Four On The Floor
When it comes to her singing abilities, Marcia Ball is armed with a hugely distinctive voice. That voice is also delightful over the phone during an interview — which is why it sucked royally when Ball’s cell conked out completely very early on in an interview that would never be completed. Oh well — five minutes of Marcia Ball was definitely better than none.
Blues songwriter and pianist Ball has long been a fixture of the Southern Americana blues and R&B scene. Over the course of a career that has now spanned more than four decades, Ball has produced 15 critically acclaimed solo albums. And her latest album, 2011’s Roadside Attractions, which was nominated for a Grammy, is among her most praised efforts yet.
Her formula is very much the same throughout all her albums, as Ball’s gravelly voice wafts in, around and over her swampy, Louisiana-style piano-based blues. She has become known for distilling several localized genres of music into one presentation, taking equal parts New Orleans, boogie woogie blues and Texas soul and blending them all seamlessly together.
Perhaps the reason that Roadside Attractions has garnered even more praise than usual for Ball is that the songwriting is more pronounced, with lyrics touching on Dionysian-revelry and love relations of all kinds. That may well stem from the impressive fact that the 63-year-old Ball wrote or co-wrote every song, which wasn’t typical of her early work, especially given her propensity for busting out blues standards and cover songs.
While the tales told on Roadside Attractions are certainly personal, Ball says that her songwriting has always typically been inspired by the time she spends on the road.
“All my records are personal to certain extent and they all come from personal experience and the reality of what’s going on in my life,” says Ball. “Normally I don’t make any record until I feel like I have something to say. That’s why I hold off for so long in between some of these records.”
The story of how Ball’s musical career kicked off is an interesting one. Apparently, on her way to San Francisco from Louisiana she became stranded in Austin, Texas after her car broke down. She then went on to cut her teeth there in various psychedelic rock and country bands in the 1970s before starting on her solo career in 1974.
After releasing several albums, over the course of the next few decades, Ball’s career really took off in the ‘90s when she was nominated for multiple Grammy Awards, including Best Contemporary Blues Album, in addition to being inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame.
And with Roadside Attraction garnering so much attention, Ball has every intention of keeping up the momentum. However, fans anxious for a new record may be kept waiting for some time, as Ball has always been adamant about the importance of keeping up a high quality in her work.
“We’re definitely working on the next record,” she says. “We’re getting prepared creatively and have about four songs written, and that’s about where we are right now.”
“I’m working on it and I have some good ideas, but I don’t want to give too much away or have too much to divulge right now. But if you liked the last record, I can promise you will probably like this one too.” /Chris Morin
TRANSCONTINENTAL BLUES BAND
The blues usually reference the cursed and forlorn, but for Mama B and Freight Train, it’s had a more romantic effect. Marilyn “Mama B” Boll and Randy “Freight Train” Wayne Hawryliw met in 1991 on Mama B’s birthday, and they’ve pretty much been inseparable ever since — both onstage and off.
“Randy had heard me singing at a local bar and had complimented my voice,” says Mama B, “so I decided he must be a nice guy — and I married him. In 1996, we joined a local band, Lonesome Dove. That’s when we first played music together.”
Mama B and Freight Train perform as a duo, but they’re also involved with a lot of other musical projects, like the Transcontinental Blues Band, with veterans Laurence Deslauriers on bass and drummer Don Sproule — who they’ll be playing with at this year’s Blues Festival. They love to play traditional stuff, from Delta to Piedmont blues, as well as other roots music from folk to country, including interpretations of music that isn’t typically considered blues.
Though they ended up in the same place, they’ve each taken different routes to get to their love of rhythm and blues.
“Randy first got into blues through classic British rock bands like Cream and Led Zeppelin,” says Mama B. “From there he found out where the music came from, and realized that a lot of the music he was listening to came from someplace a lot farther back in time.”
As for herself, Mama B largely discovered blues music thanks to the local scene.
“Our first official date, after meeting, was going to the jam at Bud’s on Broadway,” she says, “and I fell in love with the blues I heard there. A few years later, I heard Suzie Vinnick singing at the jam, and I decided I wanted to be a blues singer.”
A little while later, they adopted the stage names they have today.
“A friend basically gave me my ‘Mama B’ name when I wanted a stage name for our first Blues Festival performance in 2006,” she says. “Freight Train shorted his stage name from Randy ‘Freight Train’ Wayne [as he used to be known] for convenience.”
Over the years, they’ve both enjoyed a lot of great experiences thanks to the music.
“The greatest thrill for Freight Train was when he had the opportunity to sit beside the great B.B. King on his bus, and have him sign the B.B. King instructional book that [he had] had since the ‘70s,” says Mama B. “Randy is also very proud of having worked with the Saskatoon Blues Society’s ‘Blues in the Schools’ program for a number of years.”
“My greatest thrill was playing with our electric blues band at the Blues Festival in 2009, and having dancers on the dance floor from the first song to the last. It was also a thrill singing at the Blues Festival Wind Up Jam with talented blues musicians from across Canada, and feeling like we were all in the groove together as one,” she says.
Mama B and Freight Train have a six-song, self-produced EP that you can get your hot little hands on, and they’re in the process of writing and recording more, both originals and covers, for a full-length release they hope to finish by the end of the year. They love to be as inclusive as possible, sharing the music, rather than playing down to the crowd.
“When an audience comes to our live shows, we’d like them to feel like they’re a part of the show,” says Mama B. “We sing and play from the heart and love to interact with people, like we’re all in a cozy living room. Depending on the audience and the venue, we may also share stories about the history of the blues.”
“All live music is great, but when you see and hear the blues live, there’s a lot of emotion and feeling that you may miss listening to a recording. The blues is real music about real people and events. The blues tells everybody’s story, so everyone is connected to the music.” /Craig Silliphant
He’s already known as one of Canada’s top blues guitarists, but Steve Strongman has just muscled his way even closer to the top of the heap with a trio of wins at the 2013 Maple Blues Awards.
Based out of Ontario, Strongman picked up the prestigious Guitarist of the Year award — for the second year in a row. He also picked up Songwriter of the Year honours, as well as Recording/Producer of the Year for his third studio album, A Natural Fact.
Nominated in six categories altogether, Strongman admits that getting this kind of acknowledgment from the blues community has been a boon for his career.
“It was pretty amazing,” he says. “I don’t think that any artist sets out to do this — accolades or awards aren’t the reason you make records or become a musician. But when you get this kind of recognition it’s really nice.
“The nominations were really nice as well. I was nominated for six categories, and to win three was amazing — especially since those were the three I was most interested in.”
Strongman has definitely paid his dues over the years to achieve his current lofty status. A veteran of the Canadian rock and blues-scene, the Kitchener native toured extensively for twenty years, and released his first solo blues album in 2007.
Strongman’s latest album, A Natural Fact, is a huge shift from his previous recordings. He’s made his reputation with his electric blues work, but Fact features Strongman on the acoustic guitar. He notes with some irony that many are regarding the album as among his strongest work.
“This album is certainly being received that way — it was a bit of a departure for me. A lot of people know me predominantly as an electric guitar player. But one of the reasons that I wanted to do an acoustic-based album was that I have a love for acoustic music, and I always have. I usually showcase this at my live shows, and I typically get a strong reaction when I pull out an acoustic guitar — so it seemed like it was a natural time to do something like this.”
The decision obviously paid off for him, although Strongman admits it’s a formula he isn’t planning on revisiting any time soon.
“That’s the question that everyone is asking,” says Strongman about going acoustic on a full-time basis, “but for my next record I’d really like to go back to doing some electric stuff — I’m interested in that right now. I don’t want to put any limitations on myself right now, especially now that I’m in writing mode for the next record, so I’ll let the songs dictate what direction that will go in.
“But it won’t be a straight-up acoustic album — it’ll definitely be more of a blend of the two sounds.”
While Strongman is still riding high from his wins at the Maple Blues Awards, he’s also focused on road-testing his new material on the road.
“My writing style, especially on A Natural Fact, is based a lot on personal experience, either on what I’m seeing at home or while traveling. That being said, I’m really excited to get back to Saskatoon — I haven’t been out there as much as I like, but the response has always been overwhelming. People across Canada have such a love of music, and when I get to the Prairies I’m always so happy to be there.” /Chris Morin
The Saturday afternoon blues jam at Bud’s has produced an inordinate amount of young musical talent in this city — like one of the youngest bands to showcase at this year’s Bluesfest, Apollo Cruz.
With members ranging in age from 15 to 21, the trio has been earning their stripes while being fostered by the more experienced players in town.
“We’re definitely the youngest of the blues bands in town,” says bass player Brandon Ziola. “Superficially, I suppose it’s a good thing because it means we’re getting a head start, as well as our age setting us apart. [Some] people are skeptical of our ability because of our age, but when they see us perform, I think we clear up all doubts.
“The only detriment of our age right now is that it restricts some of our touring opportunities, but all that means is that we get to hone and perfect our songs and stage show here in Saskatchewan before hitting the road.”
Guitarist and singer Nick Longpre met drummer Aiden Currie a couple of years ago at the Saskatoon Blues Society’s Blues Camp, eventually forming a four-piece with some other dudes. The unit was weaned into a tight trio when they met and convinced guitarist Ziola to switch to bass. They started knocking out some insanely funky jams that mash classic blues into other elements, creating a sound that’s both modern and timeless (you can get a preview at apollocruz.bandcamp.com).
“Our blues draw strongly from the blues traditions and the greats that we love to listen to,” says Ziola, “but it also includes elements of rock, funk, country, reggae and soul music.”
Though it’s an understatement to say that music of any kind is best experienced live, this obvious truth even more true with the blues.
“Blues music is absolutely wonderful to see live because it’s such a personal form of expression, and yet it’s collaborative and constantly changing,” says Ziola. “At the heart of the blues is this idea of ‘telling your story’ — using your voice or your instrument to leave a personal mark on that particular piece of music in that moment in time.
“When someone takes a blues solo and is really themselves, it’s an amazing thing to watch. In addition, the interaction between musicians can be magical. On a good night, everyone pushes everyone else just a little bit harder and the results will be spectacular. Blues is fun! It’s joyous, and what better live show can you ask for where the performers are clearly having the time of their lives?”
Apollo Cruz takes these things to heart in their own live show. The Saskatoon blues scene doesn’t really produce players that like to phone it in, and it’s a testament to the band that even though they’re young, they’ve already learned to use that energy to their advantage.
“[We have] a blast on stage,” says Ziola, “and we think it shows. Our live shows are enthusiastic, energetic and entertaining. We always try our utmost to put on the best show we possibly can, and we’d like to think that the audience can feel our passion and excitement. Dancing, laughing, and grinning ear to ear are all part of an Apollo Cruz show, and that goes for both the audience and us!”
Beyond all the talent and the wicked tunes, there was one thing that struck me when I first heard about Apollo Cruz — they have one of the coolest names I’ve ever heard. I had visions of a Roman guitar god (or maybe I was just thinking of Carl Weathers from the Rockymovies), but their name actually has a family connection.
“Apollo Cruz comes from Nick’s maternal family,” says Ziola. “Apollo is a common name in that family, and Nick’s grandfather, whose full name is Ignacio Jose Marco Barretto, was supposed to have the matrilineal surname ‘Cruz’ added to his name, but never did. Taking these stories and the rich family history, Nick came up with ‘Apollo Cruz,’ and it’s been the name of the band in one form or another from the beginning.” /Craig Silliphant