ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JAN. 23, 1997
In Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Ballad of Curtis Loew”, Ronnie Van Zant sings about a black bluesman with white curly hair who plays Dobro all day in exchange for drinking money. Feeling like a cheapskate, I don’t offer any monetary incentive to curly-haired local blues-rocker Nigel Mack while suggesting he bring his Dobro along when he drops by the Straight office for an interview.
But Mack—who probably gets drinks bought for him anyway—proves more than happy to knock off a couple of freebie tunes, including a version of Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues”. He’s just one of those folks who love to play anyway, anyhow, anywhere. I think that’s great, and my wallet agrees.
A native of Saskatoon, the 34-year-old picker caught the music bug at an early age, mainly from listening to his father’s jazz records by folks like Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and Charlie Parker. When his dad started bringing home discs by B.B. King and the Downchild Blues Band, Mack’s influences took on a bluer tinge, and by the time he was out of high school he was playing in a southern-rock band called Rough Mix, covering Molly Hatchet, the Outlaws, the Allmans, and Skynyrd. After that group broke up he studied visual arts for four years at the University of Saskatchewan.
“I’d be working on painting and I could literally hear the music calling me,” he says, “so I’d find myself spending more and more time playing guitar. Just at the time there was a blues resurgence happening, and I got offered a job hosting Saturday-afternoon jams at this blues bar that opened up in Saskatoon. I was hanging out with cats like Big Dave MacLean from Winnipeg and Eddie Shaw from Chicago, and if you showed an interest these guys would leave you something to pick up on. So I listened a lot and learned a lot, and eventually my focus just came to be playing blues.”
Mack got a band together and played around Saskatoon for about a year, but soon realized that his horizons were limited in the land of the Roughriders. “It’s a nice place,” he says, “but as far as doing a career in the music business, I couldn’t see myself being able to further myself, so it was either go to Toronto or go to Vancouver. And Vancouver’s got some great skiing, so…”
Since setting up shop here in ’88, Mack has earned a fair-sized following for his live shows and a recording career that resulted in last year’s all-original, 12-track CD, High Price to Play. Interested parties can hear selections from that disc when Mack’s quartet—which includes guitarist Tony Dellacroce, drummer Michael Eyers, and ex–Two Trains bassist Gerritt Swart—plays Hippo’s in South Van this weekend (January 24 and 25). (Fellow cheapskates out there should note that there’s no cover charge at Hippo’s, leaving more bucks for brew!)
Although he’s managed to release two albums in the past two years—the other is a cover-heavy collection recorded live at the Yale—Mack admits that it’s a challenge making a living with the blues in Vancouver. “I would say it’s a challenge to make a living playing the blues anywhere,” he stresses, “but if you want to remain around town it’s hard to do—unless you’ve got a house gig or something—because, as we all know, the number of days that clubs hire bands for is getting to be less and less. But I don’t hesitate to go out on the road and go as far as I have to to make it go.”
In the past few months Mack could be found tooling down Highway 61 en route to gigs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Kansas City, Missouri, where he opened for famed blues belter Koko Taylor. He’s made four trips down to the U.S. so far, and he figures he’s put about 500,000 kilometres on his beat-up Chevy van in the process.
“I don’t care what it looks like on the outside,” he says, “but I always make sure it’s got good brakes and good tires, and is well-maintained on the inside. I’ve got a couple of bunks set up, so four guys can travel quite comfortably and mosey on down the road, as long as you don’t spend too much time inside. It’s not like it’s a motor home or anything,” he adds with a laugh.
Mack’s “good old road warrior” served him well when he had to drive back to Van after playing in Whistler last December 29. He made it all the way home during that blizzard—thanks to the good traction that comes with heavy stage gear—but then got stuck in a mound of snow while entering his driveway.
Funny how those blues’ll hit ya when you least expect ’em.