ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 5, 2001
Judging by the quality of players Gary Comeau surrounded himself with on his third and latest CD, Letters From Eve, you’d think the local singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist is seriously well connected. First off, you’ve got drummer Pat Steward and bassist Doug Elliott, that hot-as-hell rhythm combo from the Odds, who play on each of the disc’s 12 tracks. Then there’s guitarist Robbie Steininger, one of the city’s top slide players, lighting up all but one selection, and veteran keyboardist Darryl Havers getting his licks in on piano, accordion, synthesizer, and Hammond B-3. Toss in guest appearances by the likes of Brent Shindell on octave mandolin, Ian McIntyre on banjo, Revellie Nixon on washboard, and resident Yale Hotel jammer Tony Robertson on guitar, and you’ve got one impressive lineup. So when the Straight calls Comeau at his home in South Van, the first question is: did he have to pay big bucks to get these guys, or what?
“Yeah, that’s right,” replies Comeau with a hearty laugh, “I’m full of big bucks!” He’s fibbing, of course. How many local independent roots musicians do you know who are swimming in cash? It turns out that Comeau has just made a lot of talented friends since moving here from the Maritimes in 1972. For instance, he’s been playing with Steward and Elliott for five years, off and on, in a band called the Bigtones. And Steininger—who was introduced to him by another local guitar great, Peter Honychurch—first recorded with Comeau in 1994 on his striking debut CD, The Hunger. “For me,” notes Comeau, “when I figure out what kind of CD I want to do, I know the guys that I want to play on it.”
A native of Nova Scotia, Comeau moved out to Vancouver when he was 17, and has never regretted the migration. “It was kind of like…you know when you’re a teenager and you’re not ready for a steady job, and you don’t really know what you want to do with your life? Somebody suggests to ya, ‘Well geez, why don’t we go across Canada?’ and it’s like, ‘Great idea!’ So we hitchhiked across Canada, and I didn’t go back to Nova Scotia for 14 years. I’ve only been back there once, actually. I just like it out here.”
Vancouver’s roots-music scene has benefited immensely from Comeau’s presence, as he brought with him a strong bond to the traditional music of the Deep South. “I’m French-Acadian,” he says, “and I kinda discovered this connection to Louisiana music about 20 years ago. There’s just a feeling; I guess it’s the rhythm thing that I really, really dig a lot. Actually, I went down to New Orleans a couple of years ago, to the Jazz Heritage Festival that they have there at the end of April, and it was just awesome. They had all the music of the South there—from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana. I saw this gospel group at the festival that had, like, three singers, and they all were as good or better than Aretha Franklin. It was just unbelievable.”
Although Comeau doesn’t consider himself a Cajun or zydeco artist (“It’s just a vibe that runs through the tunes that I write”), he has taught himself how to play the accordion. That was a lot tougher for him than learning how to play guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. “The accordion is the last instrument of choice,” he says with a chuckle, “and it’s the hardest one. Because everything else is a stringed instrument, and strings are all adaptable—you just kinda figure out where to put your fingers. But playing the piano is very, very difficult. It’s just like switching to saxophone or flute or something.”
Local film buffs may recall seeing Comeau display his fiddle chops in the B.C.–shot thriller Double Jeopardy, which was released in 1999. In a scene set at a New Orleans bar—which was actually a camouflaged version of the Hastings Street hangout Funky Winkerbeans—Comeau and his former group the Stringbenders perform his zydeco-tinged song “Marianne”, while Ashley Judd’s ex-con character has a conversation with the bartender about her picture being posted all over town. The 45-year-old Comeau notes that his main goal right now is to get his music heard wherever the road will take him—which includes the Harrison Festival of the Arts on Sunday (July 8) and the Islands Folk Festival near Duncan later this month (July 20 to 22). And he hopes that in the near future he’ll be playing the real Big Easy, and not just some Downtown Eastside rendition.
“Last summer I did a buncha gigs in England,” he says, “and I’d like to do more [travelling] next year, and really try to play in the South. I just want to go as far as I can and keep playin’ as much as I can, because I love it more now than I ever have.”