I first met Canadian blues great Big Dave McLean with his wife sitting at a picnic table behind stage at Winnipeg’s first BBQ & Blues Festival in mid-August. He was there early as I arrived around 5 and he wasn’t on until last, taking the honor of closing the Festival at 9.
Since I didn’t know Dave, I asked him who he was; someone else piped up before he did, and said, “That’s Dave McLean,” as if I should have known and what an idiot I was for not recognizing him. Fair enough…I was in Winnipeg, Dave’s home town.
It was the man’s hood and so its reasonable that anyone from the area would know Dave, known as one of Canada’s top blues musicians.
I arrived in a bright red Oldsmobile convertible thanks to the Winnipeg Tourism team and was graciously greeted by the show organizer and marketing maestro Rick and Jody who led me to tented area where I would accidentally meet Dave, even before the stage crew.
The man is so down-to-earth and gregarious that you’re caught off guard by how curious and talkative he is, particularly before going on stage as the closing act.
I’ve hung out with a lot of musicians over the years, and while truth be told, most of them are pretty laid back and authentic, so few are as present as David is when you meet him. He’s local to the area and this could be a big part of it as the Manitoban hospitality and friendliness is contageous.
Hours later, as we were all waiting for him to come off the stage after his encore number, I noticed three cold beers waiting on the table and I said to the man who brought them, “there are four of them coming off stage,” and he said, “Dave doesn’t drink.”
A musician sans alcohol could be another reason why he’s so present. Then, there’s the fact that he has spent a career performing in and around countless small towns that dot the Canadian prairies, making him one of the most personable musicians you’ll encounter on your life journey, that is if you have the good fortune to meet him someday.
Like Jim Byrnes, who was on immediately before him, Dave is loaded with stories of the blues scene from the 1960s, where he reflects on time spent with his two biggest idols and role models: John Hammond Jr. and Muddy Waters, in that order. It is said that Dave credits them for teaching him, above all else, to be courteous in the music business. When I asked him about that later in the evening, he laughed as he told me Muddy Waters’ commitment to being soave and sharp on and off stage. Huh? Then I learned what he meant.
Muddy said to him, “you better wear sharp clothes and sharp shoes on stage. You look sharp and you’ll play sharp and people will treat you better.” He was once talking to Muddy who was wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the time and he asked him, “Where’s ya get that shirt Muddy?” and Muddy replied: “In Hawaii of course. If I want Italian shoes, I’ll go to Italy to get them, if I want a German coat, I’ll go to Germany for it.” Dave’s eyes gleamed as he told me what he said to him at the time: “I wanna travel like you Muddy.”
As he told me the story, I looked down at his shoes and said, “lemme see your shoes Dave,” and he raised his feet and said, “these are pretty sharp aren’t they?” It was too dark to see what brand he was wearing but yes, they were pretty damn sharp.
Dave has been fortunate to perform with Muddy three times: 1977, 1980 and 1982. He wrote Muddy Waters for President, and as the story goes, Muddy wanted to record the song with him. Unfortunately, Muddy passed in 1983 so they never got an opportunity to record it together, so Dave recorded it on his own in 1989. He also toured with Pine Top Perkins, Muddy’s piano player, who he referred to as the ‘best blues piano player in the world.’
Dave has been playing for forty years and like most musicians, there’s always a turning point for when they decide to move music from a hobby to a way of life and John Hammond was that turning point for him. It was in a Toronto bar where Hammond was playing when he was on his way to the washroom, he recalls. “I heard a sound I had never heard before and it stopped me dead in my tracks.” He had one of those moments where you know you’ve come home.
Later that night, he asked Hammond to show him how to play Man by Bo Diddley and he said of his memory of the night, “When I heard that, I knew it was keys to the city.” It was that experience at age 17 and getting introduced to “slide” from Robert Johnson that put fire in his belly. Hooked on “that sound,” he says that his heart is in the Mississippi Delta blues.
I asked him how acceptance of blues has changed in various parts of the world over the course of his career. “It depends where you go,” he said. “I’ve played in some pretty rough bars, have seen people get killed but that was early days.” He recalled one gig where he was booked for a hard core country town, and had to perform to a crowd that didn’t even like the blues. He smiled as he talked about how he managed to get the audience on his side.
Dave said to the disapproving eyes before him: “there’s a song that Hank Williams taught Muddy Waters,” and for the first time that night, his band finally received an applause. The lesson was not unlike something Jim Byrnes shared with me earlier the same night: “when you make it seem like its their idea, and get your ego out of it, things just work.” Haven’t we all learned that along the way?
What was your best memory on stage and who were you performing to? I asked, which I realized was a tough question for a musician since it could play favoritism to one city over another and when you have fans around the world, choosing one experience over another could be the equivalent of publicly announcing your favorite child in the music world.
He has performed to as many as 30,000 people but says he prefers the smaller more intimate crowds, including those in his own backyard. Since it was a Sunday night that he was the closing act for, the crowd was a little smaller than it was on Saturday night but that thought wasn’t even on his radar.
Dave said, “this is the first blues festival that Winnipeg has had and its exciting to see a big blues event come to Winnipeg,” where btw, he performs every Sunday night. “It is such an honor for me to perform at their first ever event, hitting the ground running,” he added as I reminded him that next year could double in size since the event’s popularity is likely to grow. After all, Jimmy Vaughan performed on Saturday night and they had 10,000 people pass through their doors over the weekend, which is an impressive size for a festival first in a new city.
He gave a major kudos to harmonica player Rusty Reid who jammed with him and the band earlier that night, calling him one of Canada’s finest harmonica players. There was no doubt in my mind that this was true as I watched Rusty stir the audience as they shouted and whistled during his solo.
As I stood in the back, charismatic Rusty left the stage before the set had finished in his faded jeans and bandana around his head. I gave him a high five as he exited and he smiled as he said, “Man, I didn’t know I was going to sweat.”
I laughed thinking and saying, “are you kidding man? You rocked the show with energy and passion that was intoxicating.” Authentic and talented, its no wonder that Dave asked him to perform by his side. Rusty used to own a House of Blues in Edmonton where Dave has played in the past.
It’s a small, small world and I was filled with gratitude for the opportunity to be hanging out with a handful of North America’s finest blues musicians on a warm August night north of my own border. A moment in time…not to be forgotten.
As Dave sang his final two songs, his raspy yet powerful voice drew me into his magical world, and inside that world, I danced, sang and floated all night long.
Figuring that he’d be beat and want to head home after his gig rather than doing an interview with me, he said “Nah, of course, we can chat, happy to talk to you. Let me just get some water.” As the sweat poured off his brow from a smashing performance that the Winnipeg audience loved, we talked in the dark on the same picnic table where I met him hours before. While his music is world class, it should equally be noted that his warm Manitoba personality is too.
Below is a video of him performing Muddy Blues for President at a Saturday Night Blues studio at CBC Edmonton with Jim Guiboche, Rusty Reed and Fred LeRose.