ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON AUG. 5, 2009
By Steve Newton
It’s a tad surreal visiting the Commodore Ballroom in the light of day, with no one around but the coming night’s performers and a handful of staffers. I’ve seen countless shows here since my first, KISS, in ’76, but the historic venue seems totally foreign without the welcoming roar of a juiced-up crowd.
Memories of fave Commodore shows come flooding back as I take a seat near the stage, where local singer-guitarist Rich Hope and his drummer “the Cleethorpes Crasher” (also known as Vancouver journalist Adrian Mack) work through a 20-minute sound check. When Hope cranks up his vintage Paul amp to deliver a raunchy blues lick, it recalls killer gigs here by the likes of Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan.
In the wake of Hope’s reverb-laden fretwork, famed SRV protégé Kenny Wayne Shepherd strolls across the fabled dance floor playing catch with a bottle of water. The blond Stratmeister is the main attraction tonight, but as opener Hope points out, he’s “gonna make him work for it”.
After running through several rowdy numbers while an ultra-patient techie gets the sound levels balanced, Hope pulls up a chair to discuss his brand-new album, Rich Hope Is Gonna Whip It on Ya. But before we get into the actual music—which he describes as more focused and “sonically refined” than on his previous CD, 2005’s Rich Hope and His Evil Doers—I want the lowdown on this cool dude’s physical appearance.
With his tattooed limbs, pompadoured hair, and rail-thin frame encased in a white wife-beater, his look is reminiscent of a certain Long Island rockabilly trio that tore up this joint back in ’83 or so.
“I loved the Stray Cats,” Hope explains, as predicted. “I got beat up at school for that a few times. I remember wearing my Stray Cats T-shirt at Hillcrest Junior High in Edmonton, and that was the era of every kid wearing Ozzy and Iron Maiden shirts. A couple of them were like, ”˜You fag!’ and I was like [in a nerdy, high-pitched voice], ”˜Shut up!’ ”
Besides possessing a risky fondness for Brian Setzer and company, Hope grew up with a passion for the rough ’n’ ready style of his musical hero, the Clash’s Joe Strummer. “When I heard Give ’Em Enough Rope for the first time, it just did something to me,” he says. But the music he’s currently immersed in owes less to ’50s revivalists and politicized punks than to North Mississippi hill country bluesmen like Fred McDowell, who gets name-checked—along with the likes of Jimmy Reed, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding—on the raucous track “Let’s Jump Around Some”.
Turns out those are the artists who get him and his toddler son, Waylon—whose outlaw-inspired name is tattooed over Hope’s heart—leapin’ around their living room.
“I wrote that song the day we recorded it,” he says. “I just suddenly got an idea to write about the records I love. I feel like those guys are good-time entertainment—you go to a show and there won’t be a lot of tears. And that’s how Crasher and I feel right now. We go to play a gig, and we want it to be like a Bo Diddley show or something. I’ve got lots of sad songs, but I don’t feel like playin’ them anymore. Or not right now, anyway.”
The furthest Hope gets from raw, butt-shakin’ boogie on Whip It is with the gospel-tinged “When My Light Comes Shining”. He originally tried recording it with three female singers, but they’d never worked together before and couldn’t combine for the sound Hope had in mind. It wasn’t until he googled “Vancouver gospel trio” that he discovered the ideal accompaniment.
“The first guys that popped up were the Sojourners,” he recalls, referring to vocalists Marcus Mosely, Will Sanders, and Ron Small. “So I looked at them and then I realized, ”˜Oh, they played with Jim Byrnes.’ I listened to their stuff, and I was like, ”˜Wow, that’s fantastic!’ ”
Whether he’s searching out a particular gospel vibe or laying down the type of dirty juke-joint blues that Hound Dog Taylor would hike a mile for, Hope delivers everything on Whip It with a truckload of soul. He’s an inspired choice to open this weekend’s Burnaby Blues & Roots Festival, sharing the stage with legendary headliner Smokey Robinson.
“That we’re on the same bill as Smokey is just crazy,” Hope raves. “I can’t say enough about that gig. And I’m a huge fan of [neo-soul stylist] Sharon Jones too, so it’s gonna be excellent.”