By now most everyone who follows the Vancouver music scene has heard the sad news about the passing of local concert-biz legend Drew Burns. The longtime proprietor of the Commodore Ballroom died on Saturday, leaving scores of friends and fans feeling down–until memories of him got them up again.
The last time I saw Drew was backstage at his old haunt in 2008, when he popped backstage to say howdy to Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy. The reunion was fitting, as Burns had booked Guy—often with his harmonica-blowing partner Junior Wells—for decades. He was helping pay their rent when they were struggling road warriors, long before Stevie Ray Vaughan (another act Burns booked) broke through on the radio and put blues back on the map, for a while at least.
Buddy Guy’s Commodore shows were spellbinding, and the influential guitar great would make a point of thanking Burns at the end of the night. Another music legend much taken by the charismatic promoter with the sparkling blue eyes was J.J. Cale. “I just loved him,” Cale told me in a 2009 interview, “he was really a nice guy.”
Another incredible blues artist that Burns was burning to book whenever he could was Johnny Winter, whose passing only predated Burns’ by a couple of months. I like to picture Drew up there watching Winter from the wings, or stepping out from behind the Commodore’s old red-velvet curtains to pass him his slide before a particularly raunchy version of “Highway 61”.
Though Burns was a big supporter of the blues—also bringing in the monumental likes of Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon—he was happy to promote any type of music. Over the years I was lucky enough to witness some of the top names in punk (Ramones), rockabilly (Stray Cats), and glam-metal (KISS) at the Commodore.
But it’s always the soulful stuff that I come back to when remembering Burns’ skills as a talent booker. I asked him once which Commodore show he would pick as his most memorable, and he said the Tina Turner Revue. That was after she’d broken free of Ike’s abusive hold, so I imagine there was a whole lotta soul flowing off the stage back then.
Drew Burns was the King of Cool when he worked his shows. He would let me store my plexiglass Raven guitar in a corner of his office whenever I took it to get signed by certain guitar heroes he was hosting, whether it was Robin Trower or Ronnie Montrose & Steve Morse at that unforgettable double-bill that Drew had my old rock-crazed buddy Brock “Stick” Armstrong promote for him back in ’94.
I still recall how I was able to walk into Burns’ cluttered office whenever I wanted to to collect my collectible for autographs. I don’t remember it ever being locked. You could stroll in there any old time and he’d be counting up the night’s receipts. He might glance up to see who it was, or he might not.
The only time I saw Drew get the slightest bit perturbed was when he was planning a major renovation and I—in full-on “Media Slut from Hell” mode—wondered aloud if it would include a V.I.P. area, maybe up on the balcony somewhere. He was totally averse to the idea of barring paying customers from one-square-inch of his club. You were left with the distinct impression that there would be no Very Important Persons at Drew Burns’ Commodore, because everyone already was.