Toronto is brimming with artists and local talent. It’s an exciting time to be a musician, but behind the culture of dance and hip-hop infused party music, there lies an old guard of blues-rock guitar players that continue to form an underground brotherhood.
Indeed the music of B.B. King and Muddy Waters floated north from Mississippi and found a nest all around Toronto. The blues empire had a grip on the city, but has since dwindled. Famous rooms that were once the bedrock for these musicians have evaporated in the wake of the digital age.
Culture death, or is it the nature of the beast?
Earl Johnson, a 63-year-old legendary guitarist and founding member of the Canadian hard rock band Moxy, has witnessed the changes first hand. Old school through and through, he stands six feet, still holds a luxurious head of silver hair.
He began his professional career as a teenager, gigged alongside pioneering guitarist Richard Alfred Newell, better known as King Biscuit Boy. Newell snatched Johnson up and toured around Canada and the States, ripping it on stage with the likes of Bob Seger and Mitch Ryder.
“We were doing a lot of old Chicago style and Texas blues, lots of Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy. We covered the whole spectrum at that point,” said Johnson, “I toured with Richard for years, then I was getting the urge to do something creative on my own, outside of the blues, and it seemed like it was either one or the other.”
Johnson then formed Moxy with bandmate Buzz Shearman, a path that would take him to the grand Massey Hall in the late ‘70s, after the success of their record Ridin’ High. They went on to release four albums and eventually broke up. Years later they reformed and Moxy still tours to this day.
At a time when rock rooms thrived in downtown Toronto, Johnson played among McKenna Mendelson Mainline and the Downchild Blues Band at venues long deceased — The Colonial for example — visited by forefathers Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. These clubs started to disappear.
“For a while there were a million little blues places downtown, down around Queen Street. Then everything kind of went south around 2000 from what I can see. I wasn’t active in the blues then, I had a full-time job and kids and all that, so I wasn’t dealing with it. What happened was, a lot of the places disappeared. Most of the blues rooms, if any, are out in Port Credit now. There is very little downtown, almost nothing,” said Johnson.
All hope is not lost.
Axe men still storm the bar circuit, impeccably dressed in pitch black blazers, fingers clad with silver skull jewelry, booze fuelled and tossing dead bottles on stage. Johnson is part of a dual lead guitar act with fellow renowned blues guitarist Frank Cosentino, a soul patch wearing, stocky man who’s been gigging for decades and recently toured Europe. His powerful mixture of orchestral and raw treble sounds can be heard on tracks “Angel’s Wing” and “Thelonius Funk.”
They form the Double Shot Blues Band. Specializing in Texas and Chicago style blues, fusing their expert techniques and challenging each other during shows — staging a sort of friendly musical battle to showcase their ability. Double Shot bring a welcome freshness to a scene oversaturated with one-man acts.
“We’re like two f**king athletes! We push each other on stage musically. There is a mutual respect. I just think he’s brilliant,” said Cosentino, 53, who grew up listening to Johnson. “For years I would be in my bedroom lifting riffs from Earl Johnson’s Moxy records. If you were to tell me 20 years from then I’d be playing with Earl Johnson, I would have told you you’re on f**king crack. It’s like that.”
Johnson says the scene has made him thick-skinned. Making a living in a favour-based business can wear an artist down.
“Blues guys are some of the nastiest people I’ve ever worked with in my life. It’s a tough grind and they’re rough around the edges. At the upper levels, it’s great; you’re playing great gigs at nice rooms. But when you’re at a lower level or trying to get into the middle level, that’s when it’s hellish,” said Johnson.
With rock rooms dying out, independent artists rely on gigging at local bars and smaller niche venues. Most gigs go to part-time “weekend warrior types.” If you were to find a full-time local blues player, they’re probably close to being on welfare. Fighting for scraps.
Everyone is looking for the next teenage guitar prodigy, the next big star. New blood. Often overlooking the guys who’ve been slugging it out for years.
Luckily, there are organizations in and around the city that help preserve blues, jazz and rock culture — most notably the Toronto Blues Society. Formed in 1985, the society has a membership of more than 400 and organizes award shows, talent searches and concerts. They act as the movers and shakers, coordinating events like the Cobalt Showcase — a songwriting competition that received 110 submissions this year — and the Women’s Blues Revue held at Massey Hall.
The TBS began a Blues In The Schools program in 1992, which has managed to fund and place concerts, workshops and intensive sessions in both elementary and secondary schools.
“The Toronto blues scene is hitting above its weight compared to other cities and other communities because the society is stimulating awareness of blues and being proactive to promote music to those who love it and to expand the audience to new areas,” said Derek Andrews, president of the Toronto Blues Society.
Andrews’ says Hugh’s Room on the east side is the place to find live blues guitar, as well as Grossman’s and The Black Swan — who have been promoting the genre for 40 years.
“Blues is sort of the bedrock for rock and pop. When I was growing up, Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton and a number of commercial acts, Stevie Ray Vaughn, they look back to the blues pioneers of the ‘40s and ‘50s. Those artists influenced the shape and sound of music,” said Andrews.
A younger blues revival is taking place. Many young musicians are coming out of local colleges and universities to instant recognition. The 24th Street Wailers, a Juno-nominated band out of Humber College’s jazz program is currently making waves. The band of 20-somethings got their footing with the Toronto Blues Society.
“It’s currently consistent. It’s an older demographic but we’re now seeing a revival amongst younger students. There are more blues musicians coming out of the local colleges and universities,” said Alice Sellwood, manager at the Toronto Blues Society.
The players on the frontlines aren’t sugar coating what it’s like to pick strings for a living in the belly of the beast.
“The blues scene has always been an underground thing. It’s because the people that listen to it are at that age where they want to start seeing a live act again. Feeling the sweat off the band members, live off the stage, it’s always been mostly off the radar. There’s a big market for it but not as big as mainstream music. It’s the nature of this business,” said Cosentino. “They are now starting now to take notice of what I do, they have no choice, because I’m out there making noise.”
Check out a timeline that goes over some notable Canadian blues artists throughout the years.