Donnie Walsh thinks a hat might make a difference.
“Something that will help the band fit in … or stand out,” says the veteran Canadian bluesman by way of explaining the title of the new Downchild album, I Need A Hat.
It’s a joke, of course. Downchild doesn’t need a hat, or a ticket, a tag, a bag, a niche, or a flashing neon sign.
Forty years on, Downchild remains a blues force, true to itself and without equal.
For just about every waking moment of the four decades since he formed the Downchild Blues Band – Canada’s best known and best loved blues outfit – Walsh has been living the dream that changed his life back in the early 1960s, when someone dropped a Jimmy Reed album onto the turntable at his girlfriend’s 16th birthday party in suburban North Toronto.
It’s a moment Walsh – he also answers to his “given” name, Mr. Downchild, taken from a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II – says he will never forget.
“That was it. I was hooked. I never wanted to play anything else.”
He drove his girlfriend crazy learning Reed’s lip-splitting harmonica technique, then James Cotton’s. He locked himself away from the world while he picked apart Muddy Waters’ and Albert King’s guitar licks, reconstructing them in his own inimitable style on a beat-up electric guitar. And when he did venture out, it was to one of Toronto’s legendary blues dives to catch his heroes Luther Allison, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, all of them regular visitors in those days to Walsh’s hometown, Canada’s blues capital.
Walsh was a good student. He is recognized around the world as both a blues harp virtuoso with few equals, and an unusually expressive guitarist.
He wasn’t the only one, of course. They say Toronto’s built on the blues, but all across Canada the blues, particularly jump-style and Chicago blues that used to blast across the border from radio stations in northern U.S., is a basic, shared language.
Singer Chuck Jackson, tenor sax player Pat Carey, drummer Mike Fitzpatrick, bassist Gary Kendall, and pianist/organist Michael Fonfara – Walsh’s compadres in Downchild for the past decade and a half, and, he says, the “best musicians I’ve ever played with” – were soaking up the blues in their teenage years as well, in different parts of the country.
Their shared dedication has served them well. And with the release of their 16th album, I Need A Hat, October 6th, 2009, on the Canadian independent label Linus Entertainment, Donnie Walsh and his buddies are celebrating their collective longevity big time.
Comprising a new batch of Walsh originals – edgier, darker, more caustically humorous than ever before – I Need A Hat boasts a cluster of stellar guests. Dan Aykroyd – a long-time friend and admirer of Downchild – on harmonica, second-generation Canadian blues-rocker Colin James and Nashville-based Canadian roots music veteran Colin Linden on guitars, and Stax Records legend Wayne Jackson of the Memphis Horns on trumpet, all make muscular and eloquent contributions to the album, which Walsh produced over five days earlier this year in Toronto’s famed Metalworks Studios.
“It’s not really producing,” says Walsh, a self-deprecating homegrown star – when he’s not on the road, he’s fishing his favourite pickerel hole at his secret lake in northern Ontario – and a ribald raconteur with a lacerating dry wit.
“We’ve been together long enough to know just how everything fits, every groove, every note, every piece of punctuation. It’s not as if we have to go looking for hooks – they just happen. That’s one of the great things about a band that’s been together for as long as we have. It just gets better and better.”
“I get a buzz doing the final mix, tweaking the nuances, the little elements I know are in there, hiding somewhere. Those little bits are like pure gold to me. I love shining them up.”
“And it was really exciting this time to have so many great guests adding their own parts.”
During the past 40 years and against all odds, Walsh and his band mates have won countless music industry awards, including a Juno (Canada’s Grammy) for “Best Roots and Traditional Album” in 1991. They also received a Juno Award nomination in 2005 for “Blues Album of The Year” for their album “Come On In.” In 2007 Downchild was named “Entertainer of The Year” at the annual Maple Blues Awards (the Canadian equivalent of a W.C. Handy Award).
With more than 80 great musicians on the payroll during its long life, Downchild is a robust road beast, having racked up thousands of performances at concert halls, fairgrounds, saloons and roadhouses in every corner of the continent.
The inspiration for Aykroyd’s and the late John Belushi’s fabulous creation, The Blues Brothers – they recorded Downchild’s “Shotgun Blues” and Walsh’s “(I Got Everything I Need) Almost”, the latter shortlisted as one of Canada’s Essential Songs in a survey conducted by the Toronto Star in 2007 – Downchild is an institution in their homeland, and revered by blues fans around the world.
America’s National Public Radio service pays regular tribute, featuring Downchild in concert specials and blues programs.
For years a favourite on the North American festival circuit, the band made its first concert appearance in Europe in 2008, at the Lille Blues Festival in France, returning in 2009 for the Tobakken Blues Festival in Esjberg, Denmark. More trips to Europe, where Downchild’s reputation is almost mythical, are in the works.
Apart from its earliest incarnations, with Donnie’s brother, the late “Hock” Walsh as singer, Downchild was always more than a bar band. A party band, sure – good times guaranteed, just as it says on one of Downchild’s album titles.
But musicianship of the highest order, sharp arrangements, strict adherence to its legitimate sources, slick pacing and a steely fix on the moods of its audiences, have always set Downchild apart. This has been a class act for the better part of its 40-year life.
Drummer Mike Fitzpatrick credits the quality and individual character of the songs Walsh and singer Chuck Jackson – he contributed “Down in the Delta” and “I’ve Gotta Leave” to I Need A Hat – have brought to the band.
“The songwriting is exceptional,” he says. “There’s always some unexpected slant to the story in each song, or a line that cuts straight to the bone.”
Bassist Gary Kendall hears something old and something new each time he listens to I Need A Hat.
“The more I play it, the more I get it,” he says. “This is vintage Downchild – straight up blues, no frills, no R&B, nothing slick. But Donnie’s doing something new with his lyrics, commenting on what’s happening in the world, reaching out to people who’ve lost their jobs and are facing hard times. That’s different. His songs are usually much more personal.”
About the reasons for Downchild’s success, Walsh is succinct and unequivocal.
“First, it’s knowing your audience, and knowing when to give them what they want,” he says. “If they want to dance, you step up the groove. If they want to watch, you give them lots of solos.”
“As for keeping a band together for as long as Downchild has been around, it’s an unspoken thing, finding a balance between what I need and what I know each musician can give. Every member of this band is well equipped to do what each of us wants and needs. Downchild has always been bigger than the sum of its parts, and I can’t really explain why. “
“But I do know that after 40 years doing this, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. The hard parts are easier. I’m writing songs all the time – and better songs – which surprises me. I get to experience new things all the time, and see new places.”
“And I get to make my own records. I will never sell enough of them to put me out of work … but that’s probably a good thing.”
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