Thursday, January 29, 2004

Brian's Maple Blues Awards Diary

Here's what it looked like from the podium at the Maple Blues Awards last Monday. No, I didn't get any awards (my album's almost done, though) but I was asked to pick up the award if my friend Harry Manx won...and what do you know...CONGRATULATIONS HARRY! Acoustic Guitarist of the Year! (for the second year running)

It was a great week-end of Maple Blues activities, too. On Friday night I went to Raoul & the Big Time's CD launch at the Silver Dollar. Great turnout and the band was in fine form. Raoul had a great approach to making his album, he waited until one of his musical heroes was coming to town and he would arrange for a recording session while they were here. He pieced the album together that way over the course of a year and now he's got something really special.

The night after was a special showcase with Adam Solomon, Doc McLean and David Owen and I really wanted to go but I decided I better stay home and work on my own tracks. I happen to know all three of these players and I'm sure they would encourage me to get my own album finished. I had to export the tracks off my computer into a format that can be re-mixed at the studio. The record company has strongly suggested a re-mixer who's good at dealing with tracks in different formats and I have a lot of preparation to do.

The awards evening was a great affair. As usual, now I realize all the folks who were there that I never got to chat with, but the last couple of years I've changed my attitude about all these schmooze events. Instead of trying to shake hands with everybody, I consider it a successful evening if I met one or two interesting new people (and I did), or finally put a face to a name I knew only from the emails. After being told I was the "designated hitter" for Harry Manx (I got the call from his publicist Anya Wilson who tracked me down at the Delta Chelsea Hotel in the middle of the afternoon meeting), I was glad I took a quick look at the programme to see where I might be called because I saw the Acoustic Guitarist of the Year was the first award to be presented. I had just enough time to collect myself when they announced Harry's name and I rose confidently to walk to the podium. I got there way too soon - the band had these great "stings" arranged for each presentation and seasoned award-getters knew to walk slowly or stand by the side for a little bit so folks could enjoy the band. Anyway, I get to the podium and the presenter, musicologist Rob Bowman, is looking a little surprised and we're both standing there waiting for the music to stop. Then he starts to speak and I wonder for a moment "does he know my last name?" but of course he did and I gave a little spiel about how at the last Toronto Blues Society board meeting I had predicted that one day I'd be up there getting an award for "artist most likely to put aside his own career so that he can make newsletters that will promote other people's careers" or something like that. It was just a big whine after I had been called upon to put together the programme book for the event - even though I thought I had found a designer to do it for us. I stood my ground at that meeting - I told them I had an album to mix and there was no time for me to make that book. Then the big freeze...everybody staring me down. Finally Gary Kendall spoke up and jokingly offered to mix the album...that broke the ice and I relented. So the programme book got made and the album still isn't mixed. Woe is me.

On the afternoon of the awards gala, there was a "round-table" session of music industry types and we heard updates from the leading blues labels in the country. Not very encouraging news, mostly. Over the holidays I was sitting across the table with the founder of one of the most successful independent labels in the States (and one of the few profitable labels last year). Established blues artists who were selling 30,000 albums can't even make 10,000 on current releases. And then there's downloading....cutting record company sales expectations by half. Tough times to be a record label, but thanks to a couple of very successful tribute albums (Johnny Cash and Gordon Lightfoot), my label, NorthernBlues, had an excellent year. Now if I can just deliver them an album without too much more undue delay, maybe they won't give up on me.

Actually, it's a good thing that I didn't just take what we had recorded and released it right away - as my engineer and producer pleaded. Since the initial recording I've had a chance to record a couple more tunes, one with the boys from Downchild and another with Harry Manx, and we're going to have a stronger album. And now I've been collaborating with my son, Joel the jungle music guy, to do a remix of the title track of my first CD, Who Paid You To Give Me The Blues. And now I have resurrected a project that I started before I ever got to Toronto - I call it the Robot Johnson Project.

Way back in the 80s I realized that those 41 songs of Robert Johnson contained the seminal guitar riffs and grooves that became the building blocks of Chicago blues and ultimately rock 'n roll. I disected those songs and pulled out the essential grooves that I could jam with - well, that's something that just about every blues guitarist does, consciously or subconsciously. I was playing around with computer music software and early MIDI programs but they just didn't have the horsepower to do what I wanted. Hell, I started with a MIDI card in an Apple IIe (the "e" was for "extended memory" extended to 16K!

The irony is that I don't know a single Robert Johnson song all the way through, in fact, I know very few blues standards. That's why I've never felt comfortable in the local blues jam scene (in this town there must be a blues jam every night of the week if you know where to look). I would just get up and start playing one of my own tunes which would inevitably have a little twist or turn or mystery chord and somebody would always have a hard time following. I didn't help that I would usually end up on stage with some of the less experienced jammers...

I'm determined to put together a small repertoire of songs that everybody knows for such occasions, but even the ones I do know already are not straight-ahead 12-bar blues... St James Infirmary, Love the Life I Live and several others. Today I was trying to learn the third verse of Key To The Highway - Now there's one that everybody should know, even though it's an 8-bar blues.

So now I've announced that I will be previewing Robot Johnson at the Toronto Blues Society Guitar Workshop in exactly one month. It won't be the full blown program, but I hope it will give folks a taste of what's to come. It's not so much about Robert Johnson's music, but he was a perfect candidate to develop this program because there's not an overwhelming amount of material to analyze - 41 songs, his entire recorded output, and half of those are slide tunes in open tuning which did not work for this (but which could be the basis of a second project). Ultimately, this is about creating a library of loops and riffs of my own creation and being able to use them to jam and write. It starts out as nothing more than an echo (the ghostly echo of Robert Johnson) which is timed to the beat and it can build up to a more elaborate accompanyment with keyboard, bass and drum sounds. Just a little something to provide some company for a poor lonely guitarist like myself. Lots to do on this, and finish my album as well...but if I could just record one more track, a killer solo track to kick off the album. The only problem is I haven't written it yet. Maybe I should stop yapping and get to work!

Worse yet, I've got two gigs this week-end and I've hardly touched my guitar. I can always tell it's been too long when the nails on my left hand have grown so long that I can't get a good cotact when I press the strings to the frets.

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Grandfather, I bow my head in shame.

If I was to do the honourable thing I would offer my resignation to the jazz festival. How could I be so incompetent as to leave out mention of the gig & new CD of our own artistic director in our newsletter. That after having edited together a short blurb on the release (even though I haven't heard it yet). I just brought the newsletters from the printer and it must have been the first thing he noticed but he didn't say a word - he was probably so angry he couldn't speak! How could I do this to the nicest guy...and it's not the first time. And it's no consolation that I often forget to include my own gigs. I may be able to fix it on the last batch to be printed but they don't call me the (barely)managing editor for nothing.

In this month's blues newsletter I forgot about an ad that had been requested. It was a thank you to all their fans from Fathead, Toronto's busiest blues band (until now). They are calling it quits and so should I. Al Lerman, the leader, said "shit happens" and others mentioned Mercury retrograde...but I don't know. Maybe It's the Peter Priciple personified. My publishing career has risen to the point where I could really mess up several cultural institutions in this town if I had a bad week. A country-blues guitar player from the hills of the Eastern Townships should not be entrusted with the dissemination of important cultural information. Sometimes I end up writing the whole damn thing from cover to cover and nary a body to proofread or approve.

Why am I beating myself up in public, you ask? Well, if you don't hear from me again you'll know that I found an appropriate roof to jump from (just kidding - this is not an online suicide note).

This only encourages me further to develop a simple content management system to assemble and publish stories and event listings for these newsletters/websites. If you know anyone that would like to explore a wonderful business opportunity to bring to market the ultimate event listings and newsletters publishing engine, please pass along my coordinates. Any potential partners so far were a little put off when I said the program would be offered free to arts organizations like the Blues Society and the Jazz Society. Still there are many potential paying customers...

I've got to get something in place so that when I head out on the road to promote my new CD (yes, it's coming) that there will be a system in place where the newsletter/website contents can be viewed online and finally approved from a PDF. And the assembly will be so simple, that a couple of volunteers could handle it and I will have made myself redundant and can proceed to bring my life to a satifactory conclusion with a guitar in my lap (having pretty well abandoned the prospect of some sweet young thang in my lap).

Now I'm getting maudlin - I'm going to bed.

Well, nobody reads this anyway...