For Immediate Release
With many more major names yet to be released, Roots & Blues announces the first three of the 2013 line-up: 2013 Maple Blues Award Nominees – The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, Boogie Woogie Piano Man – Ben Waters, and Appalachia’s Real Deal - Malcolm Holcombe.
The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer
‘With a name like the Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Vancouver-based duo is some sort of concept group, based on a hypothetical love story between Captain Ahab and Lizzie Borden.’-- Chris Oke, Yukon News
In fact, The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer is more like a sweaty fling between a sack full of harmonicas, a mess of foot percussion, and a very greasy Telecaster. Shawn Hall and Matthew Rogers say they’re making blues for a changing world, but a fan put it even better: this is ‘blues that gets you in the crotch.’
It’s also blues that gets rear-ends on the dance floor, while earning praise for its ‘decades-deep blues style’ (Scott Brown, What’s up Yukon). Combining the raw swagger of bands like The Black Keys and The White Stripes with a deep love for the roots of the genre, HAM reminds us that this kind of music was always supposed to talk to our nether regions. And if a lot of the blues made today seems a little limp, HAM finds its answer in the innovation that was at the heart of greats like Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell and Muddy Waters. The duo has played festivals all over Western Canada, including The Beaumont Blues Fest, The Powell River Blues Festival, and The Gastown Blues and Chili Festival. Along the way, they’ve shared the stage with some of the world’s finest blues acts, including Jim Byrnes, Dick Dale, and MonkeyJunk.
You’re not supposed to pull this off with only two people, but early on, Hall and Rogers made the choice to limit their sound to whatever they could play between them, using only their mouths, hands and feet. Shawn Hall provides soul-tinged vocals and distinctly dirty blues harp, while Matthew Rogers simultaneously pours out throbbing drum grooves and guitar licks with the kind of coordination that usually spells ‘novelty act.' For HAM, the multi-limb workout is key to a sound that has to be earned: at a typical live show, it takes a matter of minutes for the pair to be drenched in sweat. HAM uses no programming, no pre-recording, and no looping. They could flash these kinds of tricks very easily; both Hall and Rogers work as studio engineers and producers, and between them they’ve amassed dozens of production credits on some of Vancouver’s best roots projects, including C.R. Avery, Mark Berube, The Fugitives, Sarah Macdougall and Dirty Bottom. Their willingness to get dirty pays off in the connection they have on stage: with only two people sharing all of the duties, the groove between rhythm section and vocalist is unquestionable.
Like any good romance or fling, the component parts of HAM weren’t always on an arrow-straight path towards each other. When Shawn Hall was a twelve-year-old living in Toronto, his grandmother gave him a harmonica and a book called, Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless. At the same age, but on the other side of the country, Matthew Rogers was falling in love with the guitar, spellbound by a counselor at his summer camp who could play ‘Under the Bridge.’ Their meeting wasn’t exactly promising, either. They met at a studio session for a radio jingle, recorded for a hole-in-the wall joint called ‘Jamaican Pizza Jerk.’ In between takes, the two bonded over the music they’d grown up on, eventually naming their new project for an odd moment in a classic tune. In Kris Kristofferson’s version of ‘Bobby Mcgee,’ Kristofferson sings, ‘I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana.’ The ‘harpoon’ is the blues harp, making Shawn Hall ‘the harpoonist,’ while Matthew Rogers plays the ‘axe’ (aka the guitar), to become the ‘axe murderer.’ The ‘death metal’ ring to their name may lose HAM some gigs at senior’s homes and community halls, but the band has made their peace with that. They are currently planning a Spring\Summer 2012 tour in support of their new album, Checkered Past. True to form, it finds HAM addressing classic blues themes like heartbreak, addiction, and lay-offs, and aiming it all straight at your crotch.
‘The Harpoonist& the Axe Murderer add a fresh take to the roots music genre via contemporary lyrics and arrangements, but maintain traditional structures and emotion. A welcome addition to the Canadian blues and roots music scene.’-- Holger Peterson, CBC Saturday Night Blues
The Harpoonist & the Axe Murderer
Roll With the Punches
Live at the Shed
From the age of 14 when he discovered, virtually overnight, that he could play piano, Ben Waters’ life has been centered around his music. The first boogie woogie he ever heard was Meade Lux Lewis’s classic “Honky Tonk Train”. He heard it once and played it back note for note. It was apparent from that day that Ben possessed a phenomenal talent.
From a very ordinary home, Ben found pursuing his musical dreams an uphill struggle. School pianos were locked away from him because he wasn’t playing classical music. The same school now cites him as a star pupil! Music grandees tried to persuade him to go along the pop or jazz route to no avail. One well known entrepreneur said he could guarantee chart success if he played more middle of the road schmooze. Applying for a grant from a Trust he was literally laughed out of a classroom when, along with other applicants, he was asked where he envisaged his market place. When he replied “The World” the lecturer mocked him in front of everyone and said he should stick to Dorset! Since then he has toured extensively all over the world.
Almost 20 years have passed since those days and these detractors have had to eat their words. Following the advice of an inspired music tutor at Weymouth College (Dr Rick Birley), he “went professional” from the age of 17 without having the convention of a musical training. As the great Dr John once said when asked if he had had such training he replied “Not enough to cause any harm”!
He has had a baptism of fire, playing in every venue imaginable – clubs, arts centres, theatres and festivals all over the world from the Lorelei Rock (no mermaids in sight!) to the bottom of a huge whisky vat in Hampshire. Working for and with such names as Jools Holland; Shakin’ Stevens; Ray Davies, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, he has also toured extensively all over the world with Chris Jagger, on one occasion performing at the St Louis Mardi Gras and appearing on the Late Night Show in New York with an estimated audience of 30.000,000! The largest live audience has to be when working for Shakin’ Stevens at the Donnauinselfest on the Danube when they played before an audience of 200,000.
Ben is privileged to have alongside him in his own band a group of hand-picked musicians who are stars in their own right: Ady Milward on drums(who has chart-topped with other groups); Chris Rand and Adam Davey on sax and Richard Hymas on bass. Amazingly, Tom, Ben’s 12 year old son joins the band on sax occasionally, playing like a seasoned pro (He’s already recorded with the Stones!)
In Richard Hymas, Ben has found a musical soul-mate. For the last two years they have composed some of the most original and ground-breaking material that has been heard for years. Ben’s natural rocking exuberance combined with Richard’s sensitive (and admittedly sometimes controversial) lyrics have given a new slant to the boogie genre.
The last few years have brought him real world wide recognition. He is truly a musician’s musician working with the Rolling Stones and touring with the great Charlie Watts in the ABC&D of Boogie Woogie, culminating in the launch on 28 June 2012 of their new CD THE ABC&D OF BOOGIE WOOGIE LIVE IN PARIS at the Lincoln Center in New York followed by several gigs at Les Paul’s Iridium Club on Broadway.
His Boogie4Stu album was launched the previous year on 9th March in London’s West End at the Ambassador’s Theatre in memory of family friend and co-founder (with Brian Jones) of the Rolling Stones, Ian Stewart (“Stu”). Stu was well loved by the Stones but a new Manager (Andrew Loog Oldham) considered him “too straight” for the lineup and he was never seen on stage with them, although he played boogie woogie piano on many of their legendary numbers and generally looked after them until his untimely death at the age of 47 in 1986. Stu was best friend of Ben’s aunt and uncle, Eva and Ray Harvey, who are PJ Harvey’s parents. Ben decided to do a solo tribute album to Stu 25 years after his death. He was working with Charlie Watts at the time and when he found out about the album, offered to play drums. To cut a long story short, one by one, all the Stones gradually came on board the album because they loved Stu so much. Polly (PJ Harvey) also does a number (Lonely Avenue) in memory of Stu as he was such a well loved family friend. Ben’s good friend and mentor, Jools Holland, as well as playing on the album, donated immensely valuable studio time at his state of the art studio in London.
The icing on the cake came when Sir Peter Blake, who created the art work on the Sgt Pepper album of the Beatles, offered to paint the album cover. He also donated the first £10,000 of print sales of the cover to the British Heart Foundation, which along with Ben’s advance and donations from the Eagle Rock record company, has raised many thousands of pounds for the BHF.
The album has topped blues and rock ‘n roll charts worldwide and the vinyl version has become a rare collector’s piece and is acknowledged as part of rock ‘n roll history. Ben will be performing music from Boogie4Stu as well as rock ‘n roll, boogie woogie, blues and ground-breaking original numbers when he returns to the 21st annual Roots & Blues Festival, August 16-18, 2013.
Ben Waters - Boogie 4 Stu Teaser
Boogie Woogie : Axel Zwingenberger, Ben Waters, Charlie Watts, Dave Green on Later with Jools Holland
Malcolm Holcombe’s new album Down the River, his ninth, is born from that bed of contradictions we all lie in. There are songs here such as “Twisted Arms” and “Whitewash Job” that sizzle with anger at a society that seems intent on losing its way and running over its poor and disenfranchised. These are coupled with songs from a softer, more generous perspective such as “The Crossing” and “In Your Mercy,” written in the voice of an old woman who sees “All I worked for/…sold and surely gone,” but who trusts that “many years will tell the truth.” There is truth embedded in these songs the way quartz is embedded in the steep driveways and black dirt of Malcolm Holcombe’s western North Carolina.
The multiple perspectives of these songs speak of the man who wrote them. Malcolm Holcombe takes the stage in the same clothes he wore driving to the gig, and his soft voice, rasped from years of smoking and singing to be heard in honky tonks, rises to a howl as he frails his guitar with furious precision. He stomps, growls, rolls his eyes as he plays, then between songs cuts the tension with a corny joke. A veteran of Nashville who has little good to say about the music industry—“a bunch of people trying to buy their way to fame”—he has won the praise of such artists as Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams as he works and tours from his home in western North Carolina. A once-legendary drinker and hell raiser, Malcolm is now many years sober and embraces a gentle if non-specific spirituality.
Down the River is just the most recent step in a journey that began in western North Carolina in 1955. The youngest of four children, Malcolm was fascinated by the guitar early, an interest he fed watching TV in his parents’ living room. “If it had a guitar in it, I’d watch it,” he has said. After high school and a brief stint in college, Malcolm played for a while with a trio called Redwing, then in a duet with Sam Milner. Eventually he found his way to Nashville where he established a local reputation and signed with Geffen Records.
In 1996, in one of those twists of logic only understood in the music business, Geffen signed Malcolm and paid to record his major label debut A Hundred Lies. The album was pressed, promotional copies were sent, and the album, a stunning, low-key masterpiece, was never released. In the wake of that fiasco, Malcolm made his way back to Asheville, North Carolina. A Hundred Lies was eventually released on a much smaller label and garnered some attention, including a four star review in Rolling Stone, and Malcolm began booking his own shows. There are stories from this time of drinking, drugs and wild behavior, but like most in recovery, Malcolm would rather let the past stay in the past. “It’s miracle to be here every day,” he offers. “I’m just glad to be able to drive on my side of the road.”
Newly married and sober, Malcolm released a series of independent records, then signed with a couple of small labels. Down the River is Malcolm’s first independent release in several years (the album will be distributed by Proper Music) and reunites Malcolm with Ray Kennedy, who produced earlier efforts like Gamblin’ House and For the Mission Baby. This album also boasts more recognizable guests than most of Malcolm’s earlier records. Emmylou Harris lends background vocals to “In Your Mercy,” and Malcolm duets with Steve Earle on “Trail of Money.” Darrell Scott plays dobro, banjo and electric guitar, and former Uncle Tupelo and Wilco member Ken Coomer handles drums. “I wanted to shoot for Mars,” Malcolm says of the high-powered lineup on this record. “Luckily, Ray knew some Martians.”
But the core of each cut is Holcombe’s voice, which can growl like a cement truck in low gear or mellow into a heart-tugging croon, and his guitar playing. Malcolm plays with his bare fingers and his percussive attack makes it easy to overlook the precision with which he plays. “I always forget what a good guitar player he is,” said an audience member after a recent Malcolm Holcombe show. “You think he’s just beating on it, but then you realize he’s fingerpicking really fast and not missing a note.” There is an intensity in Malcolm Holcombe’s performances that can put off those used to a more laid back product, but those who have watched him know that Malcolm Holcombe is not just playing for gas money. This is who he is and what he does.
This circles back to the righteous fury I spoke of in this new batch of songs. “I don’t claim a thing/ Not a two-bit clue/ But I heard somebody whisper/ War kills the truth,” he sings/ hollers on the album’s first cut “Butcher in Town.” Later, on “Twisted Arms,” he spits, “Fair and square/ Looks good on paper.” This arises from Holcombe’s view of present day society. “The subject is unavoidable,” he says about the political content of the songs. “There’s just an appalling amount of injustice and greed everywhere you turn.”
But it is not all storm and fury here. The pace is leavened by gentler songs such as “The Crossing” and “The Door,” a song from Holcombe’s back catalog. One song that will undoubtedly garner a good deal of attention is Malcolm’s duet with Steve Earle on “Trail of Money,” the album’s penultimate cut and one of the album’s highlights. But the album’s real masterpiece is the title cut and the final song on the album. Here the anger of earlier songs gives way to acceptance that understands the world has changed and not necessarily for the better. “They make the laws/ to suit themselves/ the ones that buy and sell the rest/ of us down the river,” Holcombe sings. But down the river is not as bad as it seems: “Down the river/ we pray for one another…we hold on to our dream.”
The acts of writing songs and playing music have always been hopeful ones, however the bleak the subject matter of the songs might be. With Down the River, Malcolm Holcombe has once again given us a handful of songs that are testimony to the human spirit. In these songs, the old truths still hold. Love, the inner life, music, these are eternal verities and will outlast the trickery and chicanery of those who would turn us against each other. In these strange and troubled times, we need Holcombe ’s witness as much as we ever have, and it is our good fortune to receive it.
Al Maginnes writing for Malcolm Holcombe’s EPK
Down in the Woods
One Leg at a Time