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Stripped-down duo ready to get messy

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Vancouver's blistering blues duo the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer -- Shawn Hall (he's the harpoonist; he plays the harmonica) and Matthew Rogers (he's the axe murderer; he plays the guitar) -- have been touring hard all summer in support of this year's excellent A Real Fine Mess, leaving a trail of scorched earth behind 'em.

"This summer's been straight-up nuts -- even for us," says Hall, 39, over the phone from the West Coast.

It hasn't been all blue skies, however. The band had its first American tour fall apart -- "which is par for the course for a Canadian band" -- and had to come up with a pricey workaround when Air Canada failed to deliver the duo's gear in time for its gig at the Ness Creek Music Festival in northern Saskatchewan. Lost gear is a big deal; their stripped-down setup is made possible through a carefully constructed network of floor percussion. "There's no calling in sick in this business, so we dropped $1,000 at Long & McQuade," Hall says. (Harmonicas, the intimates of the musical instrument world, are not returnable.)

The band is eager to return to Winnipeg to perform at the third annual Winnipeg BBQ & Blues Festival this weekend. Hall and Rogers have had great success at our music festivals; in fact, the germ of A Real Fine Mess was planted at the 2013 Winnipeg Folk Festival. "We did a workshop with Jason Collett and Hayes Carll and we realized, 'Huh. We've got to start upping our game as storytellers,'" Hall recalls. "We were very inspired by those two. I think we're able to deliver on the personal essence of blues music, but we wanted to deepen the art of songwriting within the genre of blues -- which is a challenge because of the economy of words. We were envious of singer/songwriters who could write 13-verse songs."

The duo also ran into Alexa Dirks and Andrina Turenne of Chic Gamine at the festival. Hall had met Dirks at a Folk Alliance International conference in Toronto and had fallen in love with her voice during a late-night jam session in a stairwell.

"We thought, 'You know what would be a dream come true?' To make a record with these vocalists, and bring their consistency and warmth to an album."

The resulting A Real Fine Mess -- a gritty, rough-hewn blues stomper that pays its respects to the likes of Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, yet still sounds firmly rooted in this decade -- makes good on both of those goals. The addition of Dirks' and Turenne's rich, honeyed vocals adds to the record's affecting immediacy; their voices go a long way in fleshing out the duo's songwriting. Turns out they were looking for more voices, not necessarily more words. That said, the record doesn't sound cluttered; the raw-nerve directness that has made the Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer a festival-circuit favourite has been retained.

"I feel like it's really touching people's hearts," Hall says of the new record, which came out in June. "We're under the blanket of blues and soul, but we're connecting generations. We're seeing people bring their parents out to shows; usually it's parents bringing their kids to blues shows."

Hall and Rogers met back in 2002 while Hall was recording a jingle for a Jamaican pizza place in Vancouver. The played together in a variety of bands, but it wasn't until Matt moved to Montreal in 2007 that the idea to strike out as a duo was considered. "He suggested we go back to our roots. For me, that was picking up the harmonica when I was 12; for Matt, it was his parents' record collection," he says. "We realized we didn't have to hide behind these big bands anymore. I didn't think harmonica could hold people's attention, truthfully."

They played exactly one coffee shop before realizing they were too loud, and more than one bar before finding their rhythm and a stage show that worked. Now, they're among the most buzzed-about live acts in Canada.

"It took us years to develop something that wasn't ridiculous," Hall says with a laugh. "The gear feels right -- even if we look like Muppets."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 14, 2014 C7

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