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Music Review: Downchild – I Need A Hat

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The current lineup of Downchild has been together for more than 15 years, and it shows in their music and in the way that, even though this is a recording and not a video, one can ‘see’ the interaction between the members of the group. ‘Tight’ is the only adjective that fits, besides ‘comfortable.’ They’re in one another’s comfort zones, where each knows the others’ next moves, or chord changes, or improvs, just by each others’ body English, which readily translates to the sound.

Singer Chuck Jackson, who wrote two of the cuts on this disc, is a real bluesman, even if he and the other Downchild members are purebred Canuck. Toronto, their home city, is known worldwide for its blues heritage, particularly in jump blues and Chicago blues. The Delta doesn’t have much to worry about having its title as the home of the blues usurped, but at the same time Mississippians know there’s a worthy heir waiting in the wings should they ever slip.

Harpist and guitarist Donnie Walsh, who wrote all the rest of the songs on I Need A Hat, took his lessons from listening to Jimmy Reed, then James Cotton records, and he learned his own licks the old-fashioned way, autodidactically. Ditto for the guitar, with Muddy and Albert King as his recorded mentors. Then he took all that he learned and added his own touches, making them his signature. His stage name, Mister Downchild, and the group’s name he took from a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II (Rice Miller).

Saxophonist Pat Carey wails and whispers, as the situation calls for it, while bassist Gary Kendall keeps chugging through boogie woogie, jump blues, crying blues, and all else. Michael Fonfara displays a real virtuosity for anything with keys in this, Downchild’s 16th album. [Michael Fonfara was a founding member of 60s supergroup Rhinoceros, which put out a total of three albums, one each in 1968, 1969, and 1970. One of my favorite groups during that time.]

Although they’re not as well known in the Lower 48 as in the frozen tundra, Downchild have run out of places to hang their voluminous Canadian awards. Downchild has been the equivalent of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in terms of musicians, a virtual revolving door of many well-known, accomplished musicians throughout the years, and their reputation grows as steadily as they win awards. They’ve also been featured on National Public Radio worldwide a number of times, as well as appearing at blues festivals all over the US, Canada and in Europe.

Guests on I Need A Hat include Dan Ackroyd [Blues Brothers] on harmonica on “You Don’t Love Me,” while Colin Linden does the guitar solo. Colin James guests as guitarist on “Somebody Lied,” while Wayne Jackson of Stax’s Memphis Horns sits in on trumpet on cuts 3 and 9.

The Blues Brothers, made famous by John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, modeled their group after Downchild, while also recording two selections on their records by Walsh & Downchild, “Shotgun Blues,” and “I Got Everything I Need (Almost).”

Highly recommended.

[As a side note, <i>Rhinoceros'</i> three LPS have been recently reissued by Collector’s Choice Music and are all available at their website.]

 

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About Lou Novacheck