Jeff Healey defends the bluesiness of new album Feel This

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 13, 1993

By Steve Newton

Usually when I picture the Jeff Healey Band in concert, I visualize Healey seated at centre stage, his guitar on his lap, surrounded only by a couple of guys with curly black hair (drummer Tom Stephen and bassist Joe Rockman). But when the Toronto blues-rocker plays the Commodore on Monday (May 17), there’ll be a whole new configuration to his group. With the addition of keyboardist Washington Savage and vocalists Mischke Butler and Tuku Matthews, the group has doubled in size to a six-piece.

“We had wanted a keyboard player for years,” explains Healey, on the line from his Toronto abode. “We just never found the right person. And the vocal idea came when we decided that we wanted to have some vocalists for the MuchMusic Intimate and Interactive [a live, Unplugged-style broadcast]. It worked out well enough that we decided to keep the idea going.”

The expanded band should be a treat for Vancouver’s numerous Healey fans, who have followed the 27-year-old string-bender since his early performances at the Yale and his eye-opening Expo 86 showcase at the 86 Street Music Hall. Healey’s currently touring to support a third album, Feel This, on which the initial blues leanings of his See the Light debut take a back seat to more mainstream rock and pop stylings.

Or so it seems, anyway.

“Which is your opinion,” Healey counters. “Then there’s some that say that we’re actually going towards it as opposed to [the second album] Hell to Pay. I think everyone has an opinion on it, but at least they acknowledge the fact that it’s different, which is all that we expect to be acknowledged. I mean, if it wasn’t different, there wouldn’t be any point in putting it out, you know what I mean?

“I mean, it has a straight-ahead blues on it,” he adds. “See the Light really only had one or two. And I think that somewhere along the line, people got blues in their head off of one or two songs, and that stuck. So when you get an album like this that definitively shows where the band is at—at least, this year—and its eclectic nature, then it tends to shake people up a little bit for some reason.”

If there’s one track on Feel This that is liable to shake people up—or just plain turn them off—then it’s probably “If You Can’t Feel Anything Else”, an unlikely attempt at a rap/funk/rock synthesis.

“I enjoy anything that’s done well,” Healey says, when asked if he’s a rap fan. “You know, I don’t have any recognizable musical preferences; if it’s something that’s done very well and it’s done convincingly, then it deserves to be understood and appreciated.”

Although it remains to be seen whether Healey’s personal CD collection is heavily stocked with the latest well-done rap hits, it’s a widely-known fact that Healey has been collecting vintage jazz and blues 78s and albums since his pre-teen days, amassing more than 14,000 discs. His passion for early jazz has seen him moonlighting as a cornet player in a Toronto trad-jazz ensemble and has even landed him his own radio show, CBC AM’s My Kind of Jazz. So why doesn’t he incorporate more of his jazz leanings into his own recorded music?

“Well, I improvise all the time,” he says, “which is jazz. You put volume to it and all of a sudden people consider it rock ’n’ roll, so…you try and figure out people’s perception. I mean, improvisation is improvisation.”

Even though Healey’s musical outlook might not be easy to pin down—especially when you’re sparring with him over the phone—it’s fairly obvious that one of his commercial strengths lies in the ballad department. He struck it big in the past with the pretty “Angel Eyes” and recently garnered steady airplay for “Lost in Your Eyes”, a Tom Petty tune that Healey just happened to get in the mail from Petty’s publishing company.

Even with the radio-friendly Petty song, though, Feel This still has a way to go before it matches the sales figures of the first two releases, which altogether have sold 3.5 million units worldwide. The income from the previous recordings has allowed the Jeff Healey Band to expand its own record and management company and build its own private production facility, Forte Sound Studios. Healey, the businessman, looks at the big picture when it comes to today’s music-industry economics.

“I think that everybody is feeling the pinch in the recession,” he says. “I mean, we’re lucky to be selling records and to be able to go out and work. There are a lot of people who don’t have that luxury at this point.”

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