HUM­BLE GUY

Blues­man Big Dave’s lat­est al­bum might be his best, but he gives all the credit to his col­lab­o­ra­tors

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - JEN ZORATTI

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.

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