As a musical genre, blues faces a hyper-competitive international market, and is under-heard at home, so the international progress of our local artists should be celebrated exploits.
“It’s not surprising,” says singer-songwriter Dawn Tyler Watson, who’s just returned from the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise, where she rubbed elbows with Buddy Guy and Taj Mahal, to name just a couple of the headliners. “Our vision of blues in Québec is popular. The way we play it, the style, the authenticity, the repertoire. I’m asked to play regularly.”
Watson demonstrated her versatility in her former eclectic duo with guitarist and singer Paul Deslauriers; they gave concerts in Russia, Australia, Morocco, Brazil, and all over Europe. It shows, as well, in her current role as a big-band singer in Ben Racine’s group, which is perfect for her. Only three months after undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery, she won top honours at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) in Memphis in 2017. She came out on top among 200 contestants. No wonder bookers and festivals are all over her since then.
“Artists who sing the blues in French can forget about developing their careers abroad,” says Brian Slack, a programmer, and Watson’s manager since 1997. “I have a hard time booking them even in Québec! International programmers are afraid of French blues. I’m very attuned to what others are doing,” he says, referring to festivals in Canada, the U.S. and overseas. “We need to create momentum, it’s super-important. Keep them in the loop continually. A blues artist, no matter where they’re from, has to release a well-produced album every other year. We pick the events. There are plenty of singers out there!”
The Montréal Blues Society’s role in the thriving career of many Québec artists shouldn’t be underestimated. Go-between, catalyst, source of information: this non-profit undertaking makes good use of social media, like everybody else. It’s they who send Québec artists to the IBC, as a pre-requisite for entry to the contest: all contestants must be sponsored by their local blues society.
Another can’t-miss event is the Canadian Blues Summit, held every other year in Toronto, serving as the Canadian Music Week or Bourse Rideau of the Canadian blues scene. It’s an undeniable career accelerator.
Steve Hill – Québec blues patriarch, winner of the 2015 Blues Album of the Year JUNO Award, and a plethora of Maple Blues Awards – has been criss-crossing Europe for the past two years, both as a solo act, and with British legends Wishbone Ash, playing 1,000- to 2,000-seater venues. “Everything I make here, I re-invest in those European tours,” he says. “Tour expenses, my technician, etc. I lose money when I tour Europe, but blues is a business where you need to be seen. It’s an investment.”
His European press kit is to die for. Major British outlets like1 Classic Rock Magazine rave about the bluesman’s solo performances. Same goes in Germany, where rock and blues are highly appreciated: the press loves him. This summer, Hill will open for Joe Bonamassa on the German leg of his tour, and play in front of audiences of 10,000-plus.
Hill also took up another daunting challenge on Feb. 16, 2018: the Electric Candlelight Concerto, a 20-minute piece, in five movements, that he played alongside The Montréal Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Kent Nagano, during an atypical Concert in the Dark at Montréal’s Maison Symphonique. In doing so, Hill entered the hallowed halls of classical music, an exploit that would have been unimaginable 20, even 10 years ago. Could his development abroad also benefit from this type of visibility? “The next morning, I was having breakfast with maestro Nagano at the Ritz,” says Hill. “There are discussions about playing this piece elsewhere in the world with other symphonic orchestras.” Hill, who does three or four Canadian tours each year, for at least the last five years, also benefits from SODEC subsidies.
Montréaler Michael Jerome Browne is a traditional blues specialist. His records on the Borealis imprint are a delight for purists and delta blues aficionados. Alongside the renowned Eric Bibb, Browne has travelled to all corners of North America. He hasn’t had a manager for the past decade and yet, next April, he’s booked for a series of 15 concerts in the U.K.
Jordan Officer has three albums of refined guitar stylings, and his new one is due in June of 2018. Even though he was awarded with a CALQ creation subsidy in New York City in 2013, he prefers camper-van pilgrimages with his family to the American South as a way to create contacts. Plus, year in and year out, a French booker steadily books him for 10 gigs. “It’s possible to develop anywhere, even outside existing networks,” says Officer.
Angel Forrest has been active in Canada for 30 years, and she, too, will release a new album soon: the live recording Electric Love. Just as her Québec brethren, Forrest also hires a European booker. In a few days, English audiences in Sheffield, Bristol and Glasgow, to name but a few, will have their first contact with the raspy-voiced singer. Then, she’s headed to Omaha, Kansas City and Minneapolis, in August. “It’s word-of-mouth in action,” she says. “And that necessarily requires concerts.” Forrest stays away from re-visiting blues classics, and presents audiences with her own folk and rock-tinged songs. She was one of eight finalists at the IBC in January 2018. “I was surprised,” admits the Anglo-Quebecer, “because my music is quite outside the box, and less conventional.” She won Female Singer of the Year at the 2018 Maple Blues Awards, yet she admits that “winning trophies is nice, but they don’t bring anything concrete.”
Guitarist Paul Deslauriers just signer a deal with renowned blues booker Intrepid Artist. His agenda now includes several concerts in Florida, including the Daytona Blues Fest, Omaha, Las Vegas, and a long list of other shows. Winner of four Maple Blues Awards this year, The Paul Deslauriers Band is in great demand all over Canada. He and his bandmates finished in second place in Memphis in 2016, and the sailing has been smooth ever since. “We’re no longer just a band from Montréal, for American bookers,” says Deslauriers. “The only way to build your audience is to play in front of people as often as possible.”
Ironically, the Eastern Townships’ Mike Goudreau is probably the one artist who’s the most popular in the U.S. and worldwide, yet he hasn’t played a single show in those territories. With 19 albums in the bag, TV programs and films are crazy about his music. Since 2007, we’ve heard his blues guitar composition in more than 100 American productions, such as NCIS (CBS), Gotham (Fox), and Hung (HBO), to name just a few. Even the 2016 European leg of the Forever Gentlemen tour, and 40 shows in Eastern Europe accompanying Garou, have nothing on his American success – proof that Québec’s blues has a little je-ne-sais-quoi that audiences everywhere love, even in the birthplace of that music.
Clearly, to paraphrase Dawn Tyler Watson it’s all about the way we play it: the style, the authenticity, the repertoire, and – no doubt – simply because these artists are so talented.