Canadian blues-roots great Colin Linden is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet



By Steve Newton

When major-label recording artists do interviews to promote a new release, they usually go on about how it’s the best one they’ve ever made, how making it sapped all the artistic energy their souls could muster—that sort of thing.

Then there’s Colin Linden, who plays the Town Pump on Monday (April 19). The veteran Toronto musician, contacted by phone in Hogtown, is more than happy to talk about people other than himself—Bruce Cockburn, for example, who performed on three tunes from Linden’s new release, South at Eight, North at Nine.

“He’s the greatest,” spouts Linden, who played guitar in Cockburn’s last touring band. “He is a beautiful guy to work with, and I love his music. I mean, for me, playing ‘Waiting for a Miracle’ every night just slayed me. And he’s a great guitar player—he’s so consistently good every night, playing-wise.

“And he’s helped me out so much,” Linden continues. “I mean, he’s very responsible for my record existing, because he was such a supporter of what I did. He was quite a fan of When the Spirit Comes [Linden’s previous record], which is sort of what led me to begin playing with him, so whenever we would play, he was always very good about tellin’ people, ‘Oh, you should check out Colin’s stuff; he’s a songwriter too.’ ”

It’s no wonder that Linden, who’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, has become close friends with fellow good-guys like Cockburn and Vancouver’s Colin James, whose highly anticipated third album might contain some collaborations with Linden.

“He’s written with a lot of people for that album,“ says Linden, “so I don’t know if I’ll get any songs on it. But we came up with some really good songs, and if he doesn’t want ’em, I’ll take ’em!”

When Linden finally gets around to plugging his own record and explaining how he came to record Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Horse Blues”, it only takes a minute before he’s patting someone else on the back, this time a little-known Toronto guitarist by the name of John Thibodeau.

“The year I turned 14, I used to go over to his house every Saturday,” says Linden, who turns 33 this week. “He was in his 20s, and a really accomplished ragtime blues player, and he helped me figure out a lot of the stuff I wanted to learn. So I always wanted to thank him for that, because ‘Black Horse Blues’ is a very—if I say so myself—a very difficult guitar piece to play.”

As well as the Jefferson tune, South at Eight, North at Nine includes such blues gems as Sonny Terry’s “Gonna Get on My Feet After a While” and Linden’s arrangement of the traditional “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”. The record, a mellower, more intimate-sounding affair than 1988’s When the Spirit Comes, was recorded for the small American blues label Deluge, before Sony picked it up for Canadian distribution.

“When we started to do this record, I thought it was basically gonna be a blues album, without hardly any of my own songs on it. But we ended up cutting a lot more of my songs, just because they worked in the environment that we were in, a little quieter thing. So it kind of evolved on its own.”

In a feature story on Linden in a March issue of Billboard, contributor Larry LeBlanc writes that Linden “is now recognized as being the leading practitioner of a Toronto blues guitar style”. But does Linden believe there is such a thing?

“I actually sorta do,” he says. “I mean, I think what I do is definitely rooted in the other guitar players who came from here and who were influenced by both blues and country players—well, really blues, country, rock and roll, and R&B players. I mean the people who I admired so much as a kid are Amos Garrett and David Wilcox, and prior to that, Robbie Robertson. So there’s something about that sound and style that’s unique.”

When Linden plays Vancouver, he’ll be joined by some of Toronto’s top players, including his long-time drummer Gary Craig, bassist John Diamond (Cockburn, k.d. lang), and keyboardist Richard Bell, who has played with Paul Butterfield, Bob Dylan, and Bonnie Raitt, as well as having been Janis Joplin’s musical director on the albums Pearl and Full Tilt Boogie.

“Richard Bell’s a heavy guy,” says Linden, once again extolling someone else’s talents. “If you like the way piano and organ are played, you gotta like Richard Bell. He’s beyond belief. Having him in our group is such a treat.

“And one of the things that all of us like doing is backing other people up, so we’ve asked different people in every city—in some cases friends, in other cases people who we just like and have made contact with specifically for this—to come out and be our guest and sit in for a few songs.”

And who might that guest be in Vancouver? Well, for once Linden doesn’t want to talk about someone else he admires.

“I’m not allowed to say,” he insists. “You don’t want to take advantage of their name. And the realistic possibility is that, you know, if Hollywood calls and somebody’s gotta go, somebody’s gotta go. So I don’t want to disappoint anybody. But suffice to say it should be really fun.”

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