Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bill Bourne, Michael Jerome Browne, Michael Wrycraft: Blues, Music, Art

The blues in Canada has always taken a particularly northern approach. Maybe it’s because our fingertips and toes have all turned blue at one time or another. Maybe it’s the Canadian way of adapting something specifically based in someone else’s culture and turning it around to suit our own needs. Think about all the great Canadian bluesmen (and women), King Biscuit Boy, Whiskey Howl, Rita Chiarelli, Carlos del Junco, Paul Reddick, Downchild, Dutch Mason, Sue Foley … the list goes on and on. And the fine northern blues tradition continues with two more recent releases.

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see Bill Bourne and his Free Radio Band play live at The Pearl Company in Hamilton. (If you ever get the chance, The Pearl Company is a remarkable venue for music.) Bill came out, in front of a small but dedicated crowd, carrying a beat-up old Gibson acoustic. He played an old blues. His long hair swayed, he rocked back and forth, and sang those blues like he owned them. Then, when he brought out the band, he carried on with a generous helping of all sorts of music including echoes of Cajun, African, and flamenco. The new CD, Bluesland, gives you a sample of the breadth of Bill’s music.

The first few chords remind the listener of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” but Bourne takes the song “The Deep Dark Woods” in another direction. Lead guitarist, Pa Joe, provides sterling jazzy solos. Performing live he was dandy; on record he’s almost perfect. Bill’s son Pat was not at the show, but he appears on the disc playing the more rockin’ guitar leads. Bass and drums are played by Moses Gregg and Miguel Ferrer. They put down some fine rhythm. The band swings through the old bluegrass standard “Columbus Stockade Blues,” which Bourne’s parents performed in a dance band before he was born. He claims that he learned this one in the womb! The original songs are the main focus. “Home” is a heavy rocker, “Forever Truly Bound” has a touch of zydeco, and “On the Sunny Side” belies its title in a moody almost spooky setting. One last cover tune, an all-out rocking “Maggie’s Farm,” serves as the conclusion to the album and it’s a good way to go.

Where Red Deer native Bill Bourne adds a cross section of international influences to his blues, Montreal’s Michael Jerome Browne sticks to the basics on his Borealis release The Road is Dark. Recorded live off the floor, the album features guest appearances by John McColgan (washboard), Mighty Popo and Jody Benjamin (acoustic guitar), Steve Marriner (harmonica) and Michael Ball (fiddle), but it’s essentially Michael Jerome Browne and his guitar that makes the impact. Starting with a bottleneck riff on “Doin’ My Time” and moving on to some National steel washboard for “Married Woman,” it’s clear that MJB knows his stuff. The title track is a finger-picked gospel blues, and “Graveyard Blues” introduces another instrument … the gourd banjo. When the instruments themselves begin in the ground this is real roots music!

Browne covers JB Lenoir and Rev. Gary Davis, but he also echoes Robert Johnson on the original gut-bucket blues, “At It Again.” Mighty Popo adds his guitar to MJB’s gourd banjo for “Sing Low,” a tribute to Afghan women. The rest of the album continues this tribute to African-American music with tips of the hat to Memphis string bands, jug bands, and Mississippi blues. And it’s all done by a Canadian … wonderful!

Wrapping both these new CDs is artwork from the studio of A Man Called Wrycraft. Michael Wrycraft has been busy lately providing cover designs and posters for Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLachlan, James Hill and a host of others including Browne and Bourne. The two designs are done in shades of blues and indigo, very appropriate considering the music inside. The Bluesland cover is a bit more light-hearted, The Road Is Dark folds out to a haunting widescreen image. What did that car drop off in the woods? Hmmm.

I spoke to Wrycraft on the phone this week, and while he thanked me for mentioning his design he said, “but don’t forget…there’s music in there too!”

Who could forget two such powerful collections? Blues fans, guitar lovers, supporters of Canadian music, in fact everyone should find something to attract them in these new releases.

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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