The Rockin’ Highliners get a big boost from Duke Robillard on Oh My!


By Steve Newton

One of my favourite things about the new Rockin’ Highliners CD, Oh My!, is the rip-roaring interplay between guitarists Clayton Sample and Alex Herriot. So when vocalist Robert Tycholis calls from Toronto and explains that Herriot quit the band recently, my enthusiasm drops a couple of notches.

I was looking forward to seeing Sample and Herriot duke it out six-string–style when the band opens for George Thorogood at the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (November 19). But then Tycholis explains that Herriot’s position has been filled by Greg “Junior” Demchuk, the Vancouver guitarist formerly with the Twisters. Before you know it, I’m feelin’ smiley again.

“He’s the guy that West Coast Blues magazine named Canadian guitar player of the year for two years in a row,” raves Tycholis, “so Junior’s an exceptional guitar player. And as far as the two-guitar style is concerned, Junior brings a little more of an edge to it. He’s not quite as—and I don’t want to use descriptions that might sound negative with regards to Alex, ’cause he’s such a great guitar player—but it’s not as flowery.

“Does that make any sense? Alex’s was a real pretty guitar, he had some pretty licks, and he had a very pretty tone, very clean and almost Duke Robillard tone–sounding. And Junior’s has got a real hard edge to it.”

Duke Robillard’s name comes up a lot when chatting about the Rockin’ Highliners’ current situation, because the Rhode Island blues great produced Oh My!, much to the band’s satisfaction. “We opened for Duke last year in Fredericton,” says Tycholis, “at the Harvest Jazz & Blues festival, and I guess he got it, because at breakfast the next morning he asked if he could produce the new record. Or, in typical Duke fashion, being as humble as he is, he asked if we thought it would be ‘a good idea’. And of course we went ‘Yeah.’ ”

All of the Rockin’ Highliners—including standup bassist Jeff Smook and drummer Ken McMahon—thought it would also be a good idea if Robillard did some playing on Oh My!, so he wound up contributing guitar to five of the disc’s 13 tracks.

“What band in the world would not want Duke to play a little guitar?” asks Tycholis. “And the really cool thing about Duke is that, even when he just added simple rhythm tracks—like on ‘Now That You’re Gone’, where he’s just doing this straight backbeat thing—it really complements the tune. And on the last song, ‘North Sea Fisherman’s Blues’, there’s an intro there with just the acoustic guitar and accordion, and that’s Duke. It’s just beautiful, beautiful stuff.”

Robillard also sounds sweet riffing alongside Sample and Herriot on “Two Bones and a Pick”, a T-Bone Walker instrumental originally performed by guitarists Walker, Barney Kessell, and R.S. Rankin. “Doesn’t he, though?” agrees the spirited Tycholis. “Holy smokes! The guys had been playing that tune for a long time, and I really wanted them to record it because I thought they did such a great version, and of course Duke put ’em through his paces. It was great watching the three of them in the studio together—man, it was such a treat. By the end of the session the boys had their shirts off, they were sweatin’. It was brilliant.”

Tycholis promises that “Two Bones and a Pick” will be included in the setlist when the Rockin’ Highliners play the Commodore. And that’s another thing he’s feeling cheery about: playing the long-shuttered venue during its grand-reopening week. “How cool is that?” he ponders joyfully. “Man, you have no idea how…well, I bet you do know how excited we are. I mean, the whole city of Vancouver must be just absolutely thrilled about that.”

Pretty damn tickled, I’ll admit. But I know what’ll get us even more thrilled. How about the prospect of seeing a hungry bunch of Canadian jump-blues devotees kick the ass of an aging Delaware boogieman?

“I don’t expect that a band like us could ever blow George Thorogood off the stage,” says Tycholis, “but I’ll tell ya something, we’re not shy. We’re gonna get up there and do a Rockin’ Highliners show, and that means one speed and one speed only. We’ve always been that way, regardless of whether we’re opening for somebody or not. We’ll do our best, I promise you that.”

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