1. The Brotherhood of Sound
The old song With a Little Help From My Friends took on new meaning when top Canadian musicians gathered to help Johnny ‘Tornado’ Pettigrew launch his new business, the Slocan City Trading Company on May 18. A respected musician in his own right, Pettigrew hosted an evening concert at Slocan’s Legion Hall featuring Canadian blues legend Big Dave McLean and Kelly Jay Fordham of Crowbar. They were joined by an impressive array of sidemen for some kick ass blues and rock ’n roll. The Slocan Valley has long been a hotbed of musical talent and this event was another milestone.
As Johnny Tornado, the formerly Edmonton-based musician has toured Canada with the Dutch Mason Blues Band as well as with his own band the Storm Riders. He hosted locals and musician friends throughout the afternoon at the Slocan City Trading Company, supplying a generous buffet. A cake cutting formalized the opening, with McLean, Jay and business partner Pedro Montoya there to help dish out the angel food. Gene Greenwood, currently filming Motley Crüe on tour, was on hand to record Kelly interviewing friends for a TV segment called Storytellers Corner. When the Crowbar veteran learned that a Valley Voice reporter was present, he turned the tables and interviewed yours truly. Jay was impressed to learn that the Voice is one of the last independently owned newspapers in Western Canada.
Others interviewed included Slocan Valley resident Dave Crellan, a blues harp player who was inspired by Johnny Tornado to come out of retirement to perform again. Steven Drake, whose impressive array of talents includes playing a mean lap steel guitar as well as studio engineering for the Tragically Hip, brewed espresso while the camera rolled. Drake had his own band The Odds and his brother Adam, who was also present, was a drummer with the Powder Blues Band and Art Bergmann. Originally from Topanga, California, the Drake brothers grew up in the Slocan Valley where their parents Tom and Sally Drake settled. Kelly managed to get his interviewees to reveal their best stories of the road or of working with stars like Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters and other legends both living and dead.
2. Oh, What a Feelin’: Canuck Rock Makes its Mark
Born in Toronto, Kelly Jay Fordham was raised in Muskoka before settling in Hamilton, where he met his future Crowbar band mates. They toured as the Full Tilt Boogie Band before becoming Crowbar in 1969. Kelly says their name was inspired by the godfather of Canadian rock ’n roll, Rockin’ Ronnie Hawkins, who once told them, “You’re a nice bunch of guys but you could screw up a crowbar in about 10 seconds.”
On the strength of their massive hit Oh, What a Feelin’ the band were able to open for Joe Cocker on his amazing Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, playing to sold-out audiences at the legendary Fillmore East. That alone scored Crowbar a permanent place in rock history. Kelly recalls meeting Clapton and hanging out with other stars such as John Lennon backstage. In those days during the early ’70s, he says, it was all very loose and everyone seemed to know everyone. That soon changed as musicians succumbed to ‘star’ personas and contracts with strange clauses that forbade other musicians looking at them while backstage, for example.
Crowbar did record one album in the US before breaking up in 1974 but had decided long before to focus on building a Canadian audience. Kelly says in part this was due to the onerous requirements of American work visas at the time. “I remember seeing Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock wearing an American flag so I decided to wear a vest with a Canadian flag. We figured it was just easier to play five towns in a row in Saskatchewan than trying to work in the States.”
As with many veteran rockers now, Kelly is feeling “the reelin’ of the years,” as Steely Dan once sang. The recent death of his wife left him devastated both emotionally and financially. When Calgary promoter Kevin Warren heard of the tragedy, he offered to put together a benefit gig on short notice. Once again, like the song says, Kelly “got by with a little help from his friends,” and the all-star jam raised $10,000. “I’m 71 and I feel every one of those years,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned now I’m in it for the fun.”
3. Canadian Bluesman Big Dave McLean: A Hidden Gem in Plain Sight
For bluesman Big Dave McLean, recognition has been slow in coming – he’s been on the blues scene in Canada for decades and is only now becoming more widely known. McLean started out on harmonica in the early ’60s and had his first guitar lesson from John Hammond at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1969. He’s had the privilege of performing with Muddy Waters, Hammond, James Cotton and Johnny Winter. He met Waters when he opened a show for him in 1977 and his admiration for the blues legend remains undimmed.
“He was just the greatest guy – he talked with me like he was talking to a neighbour over the back fence,” McLean told CBC Radio One. “I spent half the night drinking with him and telling him jokes.”
As a result of this meeting, Big Dave was inspired to write his first song, Muddy Waters for President. Although the legendary bluesman wanted to record McLean’s song, sadly he died before he was able to do so. Waters had planned to bring in Johnny Winter and James Cotton to cut the tune.
“It was right around the time when Johnny was producing albums for Muddy, absolutely the best he’d done since his early days.”
Canadian guitarist Colin James is among Big Dave’s admirers. “I first heard him when I was nine, and he blew me away then, and he still does today. He’s one of the great undiscovered bluesmen, and people ought to hear him.” James recently offered McLean the use of his home studio in Vancouver, invited over some top musicians, and cut an album, Acoustic Blues. Big Dave recently completed three coast-to-coast tours – no small feat at his age – sharing the stage with slide guitarist Doc McLean.
4. Kicking Out the Jams in the Legion Hall
The spirit of musical camaraderie was abundantly evident at Saturday night’s concert at the Legion Hall. Kelly Jay jumped on board when he heard his friend Johnny Tornado needed a hand, as did McLean, the Drake brothers, Kenny Ray Aiken, Cecil Jay Foley, Claude Godin, Slocan drummer Brian Waller and Silverton pianist Alf Anderson. Johnny Tornado’s band mates Adam Drake on drums and Tim Steinruck on bass formed the core rhythm section. Having so many world-class musicians on the same stage was bound to make for a kick-out-the-jams event and they did not disappoint. The first set was led by Kelly Jay, his electric piano cranking out the classic blues numbers. Saxophonist Claude Godin, a familiar face on the Edmonton and Calgary jazz scene, added his honey-horn sound.
Big Dave McLean was bandleader for the next set, and for good reason. He clearly understands the subtleties of musical dynamics – how to bring the backing band down low to highlight an instrument and how to build to a thundering climax. McLean’s vocals are pure blues – a whiskey-steeped growl that at times recalls the late great Howlin’ Wolf. Slocan Valley resident Kenny ‘High Pocket’ Giles joined McLean for a scorching duet of blues harp. Giles had performed with harp legend James Cotton, who gave him his stage name due to his lanky frame. Steven Drake’s tasty licks on the lap steel were endlessly inventive, adding a bittersweet tone to every song. Slocan Valley guitarist Rob Moore acquitted himself well with crisp, searing leads on the Stratocaster.
Johnny Tornado says he’s here to stay on the Slocan Valley scene. A full range of music and movie memorabilia can be found at the Slocan City Trading Company, and of course musical instruments and repairs. Business partner Pedro Montoya, who creates jewelry, leatherwork and art, says he’s looking forward to living in the ‘Valley of Lost Souls,’ “because I lost mine so I’ve come looking for it.”
Johnny says valley residents can look forward to some exciting concert events at the Slocan Legion Hall. The August long weekend will feature Wailin’ Al Walker and the Houserockers. Walker has toured with Jerry Doucette and Lynyrd Skynyrd and was bandleader of the Commodore Ballroom house band in Vancouver. Then on the Labour Day weekend watch out for Kenny ‘Blues Boss’ Wayne, boogie-woogie blues pianist extraordinaire.
The concerts will be a much-needed shot in the arm for this beleaguered town whose mill has been shut down for the past 18 months. “I wanted to bring something to the Slocan,” says Johnny. “I love it here.”