die out because there's such a wealth of good material out there. It will always be where a lot of artists get their inspiration. But then there will always be some of those people pushing the envelope while trying to maintain the integrity and soulfulness of the original form."

Fred Litwin's Northern Blues label is at the forefront of publishing those emerging new sounds. He's Breit's biggest fan but acknowledges there's a certain business sense behind his obsession for "new blues": It's easier to book artists when "jazz" festivals include "world beat" nights and "blues fests" welcome country-swing performers. The more they cross each other's paths, the more likely they are to be seen.

He says he's trying to find new forms of blues that "stretch the boundaries," noting some of his other artists' recent efforts, including Harry Manx adding East Indian influences, and Taxi Chain's disc incorporating bagpipes. "There are still a lot of purists out there who go ballistic over some of this stuff," he notes wryly.

The bigger problem remains commercial acceptance. Radio and chain stores just don't consider it sellable material, critical acclaim notwithstanding, says Litwin.

"Really, in Canada, you have the CBC that's willing to play this and CKUA, which is an outstanding network. But if you want big radio airplay, what you really have to do is spend $10,000 to $15,000 to hire a rock promoter and then maybe, if you're lucky, you'll get one track from the entire album played on a handful of rock stations.

"In stores, they just don't want to give up the shelf space. Look at a big chain like HMV: its blues sections are getting smaller and smaller except at the superstores."

The only way to fight back, both men agree, is to be eclectic. And Breit's album is proof positive that the old Muddy Waters song needs updating: once the Blues Had a Baby and Named it Rock and Roll. Now, the blues gives birth to artistic resilience.