The Carson Downey Band proves that the blues are alive and kickin’ in the Maritimes


By Steve Newton

The Carson Downey Band has been plugging away on the Maritime blues scene for more than a decade, but things are starting to pay off for the group with the release of its debut CD, All the Way. The Nova Scotia threesome—which plays the Yale next Thursday (November 9), putting to rest the wacky rumour that Vancouver’s top blues joint doesn’t hire trios—was signed by Loggerhead Records president Andrew McCain after he stumbled across them during a 74-hour jam session at the 1997 East Coast Music Awards.

“We were layin’ it down,” recalls guitarist Downey, on the phone from an Ontario tour stop, “and he was walkin’ by the door. And after he heard us, I think he walked back in.”

McCain was blown away by what he describes in the band’s bio as “a savage assault of rock and blues”. It didn’t hurt that he spotted the group while Downey was pulling off the nifty trick of playing guitar with his teeth. But it’s not as if the 39-year-old picker spends that much time with his lips glued to his Strat’s fretboard.

“It ain’t somethin’ I sit down and practise,” he says with a chuckle. “If it gets me at the moment, I do it.”

Rounded out by Carson’s younger brother Murray Downey on drums and bassist Marlowe Smith, the CDB is on its first cross-Canada tour. The elder Downey has, however, already established himself as a player of note in his stomping grounds; at this year’s East Coast Music Awards he carried off the title of Fender East Coast Guitarist of the Year, and more recently he was awarded the Dutch Mason Award for his contributions to the preservation of Maritime blues.

“Those awards really mean a lot,” he says, “because it just shows that, you know, I’ve come a long ways from the time I started. Things are really startin’ to open up here.”

Downey got his first taste of music when he was 12, taking ukulele lessons at school.

“The teacher’s ukulele was real big, right, with the full strings on it, but when I got mine, it was just a small thing. But I messed around with that for many a summer night, asked my mammy to buy me a guitar, and then I started.”

Downey’s brother-in-law showed him a few chords and let him play along to his Johnny Winter and B.B. King records, and before long Downey had a band going. When he was 15 he would jam with siblings and friends, who scratched away at acoustic guitars and banged on barrels in the family barn. Shortly thereafter the youngsters felt confident enough to play parties in the community centre of their hometown of North Preston, Nova Scotia.

The guitarist who most inspired Downey to take up the instrument full-time wasn’t anyone named Hendrix, Clapton, or Beck, but an unknown player from North Preston named Martin Smith. Unfortunately, this budding guitar legend gave up on music to devote himself to his family’s garbage-truck business.

“Aw my god, this guy could wail,” claims Downey. “I mean, he could play! I said to my brother-in-law, ‘Man, that’s what I wanna be doin’, right there.’”

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