Having been in the biz for more than 30 years, Harpdog Brown has shared the stage with such greats as Matt ‘Guitar’ Murphy, Pinetop Perkins, The Powder Blues Band, Jack de Keyzer and the late Dutch Mason to name a few.
He also won Harmonica Player of the Year from the Toronto Blues Society and their Maple Blues Awards last year and in 2014.
These days, Brown’s on the road again in support of his superb new release, Travelin’ With the Blues and local fans can check out the results firsthand at Wild Bill’s on Oct. 8th starting at 9 p.m. Advance tickets are $10 online and $15 at the door.
Recording on the latest project took place in California, and utilized equipment from earlier eras – what would have been cutting edge in the mid-50s in some cases – to help capture that sizzling early electric Chicago blues sound.
“When someone asks me how’s it going, I say uphill – both ways,” he laughs during a recent chat from Canmore. The guys had just arrived there from a nighttime drive through B.C. and a smashing show in Vancouver.
“I’ve put over 100,000 kilometres on that van in less than two years,” he explains. “It’s different than it used to be. A six-week tour was six locations and about five tanks of gas. Now a six-week tour is 29 locations and 20,000 kilometres,” he added with a laugh. “And a lot of tanks of gas.”
Not that he’s complaining.
If anything, Brown was born for life on the road – he’s at home as he travels and loves nothing more than delving into a fresh set of live shows.
As for the latest project, Brown calls it his best work.
“The future excites me. This is really the start to the future. All the other stuff was good, but this is another level altogether,” he says. “There were lots of obstacles but we overcame them all. We didn’t really have a whole lot planned other than to roll with the punches and fly by the edge of the seat,” he explains of the CD’s production.
Producer Little Victor worked with him on the tracks and the results are indeed stellar, and really match the genre to perfection. Tracks were also recorded ‘live off the floor’ capturing the spirit and energy of the tunes – just like bands did it back in the ’50s, as mentioned. Brown also didn’t have any headphones or monitors, and he just used the old routine of cupping his hand around his ear to hear himself.
“It’s old school recording so basically you take a bunch of ‘takes’ and then you pick the one that is, overall, the best performance,” he explains. “This is also the first time that I actually had a producer (Little Victor). So it was nice to just kind of be in the back end and then put in my two cents when needed.”
He also didn’t have the luxury of overdubbing a range of elements.
“Every time I go into a studio, I come out with more knowledge of how to save time and be more effective as well,” he said. “But really, there is nothing like allowing the art to hop along or not. Either it sticks, or it doesn’t.
As he explained, with the rock and roll world of multi-tracking and over-dubbing – a given project can become like a patchwork quilt with a kind of bland multi-layered effect.
“That to me isn’t the blues,” he said.
Indeed – glitzy over-production tends to often drain much of the life and vitality right out of a project. Thus the refreshing zip of ‘live off the floor’ where maybe even the odd imperfection can be heard. Suits the genre just fine, thanks very much. “It’s more about capturing a moment.”
Brown’s last CD, 2014’s What It Is – was placed at number 20 by Roots Music Report in their worldwide Top Blues Albums that same year.
Meanwhile, as to Little Victor’s chops as a producer, Brown couldn’t be more pleased.
“This guy knows how to get that original roots sound, even in a digital world,” he said, adding the CD was cut at Bigtone Records, a studio in San Jose run by one of the hottest rising blues artists in the U.S., Big Jon Atkinson.
They also spent time recording a couple of tunes at Greaseland Records – the dreamchild of Christopher ‘Kid’ Andersen (Charlie Musselwhite, Rick Estrin).
“We were very fortunate to have some of the best blues artists in the Bay area to join the three of us,” he added.
Overall, Brown and his band were in the Golden state for just shy of two weeks for the recording process, which took place this past spring.
Originally from Edmonton, Brown can indeed be described as a gifted singer and an imaginative harp player who brings traditional blues into the 21st century.
Back in 1995 his Home is Where The Harp Is won the coveted Muddy Award for the Best North West Blues release, from the Cascade Blues Association in Portland.
As to his early days, he started playing instruments before he even really knew what they were. As a youngster, his mom would plunk him down with a lap steel guitar and he would come up with all kinds of stuff. In his late teens he landed his first gig as a guitarist with a singer. Next up he joined a rock band which further solidified his love for touring.
Ultimately, Brown pretty much feels at home wherever he finds himself. It’s a good trait to have, as he’s committed to touring and relishes the realities of life on the road.
“It’s a good healthy distraction if I do say so myself,” he said of his shows, which sizzle with vibrancy.
“For people to forget about their stuff for a little while.”
Check out www.harpdogbrown.com.