Thursday, August 05, 2004

Dale Boyle and the Barburners Interview

I have come a long way in the past few days. I've crossed rivers and scaled mountains, camped in farmer's fields and bathed in streams, hitchhiked hundreds of kilometers past villages named St-this or Ste-that, and my feet are the unwilling victims of this great journey; I have blisters on my soles the size of guitar picks.

I wouldn't even consider attempting such a voyage if I wasn't hungering for the blues, like a wolf might howl at the moon because he can't eat it. I want to hear the whiskey-accented growls and the dark, twisted solos squealing out of a Fender strat while a harmonica wheezes and coughs over a fat bass line. I plan to listen to blues music and drink beer on the sandy beach until my wallet is empty or Sunday afternoon, whichever comes first. Yes, it is time for Maximum Blues, the best damned music festival east of Montreal.

Maximum Blues in Carleton

For the past twelve summers, Gaspesians and tourists alike have waited for the ghost of Robert Johnson to inhabit the sky over Carleton, a cozy village on the south shore of the Gaspe Coast, at the Maximum Blues Music Festival. Gaspesie is the fist-shaped peninsula that hovers above New Brunswick menacingly, separated by the ironically-frigid waters of the Baie de Chaleur [Ed. Note: From the French, translates into "Warm Bay"] and it also happens to be a wonderful place to drink a two-four.

The blues has been around since before the electric guitar but it is constantly reinvented by the kids who grow up listening to it. By the time they're old enough to understand the blues, the seed has already been planted in their mind for years. As long as there is still heartbreak, as long as women have long legs and men have lusty thoughts, as long as bottles can be emptied and tea can be burned, the blues will remain as ornery and vital as ever.

Dale Boyle and the Barburners are no kids but they do represent the new wave of modern blues acts. Born and raised on the tip of the Gaspe coast in a little town called Barachois, they have built a solid following by burning down bars all along the peninsula (not as arsonists but as true blues musicians). Their style is bold and slightly dissonant, like if you caught Muddy Waters in bed with his woman and he started to pound out a blues riff as revenge. They do for the blues what Steve Earle did for country back in the 80's, giving it a high-octane overhaul and making it new again.

2/3 of Barburners with Muddy Water's guitarist John Primer
Left to Right: Dale and Rick with John Primer, Muddy Waters' guitarist, in Carleton, Quebec.

Since their song "Travellin' Bone" appeared on the Maximum Blues compilation in 2000, their sound has expanded and their legend has grown a head taller. They've played in blues bars around Montreal and Toronto, including a well-received appearance at Healey's in 2002 (the club owned by Jeff Healey, one of the bright lights on the Canadian Blues scene) at the North by Northeast Festival. Appearances like this one caught the eye of producer Dan Levitin (Chris Isaak, Blue Öyster Cult, K.D. Lang), who worked with the Barburners on their latest LP "A Dog Day for the Purists". As of press time, the release date hadn't been announced yet but I'll keep you posted.

Last month, I spoke with Dale Boyle (guitar and vox) and Richard Element (bass and back-up vox) via email. [Ed. Note: Tragically, I was working as a security guard 60 hours a week in July, so my publishing schedule was limping along like a three legged fox. My apologies for the delay.].

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Jeremy Brendan: How has living in the Gaspesie affected you, musically?

Dale: Well, hints of country always seem to emerge in my playing and music, and that just comes naturally, and that is the Gaspe influence coming through. It also makes an impact on the subject matter of certain songs, like "Feels Like Home" or "Justice Precluded Coffin" (the story of Wilbert Coffin)... these are grounded in the small town Gaspe experience.

Richard: There aren't a whole lot of things to do for teens in such small towns, and music just made the world a bigger place in many ways... well, for me anyway. We're big country music fans, but I have to qualify that, as we listen to the kinda country that would never get played on CMT or the like. You have to qualify which type of country music today, 'cause there's a whole lot of horrible country music being made these days. I think when you grow up that close to the land, it shapes a part of you and it surfaces at different times.

JB: What advice would you have for other Gaspesian bands that are trying to make it right now, putting in those hours at the Brise-Bise like you once did?

Dale: Don't bother! Don't do it! Seriously, don't bother! Take up painting! Write poetry! But, if you're going give music a shot, be ready to do a ton of work that is only distantly related to writing and playing music...performing is the reward, and if you get anywhere, it will be well earned because there is an incredible amount of unpleasant work to do to establish oneself.

Richard: I agree! One should never expect anything more than small steps... small steps toward a larger goal. And remember to take something from every experience.

JB: Dale, on the song "Alpine Valley Blues", you seem to be channeling Jimi Hendrix's spirit through the mouth of an Appalaichan Micmac soothsayer.

Dale: OK. If you say so...

JB: Are you a fan of Jimi?

Dale: Sure... More so when I was younger. I haven't listened to Jimi in a while actually... though, St.Mary's Last Waltz intentionally has a Hendrix vibe.

JB: Which other artists have influenced you creatively? (In 2002, you mentioned Elvis Presley, Steve Earle and Stevie Ray Vaughan...any new ones?)

Dale: Oh, you've done some homework! Stevie Ray Vaughan's aggressiveness and intensity as a guitarist influenced and inspired me, but, for the most part, with the exception of a couple of songs like "Alpine Valley Blues" and "When I Leave", his influence is not so apparent stylistically. Often, the artists that have inspired me, have not impacted on me in an overt way. I draw inspiration from artists as divergent as The Ramones to Tom T. Hall, yet it may not be easy to detect. For example, Tom T.Hall is a country artist who is known for being a "storyteller", and storytelling is something that I've taken from him and have been adding a bit into our live performances. My influences are from all over the place... Steve Earle is worth mentioning again. Scotty Moore. Albert Lee. Bob Dylan. Hound Dog Taylor. The Ventures... I could list a lot of people... My most recent discovery is Mike Henderson. He's an excellent vocalist and guitarist.

JB: Have you been writing any songs recently?

Dale: Yes, though mostly material for my solo acoustic album.

Richard: I write things often, but more words than music. I like to play with words and metaphor. I sorta do it like some people sketch. It's always a way to slip away... it's a healthy reflector of where and who you are.

JB: At your future shows, are you going to focus on the new album or will you continue to play a few classic blues standards as well?

Dale: Yep. Material from the album will provide the basis of our shows, and we'll toss in a few well-known blues tunes, though some, like "When I Get Drunk" and "Night Train", are not standards.

JB: How did the recording session for "A Dog Day for the Purists" go?

Dale: It was LONG! Not the sessions themselves, but the time between sessions... it's a LONG story!

Richard: It was a learning experience, but a road that we hope not to travel again. It was real bumpy.

JB: Any wild tales to recount?

Dale: Wild tales...yep! To recount...NO! Well, not yet! Lets just say that aspects of this recording may inspire articles or you may find it being the subject of a chapter in some book. I'm NOT kidding!

JB: Also, what was it like working with Dan Levitin?

Dale: Dan is a great guy and we work well together. He's a musician so he understands where I'm coming from, so he strikes a good balance between working to have the musicians happy, yet, knowing when to say it's time to move on. He's helped us a lot.

Richard: Dan is excellent... with great stories too boot. He has made several generous offers of time and ideas and I'm not sure we can repay him. How much we getting for this interview?

JB: The Canadian Federal election is only weeks away. [Ed. Note: This question was time-specific. At the time, we were on the verge of electing a *gasp* Conservative majority! Luckily, cooler heads prevailed!] Are you planning to vote, and have the Barburners officially endorsed a political party?

Dale: Well, I endorse nobody that has a chance to win... anything left of right.

Richard: I endorse the concept of trying something different.

JB: What was it like meeting Jeff Healey when you performed at his Toronto blues club? (North By Northeast Festival, 2002) My mother and her best friend once got invited onto Jeff's tour bus for a glass of Whiskey, back in the 90's. They were very impressed by his politeness and got his autograph on their ticket stubs. (True story!)

Dale: Jeff Healey? He's quite tall. . .What's your mother doing hanging out with musicians in a tour bus? Don't answer that!

JB: Speaking of whiskey, have you ever tried Johnny Walker Red? It is a charming elixir of goodness but it really kills me after a certain point.

Dale: No, I rarely drink anymore.

Richard: Keith Richards suggested quitting dark liquor; I consider him a resonant expert.

JB: Do the Barburners still indulge in the pleasures of alcohol from time to time?

Dale: I believe the Barburners do indulge...

Richard: Actually, I'm the only drinker in the band and not much of one at that. Keeps the bar tabs low.

JB: Do you miss the Gaspé Coast? Will you ever move back to your home by the sea or do you think you'll stay in the city indefinately?

Dale: At times I do. But, I'll probably spent most of my life in some city writing songs about how much it sucks!

Richard: I have been missing the Coast these days actually, but it's the trees that I miss the most. I think we need to find a better balance of people and trees. I think it would make us all better people.

JB: How do you like living in Montreal? What do you think of the local nightlife and do you have any favourite hangouts?

Dale: Montreal is cool. I practically know nothing about the nightlife... I'm getting old! I like to sleep at night. I don't "hang out". If there is a good band playing in some bar, I'll go out. I don't go out too much.

JB: When you played at the Toronto Blues Society Talent Search Finals at Silver Dollar Room, did it go over well?

Dale: It went really well. Only a few Quebec bands have ever been in that talent search so we were happy to be selected to compete.

Richard: We had a good time. It's a classic Toronto blues club and the sound was great.

JB: Was the Talent Search like a Blues version of Canadian Idol, with judges sitting behind a table watching and nodding occasionally?

Dale: A little less formal than Canadian idol! But, there were 4 judges taking notes.

Richard: Yeah! This little trend, well? This big trend, just gave us an opportunity to take our music to T.O.

JB: You had a main stage performance at Maximum Blues in Carleton last year, which was full to the gills and very well received. Will you be
headlining this summer's festival?

Dale: We've got 2 shows on different stages this year. It will be a great chance to push the new album.

Richard: We really appreciate the funded trips to the Gaspe. The Carleton people really take great care of musicians. How do they treat journalists?

JB: If I could get my hands on a press pass, I would be able to tell you! I may just put this Lexmark colour printer to good use...forget I said that. Good luck with your show on Friday night and I'll see you in Carleton!

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Dale Boyle & the Barburners will be playing on the main stage (Loto-Québec Stage) on Friday, August 6th @ 6:30 PM. They will also perform on Saturday afternoon @ 3:30 PM on the new campground stage. Heads will be bobbing, beer will be consumed, and real blues music will be heard. The thrill ain't gone, B.B. King; just listen to the Barburners and you'll find it again. Visit the Barburners official site for audio clips, images, and the latest Barburners news.

After Maximum Blues, you can catch the Barburners in the act at the following locations:

- August 13 & 14: Bar Le St-Barnabe (Carleton, Quebec)
- August 21: Smoke Meat Pete's (Montreal, Quebec)
- August 27 & 28: Haraiki Bar (Montreal, Quebec)