Harpdog Brown: Real Name, Real Life, Real Blues

by Carey Rutherford

Harpdog’s latests collection of bluesters perform like veterans on For Love And Money. Image by Mark Maryanovich.

When Harpdog Brown answers his phone in Vancouver, a month before he arrives on tour here at Calgary’s Ironwood Stage and Grill, he declares, “You’re a minute early!” And then laughs when I offer to call back 60 seconds later. So begins the storied conversation with this 35 year veteran of Canada’s blues scene.

“I would have joined a circus when I was 16, but I didn’t have the courage,” Harpdog mentions, as we discuss the crazy juggling of horn players, pianists, bassists (and himself) that he keeps in the air while shipping people from eastern Canada, the U.S., and locally for this upcoming tour. His newest release, For Love & Money, comes out on April 26, uses several of the bandmates who will be here with him in calgary, and consists largely of people with half his musical tenure playing Chicago and New Orleans-styled blues. Not that they sound inexperienced we assure you.

In fact, Mr. Brown mentions that the album’s tracks were each recorded live in the studio, which certainly bodes well for their appearance here on April 20th, as they’re full of bluesy life and technique and even some jazzy bits.

The Ironwood is one of my favourite places to play,” Harpdog mentions, which is saying something given the length and breadth of his musical career. We therefore confirm that Harpdog has, of course, played in Calgary’s King Edward Hotel many times back in its heyday, between the 70’s and 90’s, pointing out that in the 80’s it was usually a 6-night gig. That kind of a workload took its toll on our blues landmark, however.

“I remember playing the Eddy back in the 90’s when we stayed upstairs, in what eventually became quarantined due to mold and asbestos… .go figure, huh?!” (laughs again)

Yes, we remember its hospitalization and recovery!Now that the King Edward Hotel is cleaned, moved and reopened, the irony that this blues lifer will be playing elsewhere is not lost on either of us. Harpdog mentions, on the album and on the phone, that while he’s played in bars, concert halls and toilets, and would do it again, he’s trying to avoid staying in places like the latter: he’ll have to try the new King Eddy on his next tour through.

“Now , I pretty well run my own circus,” he tells us, informing his tour management to set up the shows and he’ll get the people he needs there. Which in Calgary’s case includes, amongst other things, a piano and Hammond B, a couple of horns from the album, and his tray of 15-20 harmonicas, which keep him and the other band members working it onstage.

MUSICAlive! asks Harpdog about the apparent style change which his promotional material mentions, describing his earlier music styles as being more guitar heavy. And he agrees, remembering both a quartet and trio he’s worked with in the past decade, guitars and drums and him. But, Harpdog also stresses that the blues aren’t just about instrumentation. “The blues is the message and the music is the vehicle,” Harpdog points out, launching into a discussion of ‘truth’ and it’s centrality to what he calls the blues: there’s an honesty to the blues that prevents its purveyors from pretending life is all rainbows and sunshine. Its called the blues for a reason, after all!

“Blues is someone reporting on life as they see it, and I’d say right now the new world blues of the people would be rap and hip hop.. . of course I’m talkin’ about the fellas speaking truth, not Hollywood bullshit!

Along this line, we ask about “Sasha’s Lullaby” on his new album, which generally follows classic jazz/blues stylings, but throws a discordant “I’m Fine!” into this final track.

“You know when your significant other tells you they’re fine, but you know there is no such thing is fine!” We laugh As we discuss the fact that people just aren’t that simple, and how the blues generally makes fun of people pretending . . . well, anything!

Harpdog waxes a little bit philosophic when discussing the meeting place between his music and his (and others’) life, noting “For Love & Money: that’s what it’s all about, and in that order. After all, without love, money is pretty well useless!” And he’s not just spouting high-minded metaphors here.

Shortly after the hour-long interview ended, MUSICAlive! discovered our entire recording of the conversation had disappeared! And Harpdog graciously helped us put quotes and ideas from out talk back together, a demonstration that the humanity and empathy sounded out in blues music in general is part of the life he lives.

“What ever I do, I try to make sure its always mutually beneficial to everyone involved.”

As his promo material states, “When asked about Harpdog’s new material, (album) producer Steve Dawson remarked ‘this is totally unique material. Where he’s drawing from is this era of 40s & 50s jump blues mixed with some Chicago meets NOLA and the harp stuff is reminiscent of 50s Sonny Boy era blues’.”

We’re especially looking forward to the Dixie-style 4-part break in “One Step Forward, Three Steps Back” (one of the album’s originals) which is a great demonstration of the diversity of his travelling troupe. Burn the house down, Harpdog!

For Love & Money Canadian Tour Dates

Apr 5: Irene’s Pub, Ottawa ON;
Apr 6: Upstairs Jazz Bar & Grill, Montreal QC;
Apr 11: The Old Church, Trenton ON;
Apr 12: The Dakota Tavern, Toronto ON;
Apr 13: Corktown Pub, Hamilton ON;
 Apr 16: Port Arthur Legion, Thunder Bay ON;
Apr 17: Times Change(d) High & Lonesome Club, Winnipeg MB;
Apr 19: Station on Jasper, Edmonton AB;
Apr 20: Ironwood Stage & Grill, Calgary AB