Lester Quitzau was a Zeppelin-loving wheelie king as a kid

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 14, 2002

On his latest CD, So Here We Are, Edmonton’s Lester Quitzau makes a strong case for his being touted as among this country’s finest blues-roots pickers. But a close look at the disc’s video portion reveals that Quitzau’s talents are more than just musical. In one of the clips, the 37-year-old singer-songwriter and slide-guitar specialist is seen pulling a wheelie on a mountain bike, then riding it till he’s nearly out of camera range. “I can probably go for a mile if I get it right,” brags the acrobatic string-bender, on the line from a snowbound café in Jasper, Alberta. “That’s what I used to do as a kid. I was the wheelie king!”

Fortunately for fans of bluesy guitar music, Quitzau’s teenage pastimes also involved parking the bike and taking in his older brother’s record collection, which happened to be heavy on the Led Zeppelin. In his late teens he started to delve into the blues, which seemed like an apt soundtrack for the life of a kid coming of age in working-class North Edmonton. “It was a rougher part of town,” Quitzau notes, “and in those days we frequented a bar called the Ambassador where a lot of high-class touring blues bands like James Cotton and Muddy Waters came through. I didn’t see Muddy, but I saw John Lee Hooker in that club; I saw a lot of greats. At that time blues wasn’t trendy or hip, so people that were playin’ it were lifers, you know. They were into it because that’s what they did.”

It didn’t take long for the budding guitarist to catch the musical connection between the hard-rockin’ ’70s bands he grew up with and the blues legends he came to adore. “That’s when I realized where Zeppelin were getting all their material from,” he says, “so that took me back to the roots. And now I’m sorta gettin’ back to the Zeppelin!”

Quitzau proves quite adept at conjuring a Jimmy Page–like blues-rock racket on So Here We Are. The singer-guitarist is accompanied by drummer Lyle Molzan and bassist-keyboardist Greg Johnstone, whom he describes as “the cream of the crop” of Edmonton players. Molzan and Johnstone—who have also served as the rhythm section for Oh Susanna, Tariq, and their own group, Kissing Ophelia—will be in attendance when Quitzau’s Very Electric Trio plays the Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre on Friday (February 15). “The show will actually be acoustic and electric,” he points out, “so we’ll go many places. It’s quite diverse, and I don’t really consider myself a blues musician anymore. ‘Eclectic roots’ is more how I call it.”

However it’s labelled, Quitzau’s music has been garnering attention since 1991, when he received a Juno Award for his contribution to the CBC compilation Saturday Night Blues. But it wasn’t until several years later that his own name started to catch on with fans and critics via A Big Love, the ’98 CD that earned Quitzau a Juno nomination for best blues record. Two years later he scored another Juno, this time in the best roots and traditional category, for his work with Bill Bourne and Madagascar Slim, his partners in Tri Continental. That trio recently released a two-disc set, recorded live in Bremen, Germany, which includes five selections from So Here We Are—three Quitzau originals and two Muddy Waters covers. The Tri Continental collaboration came about at the urging of an agent who had worked with Quitzau and Slim, and who, upon meeting Bourne, felt the three musicians would connect well.

“He just thought it’d be good for us to get together and see what happened,” Quitzau relates. “So we did a few gigs and then recorded that first record. We had no expectations, no plans whatsoever, but the whole thing just took off. People loved it, and it’s been good for our solo careers as well.”

After the current Western Canadian tour, Quitzau plans to take his Very Electric Trio to Europe, where So Here We Are will be released this month on the prestigious Tradition and Moderne label (home to the likes of Taj Mahal and Ellen McIlwaine). A well-travelled veteran of the European festival circuit, Quitzau has also been booked at both the Vancouver and Edmonton folk fests, which he views as quite different in some respects. “They’re similar in size and capacity,” he relates, “but Vancouver is a little more folk-oriented, more roots. And Edmonton can be a little more commercial—they have bigger headliners and stuff like that. But I like Vancouver; it’s very good. Not enough electric guitars, though.”

Speaking of electric guitars, the tuque-wearing Quitzau is pictured on the back cover of So Here We Are holding his current instrument of choice, a ’63 Fender Stratocaster reissue. He had an original ’63 Strat but, strangely enough, had to sell it to help finance the making of his latest disc. “That’s kind of ironic,” he muses with a chuckle, “you sell your guitar to make a record.”

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