There are bluesmen in Canada. Some damn good ones. Folks like Jim Byrnes, Amos Garrett, and David Wilcox (no relation), have been tearing it up for decades, and relative newcomers like Sue Foley, Colin James and JW-Jones have blazed their own trails to excellence. But through the years, one of the mainstays of Canadian blues has been Big Dave McLean.
Perhaps the only bluesman to ever live in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, McLean moved as a child with his family to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he has remained rooted ever since. He cites a meeting with John Hammond at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in 1969 as one of his inspirations for mastering the guitar. He became a blues road warrior, playing blues harmonica and guitar clubs and festivals for many years. His debut album, Muddy Waters for President, appeared in 1989. He has recorded periodically since then, including Faded But Not Gone in 2014.
Big Dave McLean his lived, and that shines through on his latest album, Better the Devil You Know. McLean has said he didn’t set out to make a theme album, but as the album developed it betrayed his roots as the son of Presbyterian minister. Many of these songs have religious underpinnings, including McLean’s own “Swingin’ on Heaven’s Gate,” “Talk About a Revelation,” and his covers of Blind Willie Johnson’s “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond,” and Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Deliver Me.” There’s also a surprising cover of “Old Time Religion” by Parker Millsap, who at 23 has already established himself as one of America’s most promising roots music songwriters.
This album has lots of great songs with sweet licks and tight musicianship. But its secret may be its production by Steve Dawson, who has established himself as an important force in roots music, from productions of mostly-Canadian roots musicians on his Black Hen label, to his own solo work, including Rattlesnake Cage and Solid States and Loose Ends, two very different albums reviewed here. Dawson, now based in Nashville, also contributed some of his own songs to the album, including the excellent “Angeline” and “The Side of the Road.” Other great songs include McLean’s “Life on the Road” and “Where the Music Comes From,” and a great cover of Johnny Shines’ crusty “Pet Rabbit.”
Joining McLean and Dawson were Gary Craig on drums, Jon Dymond on upright bass, Kevin McKendree on keyboards, Fats Kaplin on fiddle and mandolin, and vocalists Ann and Regina McCrary.