Colin James,
Blue Highways
(True North, 2016)

Big Dave McLean,
The Devil You Know
(Black Hen Music, 2016)

Like England, Canada has no native blues tradition, nothing equivalent to the American South where the music began and grew, addressing a predominately black audience and a small but steadily growing number of whites. Influenced in part by blues rhythms, rock 'n' roll hit the world stage in the 1950s. The next decade's folk revival brought a new interest in pure blues as white musicians heard older folk artists such as Son House and Skip James, then connected them with still-vital electrified urban bluesmen including Muddy Waters and B.B. King.

In the middle of the 20th century, blues was still an African-American popular music, loved by both Southerner blacks and those who had participated in the Great Migration to northern cities such as Chicago, Memphis and St. Louis. Today, however, to younger generations blues is "old people's music." In our time most blues performers are Caucasian, and even black artists who keep at it are playing, with the infrequent exception, for Euro-American audiences. My experience was fairly typical of people of my generation: I was introduced to blues via the Rolling Stones, not even an American band.

Colin James and Big Dave McLean are twice-removed from the blues sources, national and racial, but like others in the English- and other-speaking world, they are immersed in the genre and have shaped it to their tastes and talents. James in particular is a sort of Canadian Eric Clapton, which I guess is a mixed compliment, though certainly not in the context of assured musicianship. Or, for that matter, rock-solid blues knowledge. He possesses each in spades.

Blue Highways encompasses the acoustic and the electric, Blind Willie McTell and Tommy Johnson on one side, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf on the other, with Memphis Slim and William Bell somewhere in between. You can talk about "cultural appropriation" all you want -- and in the blues context such talk, given the alternative (the effective extinction of blues as living music), is rarer than it used to be -- but at its core Highways is not just a blues album but a blues-affirmation album. And a good one. If it's not the real deal, it's close enough for the 21st century.

If James is Canada's Clapton, maybe Big Dave McLean is its Taj Mahal, in fashioning a personal style grounded in downhome blues while drawing gospel and folk into the equation. McLean, who's based in Winnipeg, is a thorough-going pro. His instruments are acoustic and resonator guitar, amplified by an excellent roots-oriented band led by producer and guitar ace Steve Dawson.

At this stage of his career, McLean knows exactly who he is and what he wants to do. No surprise, therefore, that he's audibly at ease in the studio. Which means that if you like his approach, you will take to this recording without much prompting. I particularly enjoy his arrangement of the venerable spiritual "You'll Need Somebody on Your Bond." I might note that Taj Mahal cut it early in his career, but then, many have covered it over the decades. It never wears out its welcome.

The original "Where the Music Comes From" -- about, of course, a trip to Mississippi -- is a much better song than I expected from its title. That is more a compliment, let me be clear, than a grudging concession. McLean, after all, has lived with the blues all of his adult working life. Still, one listens a tad uneasily. Even with the best and clearest-eyed of intentions, it's tempting to romanticize the desperate circumstances of crushing poverty and violent racism out of which rural blues emerged. I'm not saying that McLean is guilty in this regard, but from some perspectives you could argue that blues is less art than tragedy.

The old blues spoke in a language whose words we recognize but whose meaning continues to elude those who weren't there. It's no wonder, sadly, that younger African-Americans chose to reject blues as a reminder of something they did not wish to carry with them.

music review by
Jerome Clark

29 October 2016

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