Big Dave McLean treasures message from Muddy Waters

PREVIEW

What: Big Dave McLean (opening act Blue Moon Marquee)
Where: Upstairs Lounge, Oak Bay Recreation Centre
When: Friday, 7:30 p.m. (doors 6 p.m.)
Tickets: $20 advance, $25 door (250-595-7946 or beaconridgeproductions.com; Ivy’s Bookshop, 2188 Oak Bay Ave.; Oak Bay Recreation Centre)

 

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Big Dave McLean still has the signed note Muddy Waters gave him in 1977.

The framed slip of paper hangs in a place of honour in the living room of McLean’s Winnipeg home. This week, McLean read it over the phone.

“It says: ‘Dear Dave, thank you very much for your fine warmup set and for playing the blues. Yours truly, Muddy Waters.’ ”

For 64-year-old McLean, who was struggling to establish himself as a musician 40 years ago, Waters’ gesture was a tremendous boost. Back then, McLean worked by day as a dishwasher and car jockey.

“It was the thrill of a lifetime,” he said. “I was quite emotional about the whole thing.”

As any music fan knows, Waters, who died in 1983, was the towering titan of the Chicago blues. McLean, a gravel-voiced singer and guitarist, is no slouch himself. While far from a household name, he’s an influential figure, once described by Colin James as one of Canada’s “great undiscovered bluesmen.”

McLean was in his early 20s when he opened for Waters in 1977 at Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall. After the show, Waters invited the aspiring blues musician to his dressing room for chinwagging and cocktails.

“Oh yeah, man, I spent half the night telling him jokes. We were tipping a few drinks here and there, with his band. I got to know [his bandmate, pianist] Pinetop Perkins really well. I actually ended up backing him a few times in Winnipeg.”

McLean performs a solo show Friday night at Oak Bay’s Upstairs Lounge. His set of acoustic blues will feature original tunes, as well as songs by such musical heroes as Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and Slim Harpo.

Last October, McLean released the album Better the Devil You Know, a mixture of blues, country and southern gospel. He said he won’t play much of this material in Victoria, as the disc was recorded with a full band — a sound he’s unable to replicate on his own.

McLean grew up in Moose Jaw. His father was a Presbyterian minister, his mother a concert pianist who once played for Princess Margaret. McLean recalls hearing classical music rehearsals in the family home as a child. “There’d be some opera singer in the living room, tuning up. It’d be like nails on a blackboard to a seven-year-old,” he said with a laugh.

His earliest musical performances were as half of a jug-band duo in the 1960s, covering tunes by the likes of Jim Kweskin and Gus Cannon. McLean’s first gig was at a church in Winnipeg’s rough-and-tumble north end.

“They gave us five bucks each. I went: ‘My God, they’ve giving us money? This is great.’ ”

Inspired by his brother’s record collection, McLean’s interests shifted to blues from folk. He started to learn to play the guitar after seeing John P. Hammond perform at Toronto’s Mariposa Folk Festival in 1969. McLean was impressed by Hammond’s passionate performance. Afterward, spying the blues singer under a tree, the teen approached him. McLean carried a $5 Kent guitar he’d brought along to impress girls, even though he didn’t know how to play it.

Hammond gave him an impromptu lesson, tuning the guitar to an open chord so it could be played by pressing a single finger over the fretboard. He taught him a rudimentary version of Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man. And after that, McLean was hooked.

“I was blown away. I came home and played that for the next six months,” he said.

So why did McLean choose blues as opposed to jazz, pop or rock?

“It’s the people’s music, man. It’s the heart and soul. It’s the core music of almost everything, outside of European classical. Anyone who’s rockin’ the AC/DC or the Guns N’ Roses, you know what, you wouldn’t even have that without the blues.”

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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