1. The January Blues
You have to live in the mountains to appreciate what a godsend Winter Blues Boogie is in the depths of a Kootenay winter. The January blues, man. Skies about 50 feet off the ground. The chill in your bones day after day. And still ‘Farch’ to come—that dreaded late winter slump between mid-February and mid-March. If you make it to that point, it’s all up from there. “Here comes the sun…” But until then, Blues Boogie is a winter tonic second to none.
This year’s 22nd annual boogie saw the return of Dr. Fun (Gary Gilbert) making one of his trademark show biz entrances. Paying tribute to the history of blues artists having run-ins with the law—from Robert Johnson on—Dr. Fun took the stage dressed as a convict, shovel and pick in hand. Blues Boogie producer Dick Callison stood by as a prison guard while Gilbert sang My Big Toe, written by Graham Wood Drout: “Working all day in the sun / big bossman got a big shotgun / gonna take my shovel and cut off my big toe / if I can’t walk I won’t have to work no more.” A few years ago Dr. Fun made his entrance as a boxer, with each set rung in like a round in a prizefight.
But the crowd had already been well stoked by the last set, starting with opening act Clinton Swanson and Friends. Swanson is fast becoming the Kootenay’s go-to sax player, with a chameleonic line-up of musicians in his band. This year Nelson singer Sydney Black played chanteuse, dressed in pearls and an elegant strapless dress. Together they warmed up dancers with tried and true numbers like Slippin’ and Slidin’, Hound Dog, Good Golly Miss Molly and What’d I Say. I’ve never been a fan of big horn bands—I much prefer guitar bands—but there’s no arguing with Swanson’s effect on the audience.
Next came the blistering return of No Excuse, which in my books is every bit as good as the dual guitar bands of the ’70s—Savoy Brown, Wishbone Ash, Foghat, et al. Not bad for what No Excuse guitarist John Cullen calls a “hobby band.” As a guitar hobbyist (at best), I can testify to the skill it takes to play some of the numbers they take on—past renditions of Allman Brothers tunes like Whipping Post being just one example. They reel off effortlessly Bonnie Raitt songs such as Used to Rule the World, from her new album, and the Raitt classic Thing Called Love. This year the hole left by the departure of singer Carly Harrison was well filled by her mother Leanne Harrison, leaving no doubt in the room as to who exactly here is the Blues Mama.
The three-set Blues Boogie format is a triumph of pacing, with the energy building steadily toward the final act—Dr. Fun and No Excuse. Gilbert said they hadn’t performed together for two years but you would have been hard pressed to notice. The dual guitar line-up of John Cullen and Dennis Turner traded licks with a crisp ferocity that practically rained sparks down on the undulating dancers. Bill Wilson’s thousand-pound per square inch downbeats made the groove irresistible, locked into Ken Turner’s fluid bass lines. Keith Kemp rippled out the signature electric piano arpeggios so loved by blues aficionados. The body just can’t argue with tunes like Who Do You Love, Unchain My Heart, Superstitious, and Gimme Some Lovin’. A blues treatment of Leonard Cohen’s classic I’m Your Man added innovative flair to the set list.
By now the story of Blues Boogie’s inception is well known—one of those accidents of fate that hits all the right notes. Barb had planned a 50th birthday party for Dick, complete with a live band, which had to cancel at the last minute. A few panicked phone calls later, enter Dr. Fun and the Nightcrawlers. And the rest, as they say, is history. Even the dual guitar line-up was an accident of serendipity. Nightcrawlers guitarist John Cullen was expecting a daughter for that first Blues Boogie and had to be replaced by Dennis Turner. The band decided afterward to keep both guitarists, establishing the seamless twin guitar line-up we know and love today.
2. Blues to the Rescue
It’s hard to overestimate what Winter Blues Boogie means to this community—two tiny villages nestled on the rocky shores of Slocan Lake (Silverton and New Denver). Living in rural British Columbia it’s easy to feel the West Coast—the province’s power and population centre—has forgotten you exist. Rural communities are often last thought of in government budgets. Citizens here have had to blockade hospital emergency rooms to prevent closure and schools hold bake sales to raise money for basic supplies. So we owe a helluva lot to Dick Callison and Barb Yeomans for Winter Blues Boogie. They created a ‘social enterprise’ long before the term was coined. Profits of each dance have been donated to Katrina Sumrall’s grade 5–7 classes, youth baseball, the Kohan Garden Society, and for the last 16 years the Lucerne preschool, which takes in children 3–4 years of age.
“I guess people think the preschool runs because the government pays for it,” says Sumrall, “but it runs because parents pay fees. The boogie is that one little gift in your back pocket that makes the year so much easier.”
Early Childhood Educator Charlene Alexander says Winter Blues Boogie is the preschool’s biggest fundraiser. Alexander teaches at the preschool, which has a partnership agreement with the school district to share Lucerne school, a K–12 facility. Studies by early childhood experts like the late Dr. Fraser Mustard show that the birth to age 5 period is critical to a child’s ability to integrate successfully in society and have a firm sense of confidence and competency. Alexander is often asked, ‘Why bother with preschool when kids already have kindergarten?’ She explains that it’s an opportunity to build on their social skills in a safe environment. And because of the unique arrangement with Lucerne, it provides a seamless entry into school and community involvement. The different aspects of the program include music, art, and literacy, with programs such as the Columbia Basin Alliance for Literacy (CBAL) and the Ministry of Education’s Strong Start.
“We’re looking at each child and seeing where they’re at right now and using their interests to help them grow in all areas of development,” says Alexander. “The environment is very holistic and play-based, so they get to be in their element and grow with their peers.”
Raising money for the little tykes is a big kick for the band members too. Cullen wonders why people come back year after year to hear the “same old musicians” but he’s grateful they do. Aside from the urge to boogie, he thinks it has a lot to do with the cause. “It’s like a second Christmas, it’s a win-win situation for everybody,” says Cullen.
Singer Gary Gilbert, a.k.a. Dr. Fun, says in a long career in music he’s found Winter Blues Boogie to be one of the best-organized gigs anywhere. Dick and Barb make sure the stage, sound board, and lighting is set up and ready to go. And they host a dinner and brunch for the musicians. “They treat us like rock stars, for sure,” says Gilbert. Returning from his Sunshine Coast digs to see his old bandmates and the Kootenay fans is an eagerly anticipated tonic.
“I just think it’s a beautiful thing. This is a messed up world we live in, there’s no question about it. So I really admire and appreciate Dick and Barb for bringing all those people together. It feels a lot like a family affair. It’s a great chance to have people cut loose and have fun together and that’s the only thing that’s going to save the world.”
For Dick and Barb, not only does the Blues Boogie bring relief from the winter doldrums for people coming from far and wide, it cuts across social barriers. “It’s such a joy to walk the streets of New Denver the following week and see the smiles still pasted on the faces of the attendees. For us, it’s the first day of spring.”