Getting his licks in At 70, guitarist Big Dave McLean has made playing the blues a lifelong affair
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Big Dave McLean knows there’s no Freedom 55 in the blues.
His 50s have long been in his rear-view mirror. The singer-songwriter and blues guitarist turns 70 today and he’s nowhere near ready to put his guitars in their cases and hang up his harmonica for good.
“The older you are, the more respect you get for being older,” he says with a chuckle.
His fans in Winnipeg will once again give McLean his due this evening at Blue Note Park, when the outdoor lounge and concert venue on Main Street hosts his 70th birthday concert.
While the Juno Award-winning artist and member of the Order of Canada is honoured by the latest recognition of a personal milestone, McLean considers Tuesday night’s concert just another gig in a year when musical veterans and rookies alike struggle to rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic and extended periods away from live audiences.
“I’ve never really given it too much thought; I mean, we all get older,” McLean says. “I don’t think there’s going to be any special celebration going on about my birthday, I’m just happening to be playing at Blue Note Park on my birthday… as far as I know, anyway.”
Singing the blues and turning it into a lifetime affair has worked for blues greats such as Buddy Guy, 86, who still tours and has a new album on the way in the fall, and the late John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, both of whom performed well into their 80s.
Rockers are no different, with Mick Jagger, 79, and Keith Richards, 78, original members of the Rolling Stones, continuing their stage antics in front of massive crowds, and Paul McCartney, 80, and Elton John, 75, following suit.
Two other septuagenarians, Don Henley and Joe Walsh, will lead the Eagles to the Canada Life Centre stage next month.
So McLean’s soldiering on too, but the blues scene in Canada doesn’t match the glitz and glamour of rock legends’ global tours.
“(The blues) certainly had its rewards and it’s been a decent living. It can be very tough sometimes,” McLean says. “Especially when you have little kids and you have to decide whether you’re going to be on the road or at home being dad and a husband.”
“It can be very tough sometimes… Especially when you have little kids and you have to decide whether you’re going to be on the road or at home being dad and a husband.” – Big Dave McLean
McLean’s kids are grown up now, which allows him more freedom to tour. Earlier this month he toured Western Canada, including gigs in Calgary, one on Gabriola Island, one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands, and at the Nanaimo Blues Festival.
He recognizes he’s no kid anymore either, and says pacing himself is key when on tour at festivals, where fans and musicians interact.
“You get conditioned to that sort of thing,” says McLean, who adds that between shows and travel he only got three hours sleep on the final leg of the recent tour. “A lot of people want you to go off and party with them. ‘No, maybe 40 years ago.’ ”
Some of McLean’s shows this month were with a relatively new trio, composed of Calgary blues veterans Kevin Belzner and Tim Williams, called BMW, after their surnames’ initials.
They got together for a jam session at the Edmonton Blues Festival in 2018, and the positive vibe led to them releasing the LP Catfish in late 2019, an album that revs as smoothly as the German sports car brand.
“We had an amazing tour set up for 2020 and then COVID kicked our ass, so we had to put it on hold,” McLean says.
Another facet of McLean’s musical career that keeps going strong are his famous blues jam nights, which have been going on for over 35 years and are touted as the longest running jam night in Western Canada.
They’ve taken place at several Winnipeg hotspots over the years, from the Viscount Gort in St. James to downtown landmarks such as the Hotel Fort Garry, and the Marlborough and Windsor hotels. Legends such as Johnny Winter and Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top have even taken part.
These days, he takes the stage Sunday nights at the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club, and it was there on Sunday where he got the ball rolling with a host of guitar-slingers, keyboard-players and drummers.
No one dominates these impromptu sessions; performers get their 15 minutes or so of local fame and make room for someone else’s version of the blues, with McLean serving as a sort of conductor, pointing to the next artist to join in with others onstage.
“I’m the puppetmaster,” he jokes.
“I usually get so many guys down that I have to get six people on stage at all times just to get through the whole list. I usually have seven or eight guitar players, a couple of harmonica players, maybe a horn player, maybe a keyboard player.
“I put a lot of thought into it, though; for some of the people who are a bit weaker, I’ll get some pros to back them up.”
It was during blues jams in Winnipeg and across the country where McLean became a mentor to many musicians and singers over the years, and the community aspect of the jam sessions were part of the reason why the Order of Canada took notice.
All these sessions across Western Canada have meant that McLean has ready-made bands at cities almost anywhere he goes, he says.
The lessons work both way, though. It was at jam sessions with fellow Winnipegger Gord Kidder where McLean polished up his harmonica skills and where he first traded guitar licks with another blues contemporary, Brent Parkin.
“We go way back on the way-back machine,” McLean says.
At jam nights years ago is where McLean first met a young Billy Joe Green; the award-winning Indigenous guitar master brought his Stratocaster to the Times Change(d) jam in July to turn back the clock with McLean.
“You have to have something to say. I don’t want to make an album just to make an album.” – Big Dave McLean
“He used to play country and folk and all kinds of stuff at the very beginning. I thought he was a skateboarder — he’d come in with his hat on backwards,” McLean remembers. “Billy’s great, through. There’s a guy who stands behind his licks. He’s a brilliant guitarist and he plays with conviction and I admire that about Billy a lot.”
Bassist Gilles Fournier, drummer Joanna Miller, and guitarists Jason Nowicki and Chris Carmichael — who hosts the jam night when McLean’s on the road — will join Big Dave on stage Tuesday night to play blues standards, as well as cuts from McLean’s 11 albums over the years.
“They’re top-notch players and they pretty much go to bat for me all the time,” McLean says.
As for the future, McLean is keen to play concerts across the country before returning to the recording studio.
“You have to have something to say. I don’t want to make an album just to make an album,” he says. “I don’t want to sit down and rhyme a bunch of crap and put it to music. I like to have something to say.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.