Big Dave McLean’s new album is a big shift from his previous recordings.
Big Dave McLean, Pocket Full of Nothin’ album release
● West End Cultural Centre
● Saturday, Nov. 16, 8 p.m.
● Tickets $25 and $30 at Eventbrite.ca
With Pocket Full of Nothin’, the gravel-voiced Winnipeg musician explores new genres, plays with a horn section for the first time and sings nine original songs.
"There were a lot of firsts," he said of his seventh solo album. "I usually have one or two of my own originals; I’ve been more into doing my own versions of other people’s material."
McLean’s name is synonymous with the Canadian blues scene and he’s spent much of his career putting his own twist on songs by American legends, such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.
"The guys that wrote the book on the blues, we all study from that book," he says. "They inspire me, the songs they’ve written. The blues comes in all shapes and forms... and when I hear their songs, it touches me deeply."
McLean has made it his life’s work to keep the blues alive and well in the Great White North. With an appointment to the Order of Canada announced earlier this year for his contributions to the music industry and for mentoring fellow musicians, it’s safe to say he’s accomplished his goal and then some.
"I’m absolutely thrilled and quite honoured and privileged to represent musicians," McLean says.
"I’m just trying to do my part in keeping the genre flowing, but there’s lots of young people picking it up, so I’m happy to say that the beat goes on."
The decision to record more of his own music on this album was more happenstance than a calculated career move.
His producer, Steve Dawson of the roots label Black Hen Music, asked for some new material and McLean sent over a handful of songs he had been working on. Nine made the final cut for the album.
As a songwriter, McLean draws inspiration from all kinds of places — from the evening news, to casual conversations, to his home on the Prairies.
"I didn’t grow up in Mississippi or Chicago, so I don’t write songs about that," he says, adding he has to be inspired to write. "I don’t just sit down and start writing."
The orginal songs on Pocket Full of Nothin’ were written over the past few years and include hints of country, R&B and folk influences. In true form, the record also includes covers of Midnight Rider by the Allman Brothers, Voodoo Music by J.B. Lenoir and Just To Be With You by Muddy Waters.
The album was recorded over three days in Vancouver with a group of seven musicians assembled by Black Hen.
Asked how he hopes audiences respond to his new music, which is more uptempo than his previous recordings, McLean says, "I try to pick stuff I think people will enjoy, but I’m more selfish than that — I play because I like it and if they want to like it along with me, that’s good."
McLean’s songwriting has struck the right chord with the Toronto Blues Society, which has nominated him for the Maple Blues Awards’ songwriter of the year for Pocket Full of Nothin’. Despite the recognition, he’s not committed to writing more originals in the future.
"I’m going to focus on breathing in and breathing out — I’m getting older now," the 67-year-old says. "I don’t know how many more albums I’m going to be pumping out, but we’ll see."
McLean will be backed by a group of local musicians at his album release event on Saturday at the West End Cultural Centre, where he will play his new record from front to back.
On Sunday, without missing a beat, he’ll head down to the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club to play host for the venue’s weekly jam session — something he’s done nearly every weekend for the past 34 years.
"I’m a professional musician, I’ve got to work, and I enjoy seeing new people come in and perform," he said. "It can be like rolling a boulder up a hill every once in a while, but for the most part, it’s a very enjoyable time."
Eva Wasney reports on arts, culture and life for the Winnipeg Free Press.