Monday, December 31, 2007

Kicking off 08

It’s a New Year and I’m sending out my first Blainletter of 08. I know, I said I wasn’t going to be doing these blasts anymore but I keep getting such friendly feedback plus, several people came out to my gig at the Moonshine Café who would not have heard about it otherwise.

So let me tell you what’s coming up and encourage you to come out for one or more of the following exciting engagements:

Sunday afternoon at Hugh’s Room (the actual time is 1-4pm, regardless of what’s been published elsewhere) I’ll be repeating the popular “Blues Campfire” that I previously hosted at the Blues Summit and the OCFF Conference. This is a great warm-up to the Maple Blues Awards on Monday night and many of the nominees have indicated they would try to drop by including Dawn Tyler Watson, Danny Brooks, Little Miss Higgins as well as several visiting artists like Layla Zoe (from BC now settling in TO), Terry Gillespie (Ottawa) and Max Cann (UK). Danny Marks will be there too to keep me in line. The line-up will probably change because the nominees have a busy rehearsal schedule on Sunday but there will surely be some surprise guests, too. We only do a couple of songs each…yes, that includes me…but it’ll be a good time and a great opportunity to see some of your favourite blues artists playing some of their new tunes in a laid-back informal setting.

Next month I make a liitle trek to St Catharines on February 2 to guest with Mojo Willie at his regular Saturday Matinee at Fat Tony’s Pizzeria. Then on February 8, the Winterfolk Festival kicks off and I’ll be making a couple of appearances there. See myspace for gig details.

On New Year’s Eve I took some time to reflect on the year past and to cast the “runes” to give me a liitle hint for the future. This year I was encouraged to receive a message that this would be a “breakthrough” year. That was great to see because it was getting ridiculous – for the last few years, every time I did my runes, they told me “stand still”, “tread carefully” and the big one… “the seeds have been planted – now you must wait for the harvest.”

Maybe this will be the harvest. I can’t say I’ve been very aggressive about lining up gigs – in particular, festivals. But I’ve discovered something: Some years I’ve hustled and sent out packages to every festival and other years I’ve done nothing but I always end up doing 4 or 5 festival dates no matter how hard I tried (or not). Go figure. I guess this will be one of those “laissez faire” years but any festival bookers reading this are invited to see the Youtube clip I posted from last year’s Toronto Jazz Festival. Listen to those horns and tell me that is not a kick-ass band.

2007 ended with a great adventure – a big European tour with Kathi McDonald , Three weeks all over Germany as well as Switzerland and the Czech Republic then Amsterdam, Paris and the UK. You can read all about it on my blogspot ( I really enjoy being a sideman, and especially when I get to play bass. Last week I had the opportunity to back up Mose Scarlett at Hugh’s room and what a pleasure it was. Even if I wasn’t able to keep up with some of those old jazz turnarounds, we were in the pocket and it was a pure delight. Maureen Brown was playing drums and she was most complimentary about my new tune “Forgotten”. It’s about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the musicians of New Orleans…but it relates how much they’ve contributed to American music and how little they received in return. Mo said it almost brought her to tears. I’ve got a bunch more new tunes and will hopefully get them onto a CD in the coming year. I’m about due.

Out and about: Last Saturday I was sitting at a big jazz event at the Convention Centre and found out after I left that three of the most important jazz festival directors were sitting directly in front of me. I could have slipped my package right into their purses and they would have had a nice surprise …or not. Sitting just a couple of rows in front of me was the legendary Quincy Jones and I couldn’t help watching his face as he received lots of accolades and as the “Jazz Masterworks” orchestra played some of his famous tunes. I felt sorry for the bass player who got off on the wrong foot (the wrong key?) at the beginning of “Q” medley. That must be tough when the composer is right there in the front row (probably thinking “I didn’t write that!”)

While at the Jazz Convention, I attended a Vocal “Masterclass” with Kurt Elling. His best quote of the day was “Improvisation is composition sped up, composition is improvisation slowed down – with an eraser.” Oliver Jones was being interviewed and spoke about choosing your material for the audience. “Never forget you’re playing for them,” he said, and he would always include familiar material “to give people a point of reference.” Then as he made his set list, he would choose the first, fourth and seventh song “for himself” and the rest for the audience. I won’t have that problem because practically the only songs I remember are the ones I wrote…and even then a verse might escape me.

I so wanted to attend the “walking bass” clinic but it was at 9am and that just didn’t work out. After the long-winded Jazz Masters presentations, I was ready to head home but Tierney Sutton was doing a showcase and I wanted to hear a couple of tunes (since she was my “cover girl” on the Downtown Jazz newsletter). Well even though I entered the theatre with a big fat headache (I hadn’t eaten since morning), I could leave until it was over – I was captivated with her unique take on some of the most banal standards. She was phenomenal, repeatedly getting the audience to their feet in the middle of a song and of course a lengthy standing-O at the end. Next night in the same theatre I was listening to some of that “out there” jazz and just couldn’t handle it any more so I high tailed it up to the Silver Dollar to see my fave – Duke Robillard and I was not disappointed. Now that’s virtuosity…with a groove!

Rumour of the week: Amos Garret’s next album is going to be all Percy Mayfield songs. That should be something special. Don’t know where I heard that…

Welcome to the Holiday Blainletter

I’m still decompressing from a month-long tour and happy to be back in Toronto hearing some great music and playing some too:

Friday, Dec 14
Brian Blain
Moonshine Café, Oakville
Show: 9pm $5.00

In January I’ll be making a couple of appearances at Toronto’s premier showcase room. Hugh’s Room (Jan 10 w/The Blues of Winterfolk and Jan 20 –noon- Brian’s Blues Campfire Brunch warm up for the Maple Blues Awards).

I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to play since I got back but I got to jam it up with Suzie Vinnick (and Rick Fines) at a birthday party last week. Despite skipping some fine functions like the Socan Awards and the Aboriginal Awards I heard some great music since I got back. Last Saturday Night it was the Women's Blues Revue. I have worked with most of those musicians at one time or another so I would not miss this for the world. Dawn Tyler Watson had the closing spot and she deserved it. Every singer was great but the one people will probably remember most is the 13-year old wunderkind, Nikki Yanofsky. Great review from Brad Wheeler:
I feel like I’m watching my family when I see those girls playing. Here’s a clip of Layla Zoe from the show that somebody shot from the balcony:

Monday, December 17, 2007

On the Road with Kathi

On the Road with Kathi McDonald: Hansi, the owner of the Palette in Kappeln is a flamboyant guy who came up to the stage at the end of our show with a tray of champagne and we all had a nice toast before the encore. First time I’ve ever been kissed by a club owner! He also served the best meal of the tour in my opinion – and there were many great meals! This was what a tour is supposed to be – never paid for a meal, never paid for a drink, never paid for a room and never had to share a room. Most of you probably know I’m not much of a drinking man but I developed a taste for Jaegermeister. I couldn’t bring myself to mix it with Red Bull as Kathi preferred (that’s called a Jaegerbomb). Driving along the highway in northern Germany Kathi and Butch are having a great laugh about “Richard” somebody and finally I say “Richard who?” and Kathi says “Penniman! Little Richard!” Ohhhhh K. There were lots of road stories, mostly Long John Baldry stories because Kathi, Butch and Hansa, the driver, had done this tour with Baldry many times. Later as we're approaching Hamburg, Butch points out three hills in the distance, each with the ruins of a castle or tower at the top and he tells us they belonged to three brothers in the 12th century who spent their whole lives quarrelling…or rather at war with each other. The next day we played a mini blues festival in Kellinghusen and I ran into John Campbelljohn from the Maritimes. He played great and so did the other bands, mostly local. And English performer called Julian Dawson was on the bill as well, and had arranged to do an interview with Kathi for a book he was writing about Nicky Hopkins, the great pianist who worked with the Stones and Baldry. The producer of this festival asked for one of my CDs and expressed an interest in having me back doing my own thang. That happened at a couple of other gigs and it was encouraging considering I was only doing a couple of my tunes to open the show. By now, Kathi and I had worked up a couple of duets, too, but whatever we came up with mostly happened right on the stage (or in the dressing room) because there was never a single rehearsal with Kathi – though there were a few attempts. Even though Kathi had warned me that she can get pretty teary at the last gig of a tour, that did not really happen but there was hardly a town we played where I didn’t hear stories of the wild and crazy adventures of Long John and band. I ended the tour with a new level of confidence in my playing – I’m not a jobber who knows 3000 songs, but I was able to learn a bunch of new material very quickly and hold my own with a powerhouse singer who had worked with a long list of amazing guitarists: Robben Ford, Nils Lofgren, John Cippolina, Neil Schon, Ronnie Montrose, Dave Mason…not to mention Ike Turner (R.I.P.) and Keith Richard. After this experience, I feel like I could accompany just about anyone. Anybody out there lookin? Lots more on the tour at You can see pictures by going to and search for “Brian Blain Kathi McDonald”. And if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a little montage of me and my band from last summer on Just search for “Brian Blain”.

Amsterdam: I think I was the only person having a coffee in the “coffeeshop” and come to think of it, that was probably the worst coffee I had in Europe. We must have dropped in to a dozen or so of these establishments, each with their own laminated menu that could not be removed from the counter. Each place had its own personality – the first one we visited was around the corner from the hotel, Spirit, and we were the only customers in the place – large screen TV blasted heavy metal videos. I was looking for “King Mohammed” (highly recommended) but I never found it there or in any other shop. Had to settle for “King Maroc”. Then we made our way to the red light district where we were accosted by a street barker who said to Kathi “Come in here and she’ll show you how to make two perverts happy.” Another “girl in window” gave me a nice friendly wink but most of the girls looked quite bored. We took a taxi the size of a golf cart to the live music area but didn’t find much interesting. We talked our way into the “Paradiso”, the big showcase room where Baldry had played many times – similar to the Phoenix in Toronto but with two levels of balconies wrapping around. At one bar, Tom ordered a round of Absynth and the barmaid came to the table with a tray full of equipment that was used to set alight a sugar cube over the glass, then the sugar melted into the drink, then…bottoms up! My one regret is that I never got to try the cheap and delicious Indonesian take-out food which Butch recommended. After 3 solid weeks on the road we got used to eating on the run. At every rest stop on the autobahn Kathi would ask “hand or bistro?” (meaning “take out or sit-down?”). Next day I was looking for an internet café (never did find an internet coffeeshop) and was directed to the Ben & Jerry’s where they had several workstations and, of course, great ice cream. I was telling the server that I used to live just a few miles from the first Ben & Jerry’s in Burlington Vermont (where you would be served by Ben or Jerry) but I don’t think he believed me. The cab I had reserved to take me to the airport never showed up so I started walking and was practically at the train station before I found a cab – I should have just taken the train but time was tight. The cabbie picked me up while he had another passenger to drop off and I got to witness a big kafuffle when the cabbie didn’t have the change for the American businessman (and probably expected he would “keep the change”).

Somerset: I didn’t get a chance to hook up with blues guy Steve Payne and his crew in Bristol but there sure was lots to see in Somerset, UK: Glastonbury, Avebury, Stonehenge… Wookey Hole. I almost had a gig in Wookey Hole but it didn’t come together. I did go to the place though and even got a peek at caves of Wookey Hole, which have become quite a tourist destination. It’s become a bit of a theme park, actually, much to the consternation of one of the custodians who was telling us about the history of that place, how Wordworth and Dickens used to drop by. Now it’s like Disneyland. Wookey Hole is famous for the Witch of Wookey Hole who -- having been jilted herself -- frequently spoils budding relationships. Finally one jilted lover went to her cave a killed her. She was known as “Bocus” and that apparently is the origin of the expression “hocus-pocus.” Before I saw the cave, I found myself at a gathering of modern-day Druids who were protesting in front of the Well Cathedral museum where the bones of the Witch of Wookey Hole are on display. They were demanding that the bones be buried and had a ritual at the entrance of the museum where we all held hand and the priestess blessed a loaf of bread which we all tasted and which was then buried instead of the bones. Wells is the town where they shot a popular movie called “Hot Fuzz” and the pub and other locations had memorabilia from the shoot. These folks should only visit Toronto where you can’t hardly walk around without tripping over lights and cables. Stonehenge was imposing, even though it was overrun with Japanese tourists. We also visited Avebury where there is a similar arrangement of huge rocks and more great mystery about it, but here there are no turnstiles and guides. We observed another group of Druids (a drove of Druids???) at Avebury where they were gathered among more ancient rocks. Here the priestess looked more like a schoolgirl with parka and backpack but she was giving her blessings to her fellow travelers. I really wanted to approach her and get a blessing myself but my shyness got the best of me

There were a couple of gigs, too. It kicked off with a jam session on the night I arrived, I met some of the players from Kangaroo Moon, the band I would be sharing the bill with on the weekend. They are a fabulous party band, hi-energy celtic-crossover and I dare say I crossed them over into some blues as we finished off the night on stage together. After the show everyone drove out to an encampment with a large circular tent (yurt) where a large group had gathered for the traditional making of “black butter.” They spend a couple of days (and nights) taking turns stirring this huge cauldron which is mostly apples that are reduced and flavoured until it becomes a paste that you eat on bread. We would have had to stay until the following morning to taste the results so we settled for some great homemade soup & cheese. Didn’t spot any Druids, but a strong scent of patchouli permeated the air.

Glastonbury is a very special place. It might be a bit commercialized now, as you walk down the main street every second shop is selling crystals and other esoterica. One thing is pretty well the same every country I’ve visited, though, and that’s the “blues jam” In Glastonbury the blues jam was at a pub called the Rifleman’s Arms and hosted by a young guitarist from Bristol called Damian. His idea of a jam was a succession of guitarists and harp players coming up to play along with him. I had to be a bit aggressive to get onto that stage and once there I had the audacity to suggest that I would like to sing one. He said to the crowd “The gentleman wants to sing a song” and I just launched into “Live the Life,” a blues standard (I thought) but the bass player never quite quite got the hang of it but we forged through it. After that, one of the “local legends,” Z.Z. Birmingham, got up and I played along with him. A real old-timer. He probably played with Cyril Davies and Long John himself at one time or other. My last day in Somerset, I went to a jazz brunch in Wookey Hole and heard a charming jazz quartet.

Next day I was off to Paris and that was a pretty short stop-over with the second day entirely pre-occupied with getting to the airport on time since the railway had just gone on strike and getting a cab was hit or miss. I did get to hear one of my favourite jazz groups playing in their home town - that was Paris Washboard. They put out as much energy as a heavy metal band but it’s all done by a bunch of old guys on acoustic instruments. My last evening in Paris was spent having a lovely dinner with Brad Spurgeon, a fellow alumnus of Puck’s Traveling Circus. These days he writes about Formula One for the International Herald Tribune. We jammed and had a great time then I made my way to the airport (with many hours to spare). As it turned out this was the only Air France flight (of the 4 or 5 that I took) that left on time. After the incessant delays, everybody was calling them “Air Chance.” However they get points for allowing me to bring my guitar as carry-on luggage and I am told that British Airways has a new policy allowing musicians to carry any instrument as long as it’s not larger than a guitar. We’ll leave you with that “tip of the day.”