“The blues ain’t nothin’ but a good man feelin’ bad.” —Leon Redbone
Ironic, isn’t it? That a form of music based on “feelin’ bad” should make people feel so good? Nothing less than the redemptive power of art in action. That’s exactly what happened at the 20th annual Winter Blues Boogie in Silverton—‘the middle of nowhere and the centre of everything.’ Organized by Barb Yeomans and Dick Callison, the event is the primary fundraiser for the Lucerne preschool and the premiere winter social event in the Slocan Valley. Ticket holders are known to converge from all over the Kootenays as well as that strange land to the south of us.
For the first 16 of those years, the proceedings were presided over in true kickin’-out-the-jams fashion by Dr. Fun and the Nightcrawlers, since disbanded. Fortunately for blues and rock fans, Dr. Fun, a.k.a. Gary Gilbert, was flown in to the West Kootenay for an exclusive return engagement to lay down the Law of Boogie. We have been equally lucky to have the benefit of several of the band members of the Nightcrawlers performing as No Excuse, shakin’ the house with the entire lexicon of blues, boogie and rock. The twin guitar attack of Dennis Turner and John Cullen is a potent reminder of what made so many bands from the late ’60s and early ’70s great, as their note-perfect renditions of Allman Brothers and other timeless tunes made crystal clear. And Ken Turner on lefty bass with Bill Wilson on drums are a boogaloo rhythm section to be reckoned with.
But this year the evening kicked off with a special treat—new artist Bessie and the Back Eddies—a tongue-in-cheek name that sits quite comfortably alongside Silverton’s unofficial motto (see above). We may be backwoods, but we’re damn well not backwards! The Back Eddies featured the dual threat of singer Bessie Wapp giving us a spine-tingling lesson in blues history, and the horn section headed by sax-man Clint Swanson belting it out with true Blues Brothers gusto and precision. Wapp’s training as an actor occasionally shone through as she performed early blues nuggets like St. Louis Blues, shaping her voice to suit the tone of the original artist. The song was written by pioneering blues songwriter W.C. Handy about 1914 and best known for the version by another Bessie—the legendary Bessie Smith. Smith’s version is considered the definitive one by many blues purists. Listening to the original recording by Handy is itself an object lesson in how far the blues has come in 100 years. Handy’s original sounds more like something you’d hear at a parade ground or park gazebo, played by a brass band. Although St. Louis Blues was introduced as the “first” blues song in a popular music context, that honour may actually go to another song written by Handy in 1909, Memphis Blues.
Singer Karli Harrison made the second set, featuring No Excuse, another barn burner. Although young enough to be the band members’ granddaughter, Karli’s grasp of the ‘low down ’n dirty’ that made modern female blues singers great improves each year we’ve seen her. Harrison, a Rossland resident, has performed in light opera and theatre and is currently training in the Selkirk College music program. Although still a little shy as a performer, her youthful good looks and rippling blonde mane make for a magnetic stage presence. With a few more years and a lot more cuttin’ loose, Karli will be one to watch out for.
The evening’s musical arc followed a steady upward trajectory, with the climactic entry of Dr. Fun raising a huge cheer from the crowd. Gary Gilbert’s features as he’s aged reminds me somewhat of the English actor Pete Postlewaite, while his attire—with flowing scarf and costume store top hat—was reminiscent of the Stones during their heyday in the early ’70s. His vocals as usual were spot-on, augmented by some fine flourishes on the blues harp. Continuing in the spirit of the evening’s love-in to the giants of blues started by Bessie Wapp, Dr. Fun and No Excuse launched into Texas tornado Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Crossfire. And where would a night of boogie blues be without the immortal Got My Mojo Workin’. Hallelujah, brother, I tell you, the spirit of Muddy Waters was in the room! Dancers kept the Memorial Hall floor polished with fancy footwork to the tune of Treat Her Right, Can’t Get You Off My Mind and too many other great songs to recall in the blur of a stellar night.
For musicians, Winter Blues Boogie is an opportunity to play at a gig whose reputation dwarfs its small town size. The Silverton Memorial Hall tops out at a maximum of 200 pairs of boogie-ready feet but the event generates memories that soon become legendary. Those tickets sell out fast. Over the years, top local musical acts have graced the bill, including Holly and the Blaze Kings (again featuring the dapper Clint Swanson on sax), the Lazy Poker Blues Band, No Excuse, and longtime headliners Dr. Fun and the Nightcrawlers. This year’s event was recorded on video so hopefully we’ll eventually see an edited version for public consumption.
The event was started as a party to celebrate Dick Callison’s 50th birthday. San Francisco band The Sundogs was hired for the party but bailed out to perform in Italy and Dr. Fun was hired as their replacement. “We just had so much fun that the next year we did it again,” recalls Callison. The event has been used as a fundraiser for various community concerns, including little league baseball, the Silverton Memorial Hall, the Slocan Lake Gardening Society (SLUGS) and others, finally settling on the Lucerne preschool as its charity of choice.
In 2012 the Inside Blues newsletter published by the Inland Empire Blues Society in Spokane, Washington featured the Winter Blues Boogie on its cover, although few seemed to come from south of the border this year. The president of the Society, Ted Todd, was heading to Memphis to receive an award for helping to keep the blues alive. Some years ago when Callison asked him why he came to Silverton to see Dr. Fun, he answered, “You know, you Canadians are the partiest motherfuckers I’ve ever seen.”
When asked if we can look forward to another 20 years of Winter Blues Boogie, Callison said, “Well I hope so. I’m ready for another one right now, it’s so much fun. I just love looking down from the balcony of the hall—there isn’t a face that doesn’t have a smile on it.”
As Big Mama Thornton might say, Amen to that.
There’s a YouTube clip with some excerpts (and me dancing in my top hat!) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlfKVUATk2U