Colin Linden inspired by Howlin’ Wolf and George Chuvalo on Raised by Wolves

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 1, 1998

By Steve Newton

When you write for a weekly like the Straight, most of your interviews with touring musicians happen over the phone, because the story has to be out before your subject hits town. But once in a while you get to actually meet a performer in the flesh and even come away with a prized photographic documentation of the occasion.

One treasured image I have is of B.B. King and me, posing like pals after his show at North Van’s long-gone Plazazz Showroom back in ’84. Guitar player Colin Linden has a fave photo with a blues idol, too, and it’s prominently displayed on his new CD, Raised by Wolves. It’s a well-worn colour snapshot of a chubby 11-year-old kid (that’d be Linden) seated next to Chester Arthur Burnett (that’d be Howlin’ Wolf).

“My mom took that,” recalls Linden on the line from his home in Toronto. “It was at the Colonial Tavern in Toronto on November 27, 1971. I had heard his music like a few weeks before, and it just turned my crank like nothing I had ever heard. Back in those days, the Colonial had a balcony that was licensed as a restaurant, so minors could get in, and I begged my mom to take me to the Saturday matinee to see Howlin’ Wolf. And he was beautiful.”

Linden—who plays the Purple Onion on Tuesday (October 6), accompanied by former Janis Joplin and current Band keyboardist Richard Bell—got to know the legendary blues growler quite well up until his death in January of ’76, and he recently had the opportunity to pay his respects via a tribute album that he played on and coproduced. A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf, released last July on Cleveland-based Telarc Records, features guest spots by the likes of James Cotton, Taj Mahal, Kenny Neal, Ronnie Hawkins, and Linden’s good friend and sometime musical partner, Colin James. Linden, who performed in the CD’s core band, also had the honour of singing lead on the Willie Dixon–penned “Just Like I Treat You”.

“All the other guys in the core band were in Wolf’s band at different times,” he explains, “and some of them—like [guitarist] Hubert Sumlin—for 23 years, so it was really exciting. I mean, I figure I spent the last 25 years pretending I was fronting Wolf’s band, and then I really got a chance to!”

On the exceptional Raised by Wolves, which is also dedicated to Wolf, Linden continues paying homage to people with serious blues, though not of the musical type this time. On “George Chuvalo”, he offers a reverential nod to the former Canadian heavyweight boxing champ, whose life has been battered by tragedy. (Chuvalo lost three of his children, as well as his first wife, to drug overdoses and suicides.) Linden also turns up the emotional heat on “Raging River”, a slow-burning, slide-drenched, acoustic-blues workout he cowrote with Colin James at the swinging bluesman’s Lions Bay home.

“We had been working on this rock tune,” Linden explains, “and it was kinda good, but it wasn’t really turning us on that much. It was at the end of the day and we were exhausted, just sitting around playing an open-G tuning, but we started playing in the key of D minor, and this melody came out. It’s corny to say, but it just kind of wrote itself, melodically speaking.”

Anyone who’s followed Linden’s musical career knows how handy he is with a bottleneck, but on “Raging River” his expressive talents as a vocalist are also displayed. “I’d have to thank Colin for that,” notes the modest roots veteran. “Sometimes when you have friends who are really good singers and they’re encouraging you about your own singing, it gives you more confidence, I guess.”

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