Vancouver’s rough ‘n’ tumble Twisters take the Long Hard Road



By Steve Newton

When the time comes to track down Brandon Isaak and get the scoop on his local blues band, the Twisters, the red-haired guitarist with the monster tone is not around. He’s up in the Yukon, where his parents own the only blues bar in Whitehorse, the Discovery. Isaak plays up there once in a while, and sometimes talks his folks into booking other Vancouver blues stalwarts such as Harpdog Brown and Willie MacCaulder. He first ingratiated himself into the local scene when he moved down here three years ago, and soon after was affectionately dubbed Yukon Slim.

“I was just lookin’ for some full-time blues dudes,” relates Isaak, on the line from Whitehorse. “The musicians up here were excellent calibre, but none of them really wanted to play blues full-time—they would as long as you pay ’em, and that’s fine. But I wanted people that wanted to do it just for the love of it—plus get paid.”

It didn’t take long for Isaak to hook up with the Twisters, a rough ’n’ tumble blues machine rounded out by harpist-vocalist Dave “Hurricane” Hoerl, drummer-vocalist Sandy “Bone” Smith, and upright bassist James (no nickname) Taylor. On the band’s exceptional new CD, Long Hard Road, Isaak, Smith, and Hoerl all prove themselves to be lead-worthy singers. “It lightens the load for everybody,” comments Isaak on the three-pronged vocal attack. “You can just come up and do your thing, and then let the other guys do theirs.”

Long Hard Road was recorded by Marc L’Esperance at LemonLoaf Studios, a big old house in Burnaby that doubles as a full recording facility. “We went for sort of an old feel,” notes Isaak of the band’s approach in the studio, “a little more of the classic recording techniques. Not close-miking everything, but getting more of a room sound, and everyone playing live at once.” L’Esperance—who also skillfully mixed and mastered the disc—is best known as a producer for local rockabilly artists such as Ray Condo and Pete Turland.

“This was his first blues attempt,” reports Isaak, “and we had to sort of straighten him out on what was goin’ on, as far as the blues style goes, just because he’s so rockabilly. Certain things we wanted he thought were not cool, like where the piano player plays all the high sorta ‘da-da-da-da’ stuff over the vocals. It’s a real Chicago technique, but he thought it was clutter, so we had to explain that that’s actually how it’s done.”

The 12-track CD—which includes four tunes written by Isaak, four by Smith, two by Hoerl, and a couple of covers—features guest performances by saxophonist Steve Hilliam and keyboardist Kenny “Blues Boss” Wayne. Isaak recently played with Wayne at the Burnaby Blues Festival, where he was happy as hell to hang out with headliner Ike Turner, and even happier to sample the cuisine of Texas lap-steel ace Sonny Rhodes. “He wasn’t happy with the barbecue there,” reveals Isaak, “so he got in his van and he went and bought 20 pounds of ribs and he sat in the back with the barbecue for the next three hours, cooking Sonny Rhodes Classic Texas-Style Ribs. It was pretty funny.”

After Isaak’s Whitehorse sojourn, the Twisters are booked to play the Edmonton Blues Festival, where he hopes to bump into Rhodes (and his ribs) again; he’d also like to check out slide-guitar specialist Roy Rogers and blues-harp legend Charlie Musselwhite. Then it’s back to Van for two nights at Carnegies on Friday and Saturday (August 30 and 31) before a trek to New Brunswick, where the band will record a live album—accompanied by Wayne and Hilliam—at Fredericton’s Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival. Brave bluesmen all, the Twisters plan to fly out on September 11. “I think we’re getting a deal on airfare,” quips Isaak.

Following its Maritime stint the quartet will settle back down in Lotus Land, where it’s determined to do whatever it takes to make it in a town where—thanks to the dreaded DJ scourge—live music is an endangered species. “There’s not a lot of blues clubs,” notes Isaak, who cites Eddie Taylor and Buddy Guy as his main influences on guitar. “We had the Fairview for a while, but that’s been goin’ a little more funk, so basically you’re kinda stuck with some pubs and stuff. But I think maybe the blues community is stronger than the blues clubs. You know, you’ve got the Cottage Bistro on Main Street, and I think they go seven nights a week of music. The guy who owns it, Eugene, supports the blues large, so that’s a hot little underspot. It’s sort of like a little Chicago juke joint, that place.”

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