Bluesman Big Dave’s latest album might be his best, but he gives all the credit to his collaborators
THE most striking thing about Big Dave McLean is his laugh. Big and throaty, it comes easy and often — usually at his own expense. After more than four decades in the biz, the man’s become a bona-fide Canadian blues legend and a Winnipeg institution, but you wouldn’t know it to talk to him. He’s incredibly self-effacing, particularly when discussing the details of his seventh album, the masterful Faded But Not Gone. As far as he’s concerned, Big Dave is who he surrounds himself with. He’ll certainly be in good company at the West End Cultural Centre on Wednesday when he joins fellow roots greats Jim Byrnes and Steve Dawson on the Black Hen Travelling Road Show, a Stax- and Motown-style touring revue that kicks off in Winnipeg and rolls on across the West. “The show’s going to be fun. Jim Byrnes is an old friend of mine and Steve Dawson is one of the most brilliant musicians I’ve ever met,” he says, over coffee (he takes his black) on a blustery November morning at a West Broadway cafe. “It’s going to be a good mixture of different styles. It’s always nice to play with guys who are such great musicians. We don’t have to spend days of rehearsing.” All three have new records out on Dawson’s Black Hen Music imprint, but Dawson and McLean have another bond. Faded But Not Gone has the distinction of being the first album recorded at Dawson’s newly relocated Henhouse Studio in Nashville, Tenn., a point of pride for McLean. “He had talked to Holger Peterson, who runs Stony Plain Records, which has been my label for years, and said, ‘We want to borrow Dave and do a disc with him,’” McLean says. “We thought it’d be a good opportunity to spread my wings a little more. Steve’s an old friend; I met him up in Yellowknife years and years ago. I was gung-ho to do the project.” McLean’s inaugural Nashville recording experience was idyllic. Maintaining a level of spontaneity was important to Big Dave, so the band got to work practically the minute introductions were finished. “It was like, ‘Hi, I’m Dave. We’re in the key of E, let’s go,’” the 62-year-old recalls with that throaty laugh. “It was an absolute wondrous time. Put Nashville on the bucket list, everybody. You really see why they call it Music City, U.S.A. It really is all about the music.” Nashville informed everything about the record, from the music to the artwork; the cover photo — McLean in his trademark fedora with a knowing smirk — was taken at the old-school photo booth at Jack White’s Third Man Records store. While Big Dave’s rumble of a voice and brawny guitar licks are the stars of the show here — a statement the man himself would vehemently disagree with — he had a hell of a band behind him, including Dawson, Colin Linden, Colin James, Kevin Mckendree (Delbert McClinton’s right-hand piano man), Gary Craig and John Dymond of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, and the McCrary Sisters on backing vocals. Bil VornDick, whose name is on many Grammy-winning and nominated discs, engineered the record. The reverence McLean has for everyone who worked on the album is obvious. “Some of these guys have made dozens of records. I’ve only made seven, so I was kind of the newcomer. They’re so comfortable in the studio. And so many great ideas. That’s what I love about recording. Every recording I’ve done, I’ve done live off the floor because that’s the best way to record blues especially. It’s a feel. You can’t just memorize your part. You gotta play it the way you feel it. These guys had so much experience behind them, they brought great ideas to the studio.” Indeed, the musicianship on display is jaw-dropping. “I’m so glad these players were on my album, otherwise I wouldn’t have made the cut,” McLean jokes. Composed of six originals and seven well-curated covers (including a rootsy reading of Tom Waits’ Mr. Siegal), Faded But Not Gone plays to McLean’s strengths but also pushes him out of his comfort zone (there’s a little countrified twang on this one).
“I usually stick to certain styles of blues — I like the early Delta blues and I like the early Chicago blues, and I don’t wander from that very often. I wrote a couple of songs in there that are so far away from your standard blues. It makes you learn. It makes you grow. And when you try new ideas and they work, it’s really exciting. I’m hoping my fans will like it, too.” McLean also got a little more personal this time out. The Fallen was penned after a series of devastating personal losses, including the deaths of his mother, Pearl, and brother, Grant. Music runs in the McLean family; Grant was a ragtime guitarist, while Pearl was a concert pianist. At 95, she contributed the song The Redwood to McLean’s last album, 2012’s Outside the Box. “I had her on the album because she was good, not because she was mum,” he says. The song Shades of Grace was written in her memory. “She used to sing Amazing Grace to us as kids. I borrowed a couple of verses from Amazing Grace and wrote the song around it.” McLean’s mother and brother are immortalized in a forthcoming Charles Konowol-lensed documentary about Big Dave McLean. It’s a road movie that sees the bluesman journey to Clarksdale, Miss., the birthplace of the blues. “It’s going to be a good film. It’s called Ain’t About the Money, which sizes up any professional musician in the blues and jazz fields right there. That’s not why you’re in the business. You get drawn into it, but it’s sure not because of the money. There’s one part where Mitch Podolak, the founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, mentions he heard a quote from Utah Phillips, the old folk singer. Utah Phillips says, “Man, I love this business. You can make hundreds of dollars.’ “He’s about right. Forty years, and I’ve made hundred of dollars.” There’s that laugh again.