Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wrapping the Vagabond

This is the "wrap" of the 2014, National Steel "Vagabond" Blues Tour. As such, it has more words than the posts which precede it. Here, I tell it like it is and call it as I see it from the roads I ride. It's also the most personal post of the lot. Thanks for joining me, and thanks for following along on this great adventure. I couldn't find a single picture that captured all the places, all the crazy, all the blacktop- so I'm leading with an almost random image from North America's most easterly point.

Out on the Blues Highway all things are possible, and some things are probable. I know this to be true. This year's National Steel "Vagabond" Blues Tour chalked up over 30 thousand km as I played over 100 back to back shows across 10 Canadian provinces and about 20 US states. Six thousand dollars in fuel. God knows how many gallons of red wine, how many cups of coffee. Didn't break or change a string. Shaving in truck stops with a dull razor. Sleeping in my car. Staying in homes both grand and humble. Places you've seen in magazines. Places you never want to see. A few thousand people with the mountains as a backdrop. A few people in a cabin, with coyotes howling in the distance. Roughnecks off the oil rigs. Crop dusters. Whales off Vancouver Island. Snakes in a Mississippi bayou. Dope growers. Fishermen. Politicians. Doctors, lawyers, First Nations Chiefs. People who march on Washington. People who run the damn place. Jockies and hot walkers. Fallers, miners. Truck drivers. Cotton. Bartenders and waitresses. Women who own things and drive too fast. Ministers to whom God has diverted vast quantities of single malt scotch. Painters. Photographers. Broadcasters and school teachers. People who just do what they please. I'd wake up at noon and drink bourbon with you if I didn't have eight hours of travel and a border to cross... I've done this Tour for nine consecutive years now. Or maybe I've reached a point where it's the Tour doing me.

To quote one of my favorite harp players, "it's my life, baby." So, if you are reading here, you are probably one of my people. You caught a show in Weyburn, SK or Haida Gwaii, BC or Fargo, ND or Clarksdale, MS, or Cherokee, AL... God knows where. Corner Brook, NF? St. Louis, MO? Port Elgin, NB? It blurs. Did we do drinks? Were you the sound guy? Maybe I stayed at your house one time, maybe a bunch of times over a bunch of years. Over two hundred shows a year. Theatres, joints, house concerts, cafes, festivals. Maybe I was playing outside the Variety Theatre in Little Five, in Atlanta, or outside the Walgreen in Memphis, just off the strip? Maybe I was holding court at Osgoode Station in Toronto. I couldn't live this crazy life without friends and followers all up and down the line. So thanks again. You are appreciated. I could fall off the edge of the world. I could die in my car in a Walmart parking lot. As big numbers now do the Facebook thing, this year it proved impractical to blog daily. These blogs are for the hard core, anyway. I tend to speak a little more freely here, and I can lay down as many words as I want. I've had to be pretty careful with my words this year. Maybe your mind just gets up to strange things when you spend as much time driving as I do.

Newfoundland. The deep south of the far north- and I mean that in a really good way. It's about accents, dialects, history and hospitality. It's an ongoing story with many layers, plots, and one with room for many characters.

Middle America- and lump middle Canada in, too- has a way of homogenising culture. The ever new, digital world we live in makes that easy. And it leaks. You don't have to be urban. 1984 has been late to arrive, and it's not quite what Orwell had imagined. The daily joy- or the horror- of being able to eat the same foods, served in the same establishments, by people who look and dress the same- and may even be the same- as one drives for tens of thousands of miles marks this chapter of North America's history. Stains it, rather. A greasy, fat smudged smear across the map. Granted, Newfoundland has a share of these troughages- but you can still stop on a main street in Corner Brook and have a Mess for your lunch. Or cod tongues for your dinner. What it is, 'bye. Just wait. I'll come back to this.

Harper's new CBC. Canada needs a national broadcaster.

Many years ago the iconic Canadian broadcaster, Peter Gzowski, introduced me to Joey Smallwood. Canadians- and Newfoundlanders especially- remember Smallwood as the larger than life, always controversial Newfoundland leader who brought the colony into the Canadian confederation in 1949. Joey loved jazz and blues, and in our conversations he regaled me with stories about visiting Harlem in the 1920s. He also invited me to visit Newfoundland for some "real hospitality." This year I was able to bring the Tour to Joey's hometown, Gambo, NF, and I was not disappointed. Nice that some of the loose ends in life can eventually form circles. What it is, 'bye. What it is.

Music is what it is, too. How about the Blues? Culturally, music is produced and consumed in identical conditions as the foods that surround it. There are more people and places and sounds under the blues umbrella than ever before. Middle America has put it's arms around us. The digital world has also made this easy. Indeed, as one drives tens of thousands of miles across North America, there is now the nightly joy- or horror- of being able to hear the same torn, blues jam set list nightly- played by a similar bunch of guys in a similar way. Yet the general quality of the musicianship is probably higher than it has ever been, and everybody seems to be having fun.

So what is it that is so profoundly unsatisfying to me about this? Beyond the contests, and the proliferation of look alike festivals? Beyond the super sizing of the primary blues flavors? I don't want to disparage all the hard work and success. It's all legitimate. It's all authentic, in it's own way. But nobody actually steers the ship of culture. It drifts where it will. And the Blues is not immune. As an art form it carries more baggage and more icons than any other. There are lots of exceptions, but American Idol finds it's own expression in our marketing, promotion, and ultimately in our blues purchases. Disney girls (and boys) are good for the Delta, and for Memphis and St. Louis and New Orleans. And Chicago. But I've never been a fan of Disney movies. What I crave is in the cracks around the edges of the big machine, the stuff in the little store around the block from the supermarket. Stuff that makes men cry. Stuff that makes women want to take their clothes off. Or put them back on. Stuff that might make some people in high places uncomfortable. Healing music. Compelling stories. Stuff that never goes to the five... Hot sauce and cold beer. You know what I mean- or I hope you do- and it's out there. You know some of the artists, too. Maybe you like them. Maybe you don't. That doesn't matter. What matters is that you and I can make choices. What I want to hear: real stories played by real people in real places. Real stories played by the people who own them. Living blues. I didn't say you shouldn't go dancing- I'm just asking you to sample the side dishes.

Doc MacLean with Colin Linden, Nashville, TN

When I left Mississippi in 1979 I didn't think I'd ever be back. Yes, I'd roll in for weddings and funerals, but that was about it. By contrast, the past few years have been very gratifying. I got to play with a lot of first generation artists when I was young, but recently it has been my association with Sam Chatmon, Hollandale, MS, and the BBQ Boys that has somehow come full circle. Colin Linden and I were the BBQ Boys- Chatmon's last band- and back in the 1970s we recorded for the Chicago based, Flying Fish Records. Now when I play Mississippi there seems to be no end to the number of these albums that arrive at shows to be autographed! Sam always told me that getting old would be good for business, and I hope he was right. Colin has done pretty well- producing hundreds of albums, getting Grammy nominations, writing, playing, singing, appearing on Nashville, playing with Bob Dylan... And then there's Blackie and the Rodeo Kings... But look what we were back in the glory days...

If you've read this far, I've got a gift for you- there is a free track from this long out of print album in the sidebar links section... One of the highlights of this year's Tour was my invitation to appear at the Sam Chatmon Blues Festival in Hollandale, MS. This was part of a month of shows with another one of "Sam's Kids," the Pascagoula, MS based, Libby Rae Watson. We've been friends since the 1980s and have had a ball playing together over the past couple of years. Libby Rae played eastern Canada with me last year, and will soon be on her way to Memphis to represent Indianola, MS at the IBC. Hey, she won the delta- is that cool or what? For me, a thrill to have the ladies in the front row at Hollandale singing along to "Angola Prison Rodeo." Without prompting. They get what I do. Great to see so many old friends, and to make so many new ones. It's a small festival as they go these days, but the Chatmon Blues Festival appearance- along with others in the delta region- gave me a very personal boost this year. In the face of other disappointments, it reaffirmed my artistry in the place where it was nurtured and mentored. It's been about 40 years since I first performed with Sam, and I've come a long way since then. It's good to have earned a small place in this dusty world. I was thrilled to bring my songs, and Sam's, back to Hollandale, and to be so welcomed.

It's funny how a couple of festivals can change your numbers up. If I can believe the numbers Facebook serves me, I'm now more popular in Jackson, MS than in Edmonton, AB. More popular in Greenville, Meridian, and Biloxi, MS than in Regina, SK. More popular in Mobile, AL than in Lethbridge, AB or Winnipeg, MB. More popular in Clarksdale MS than in Saskatoon, SK. And I've played those Canadian locations dozens of times. Heartbreaking, or liberating? Or just crazy Google talk? I guess it doesn't matter, and it's hard to tell. One way or the other, it's likely I won't be sleeping in too many more Canadian parking lots.

Sam Chatmon Blues Festival, Hollandale, MS

On reflection, My 2012 car crash probably marked the beginning of the end of the great northern Tour. I guess it has all been spinning for a long time. After a decade of playing nearly every part of Canada every year, the ice and snow simply caught up to me. Every part of nine or ten provinces and a couple of territories, every year. Damn! Maybe the crash was bound to happen- but in the aftermath it has been hard to mount the same enthusiasm for the Tour. Some of the details get away now. Driving is not as easy as it once was. The fatigue of playing hundreds and hundreds of small shows- but only six Canadian festivals in 10 years- has now reached a tipping point. I don't know what that really means, yet. But I know I'm there. Maybe I need another one of those "Make Me An Offer" shirts. Crazy to continue in Canada without a core of festivals. At the Salmon Arm Roots and Blues I played to more people in a morning workshop than I did in the next month of daily shows. I need more of that. Do I need an agent? Book me in, baby.

There will definitely be a 2015 National Steel Blues Tour. It's the tenth annual tour, the "X" Tour- so it's just got to happen. I can't say if there will be another one after it or not. They may get smaller. They may get louder. In future they will largely roll on American roads. I've had many requests for a book, so I'm slowly starting to put that together. The book will cover the 10 continuous years of the National Steel Tour to all parts of Canada, and my adventures on the Blues Highway along the way. It's not going to be so much a Road or a Travel story as much as it will be about the journey. Maybe you will be in it, and maybe you won't. And then the Tour will move on. All things are possible when the destination is lost in the folds of the map.

All things are possible when the destination is lost in the folds of the map. Did I say that twice? I guess I  really am more comfortable now when I'm on the blacktop. Moving with the blur. Wondering what's around that next corner. When you stop moving, people start to notice the holes in your shoes, the bare rubber on the tires, the cracks in the glass. I've had my moments of bitterness and disappointment, but it's been a great adventure. That's the trade, I guess. Grace is giving everything to taste the moment.

Doc MacLean and Libby Rae Watson, Clarksdale, MS

Deep blues at Bayport, MN

Salmon Arm Roots and Blues Festival, Salmon Arm, BC

Luther Wamble and Doc MacLean, Silverhill, AL
Edmonton, AB
Doc MacLean with McKinley Wolf, Victoria, BC
Visiting Darren Brown, DB Custom
Cigar Box Guitars, Canning, NS
Doc MacLean with the Hupman Bros., Wolfville, NS

With BB King's choir, Indianola, MS
Blues on Whyte, Edmonton, AB

Doc MacLean and
Austin "Walkin'' Cane,
Clarksdale, MS
Catahoula Brown and Doc MacLean,
Liverpool, NS

Now, I'm way around the corner: sitting in my Toronto kitchen for the first time in over four months. I've got a hole in my Tony Lama boot at the spot where it nuzzled up against the gas pedal. I've got more white hair than I did when I rolled out of here back in July. I've got the urge to load my guitars back into the car and drive. I could have that old Lincoln down into Joshua Tree in about three days. I could squat in the abandoned old Methodist church in Dublin, Mississippi. I could change my name and move somewhere near salt water. Like I said, all things are possible. Everything and nothing as I ride the wave, suspended for a moment between Heaven and Hell. The Tour. What it is. Dark side of the travel journal. Dark side of the highway. What it is. To climb into a car and vanish. To see your picture stapled to a pole. To kill a mouse with a shoe. To break a window with a stone. There's a whole lot of mojo out there in the world if you go out and look for it.

What next after this 9th annual, national tour? Nashville's Colin Linden will be producing my next album. I'm probably going to try one of those crowd funding campaigns to raise some funds for it. Did I ever tell you that the majority of my income continues to pay the monthly interest on the loans for my previous "Narrow House" recording? The shareholders of the banks love this CD way more than anybody else. I've paid for it over and over again, and there's no end in sight. If you don't own "Narrow House" already, you can still buy it on iTunes. I've got lots of new stories and songs, with spring dates planned for Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Expect some cool guests on the upcoming recordings and at some of the shows. There will also be transit dates through Chicago and St. Louis. Following the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, I'll visit western Canada. The Lincoln can hardly wait.

Meanwhile in Toronto, what it is.

Although this post is "the wrap" for the 2014, National Steel "Vagabond" Blues Tour, in the days ahead I'll be working to put up posts for some missing dates. You'll find these to be mainly pictorial and by whatever time you have arrived here, these may well be complete. Check the sidebar archive for place names! Do Follow me on Facebook! <DocMacLean.deltablues> Thanks for riding along on the Blues Highway!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Maggies

Bucket list: Iles-de-la-Madeleine. I'm at Souris, PE waiting for a boat to take me out to the sand and rock colony in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It's about 5-6 hours travel from here, and there is  some fear that we may catch the fringe of a hurricane spinning up the coast. For sure, it's blowing and dark. Stay or go? Heck, I'm going, I've my ticket all paid.

The Islands are pretty much a big, narrow sand bar, punctuated by red rock hills with a few little houses set in to anchor the whole thing.

There are about 300 lobster licences out on the Island. Plenty of other sea harvest, and also plenty of grants from the Quebec government and the feds...

End of the line. You can drive all the roads here in a couple of days, without rushing...

Not many trees out here. I doubt that there ever were. Most of the larger buildings were constructed using lumber salvaged from wrecks. A priest blessed every board before it was nailed into place...

Service twice a week to the mainland. You don't want to miss your boat! The weather is improved, but I've got reservations to get back to Prince Edward Island. Shows pick up there as soon as I return. Missing the sailing would mean missing several nights work.