Big Dave McLean
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Mention the blues and chances are that you’ll think of the Mississippi delta and imagine the sound of an acoustic guitar drifting through the hot night breeze over the cotton fields. Or, you might picture a harp player stomping his feet and wailing for all he’s worth over an electric guitar in a sweaty Chicago nightclub. But, you probably wouldn’t think of Winnipeg, Manitoba – right smack in the middle of the Canadian prairies – as a hot bed of blues music. Big Dave McLean, the heart and soul of the Winnipeg music scene, has been singing the blues better than anyone for decades now.
It’s a journey that’s taken him hooting, hollering and testifying through every juke joint and dance hall across the country more times than he can remember. If there’s a blues club in Canada worth its salt, he’s played there. After all, how many other singers had their first guitar lesson from John Hammond and got to open up for Muddy Waters?
If you’re an old fan, there’s no better place to catch up with Big Dave than with ‘Faded But Not Gone’, the seventh and – just maybe – best album of this Juno and Western Canadian Music Award-winner’s long career. Recorded while he was still trying to absorb the deaths of his mother and brother, ‘Faded But Not Gone’ is a vital, deeply heartfelt expression of loss and recovery and McLean’s most personal album to date.
Standing at a personal crossroads with a new set of songs he was burning to record, Big Dave was ready to do something special and stretch out to explore areas he’d never ventured into before. So, the timing couldn't have been better when Steve Dawson, the award-winning roots music producer, called and invited him to head down to Nashville to record at his newly relocated Henhouse Studio. ‘Everything about this project blew my mind – especially Steve Dawson. Spending a week down in Nashville with his family was an amazing experience. I visited an old slave plantation, went to the Grand Ol’ Opry and sat in on Colin Linden’s regular jam session. Later, Colin came by the studio and laid a beautiful slide down on ‘I best Choose to Sing the Blues.’ Everything about that week went into the album and Steve took me out of my comfort zone a few times to get there. I have always been into Delta blues and early Chicago blues, but it was nice to have to step it up and play in a more of a country blues style on songs like ‘Devil in the Jukebox’ and ‘One More Day. Heck, we played a Tampa Red song, ‘Dead Cats on the Line’ and my old friend Colin James came in and played a beautiful mandolin solo. The whole experience touched me deeply.”
As with any Black Hen production, some of the best players in roots music chipped in to create the sound. Big Dave’s gravelly voice, wailing harp and guitar are front and centre, with Dawson supporting on guitar, banjo and pedal steel. The incredible Kevin Mckendree contributes some very tasty organ and piano riffs while the rock solid rhythm section of Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (bass) keep things on an even keel. To ensure the highest level of spontaneity, Big Dave met the musicians at the studio for the first time for a day of rehearsals before diving right into the recording process. Magic was clearly in the air as the ensemble took on six original songs and seven carefully selected covers that showcase Big Dave’s approach to blues music.
‘Faded But Not Gone’ is one of those rare albums where the cover tunes complement the original tracks perfectly. Whether it’s a nuanced take of Tom Waits’ ‘Mr. Seigal’ driven by Dawson’s banjo, or a tasty version of Skip James’ ‘Devil got my Woman’, Big Dave puts heart and soul into each performance to make every song his own. Two of Dave’s original compositions deserve special mention; ‘Shades of Grace’ is a lovely and poignant tribute to Big Dave’s mother who used to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ to him when he was a child. It’s a heartbreaking track that’s made even more beautiful with backup vocals from the amazing Mcrary sisters that’ll send chills up and down your spine. With bare, honest lyrics and stripped down arrangements that leave the singer with nowhere to hide. And “Fallen” is truly the performance of a lifetime. Written as an elegy to his brother who passed away the week before the song was recorded, ‘Fallen’ is truly the work of a master at the very top of his form.
With songs that are true from beginning to end, right down to the bone, ‘Faded But Not Gone’ communicates the essence of the blues. When Big Dave McLean sings, no matter how down and dirty things get, everything’s going to work out right. You’ll have to look long and hard to hear music this real anywhere in 2014.