ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, FEB. 26, 1988
By Steve Newton
Followers of the Canadian blues have cause to celebrate, because one of this country’s most endearing bands is back on track. Downchild–the group that helped inspired Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi to don their cool black suits ‘n’ shades and become the Blues Brothers–has a new album out called It’s Been So Long. They’ll be playing tunes from it–as well as their many old faves–at Club Kaos in Coquitlam Thursday (February 25) and at 86 Street Saturday and Sunday (February 27 and 28).
Donie Walsh is still “Mr. Downchild”, the leader and guitarist/harpist for the Toronto band. Walsh took the group’s name from a song by blues master Sonny Boy Williamson, whose music had a profound effect on him as a teen.
“I didn’t know about guys like that till I was about 16,” explained Donnie, on the line from Saskatoon last week. “But as soon as I heard him, it pretty much killed me. Sonny Boy was a poet and a singer and a harmonica player, and if you listen to him play and sing, his phrasing is phenomenal. To me, it’s even better than B.B. King’s.”
Infused with the spirit and inspiration of Williamson, Walsh put Downchild together in the late ’60s, and the group toured incessantly, releasing such influential LPs as Straight Up and We Deliver. The band hit a high point around 1980, when the Blues Brothers movie and the album A Suitcase Full of Blues made the Walsh song “Almost” an international hit.
Then tragedy struck the band in 1982, when Donnie’s girlfriend, Downchild pianist Jane Vasey, succumbed to a nine-year battle with leukemia. After a live LP in 1982 that went nowhere, Downchild gave up on the recording scene, but at the urging of blues aficionado Holger Petersen, Walsh gave it another sot on Petersen’s label, Stony Plain.
The Downchild lineup today includes singer Tony Flaim (who took over from Walsh’s brother Hock in 1974), slide guitarist Mike McKenna, bassist Dennis Pinhorn, drummer Marty Vickers, saxophonist Pat Carey, and former Blasters pianist Gene Taylor. The band was augmented by a number of other Toronto musicians on It’s Been So Long, which has a swinging, horn-driven sound and is the sort of party music the band is famous for. (Most noteworthy are the shuffling rockers “Not Ths Time” and “Bring It on Back”, and a nifty harp workout called “Off the Cuff”.) The album was recorded at Toronto’s Round Sound studio and mixed at Triumph’s Metalworks studio in Mississauga, Walsh and engineer Danny Sustar producing.
The last time Downchild played Vancouver was in October of 1986, and Walsh has lingering memories about the old days when the band played the Body Shop and a particular New Year’s Eve at the Commodore. For the last few years, though, he’s been sticking pretty close to home, where he says the blues are as popular as ever. He describes the current blues scene in Hogtown as “fabulous”.
“There’s a blues jam on Saturday afternoon with Kendall Wall at the Black Swan, and there’s a blues band Sunday night at Crooks. My brother Hock–who sang ‘Flip, Flop & Fly’–has a jam Monday and Tuesday night at the Izzy. I mean, you could pretty well hear blues any night of the week–and Saturday afternoon too.
“So it’s happening in Toronto, and a lot of it is due to the Toronto Blues Society, which is really gung ho. They’ve got a blues newsletter, and every time they have an event everybody turns out.” (Local blues fanatics should know that Jack Lavin of the Wailin’ Demons has founded something similar here with the Vancouver Blues Preservation Society. Info on that can be had by calling 687-0332.)
A blues lover through and through, Donnie Walsh happily points out that his kind of music is becoming increasingly popular everywhere you look. “You see bands like the Thunderbirds on Johnny Carson, or Robert Cray on David Letterman. Hell, that’s blues! So there’s a real indication that something’s brewing.”
And how does he feel to be back in the swing of things himself these days? Has it really “been so long”?
“Yeah!”, he blurts out happily. “It sure is good to be mainstreamin’ it again.”