Morning Star Staff
It isn’t about the money, it’s about the music.
That’s the mantra of bluesman Harpdog Brown, who’s playing with the Travelin’ Blues Show featuring Sugar Brown at the Prestige Inn Ballroom Saturday.
The dynamic duo met last fall while Harpdog was on tour in Ontario.
“This man has truly given me hope that there is a chance that classic blues is alive here in Canada,” said Harpdog, the Maple Blues Award winner for Harmonica Player of the Year in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
“Guys like me and Sugar are keeping the torch alive.”
After meeting, the two bonded over their love of classic blues: music straight from early ‘50s Chicago.
“That was wicked. It was the most natural love affair,” said Harpdog. “It was encouraging, (and) we’re pretty excited about the blues marriage.”
Sugar, born in Ohio in 1971, is a professor of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto who grew up playing the blues with the likes of Taildragger, responsible for giving Ken Kawashima his stage name; Dave Myers; and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, the late-drummer of Muddy Waters band.
“Sugar Brown’s blues were shaped by playing the small clubs and venues along the west side of Chicago,” said Harpdog. “He’s paid his dues and he’s paid his time.
“He’s educated, but not too educated. If you get too over educated, it becomes jazz.”
Classic blues comes from passion and emotion, said Harpdog, not about technical prowess.
“Music has become a sport — it’s all tricks, but it’s lost its language.”
So when the two bluesmen played together, it was a natural connection.
“It’s like having the right guy on your stage,” said Harpdog. “I’m amazed and overwhelmed by the talent.”
But, because of its focus on passion, Harpdog said blues will never be popular to the degree of top 40.
“I don’t think anyone gets into the blues to be rich and famous,” he said. “It’s never going to be the flavour of the week. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. Blues is a lifelong experience.”
Harpdog stumbled into the world of blues after already being involved in music. He didn’t go searching for the blues, it found him.
“I can kind of see how I was designed for the circus, and blues was my circus,” he said.
“Blues is the thing (where) I really felt like I truly belonged. The blues gave me a purpose in life.”
Growing up as a foster-child in Edmonton, Harpdog always felt out of place. He was named three times by people he never knew, but only once did the name feel right.
In 1989, when Harpdog was in his late-20s, he played a gig at the famous Mama Gold’s in Kitsilano, Vancouver. In the crowd was a group of well-dressed men.
“At the end of the night, they were chanting ‘harp dog, harp dog.”
He thought about it a few days later, and decided he liked it.
“I truly connected to the name. I never felt like I belonged as anything but Harpdog.”
And after a divorce four years ago, he legally changed his name to Harpdog, known as “Dog” for short, because as he says in What’s your real name, “After all, I am the dog of the harp, not the harp of the dog.”
Harpdog played the Prestige Inn Ballroom last year, loved it, and decided to make it an annual show.
“It was pretty damn successful,” he said.
Despite his love for the blues, it’s still a job, and sometimes he has trouble getting out of bed in the afternoon, but he doesn’t quit.
“I never regret going to work on my way home.
“Playing live is what it’s all about. Like a priest without a congregation, if there’s no audience, there’s no point.”
Through playing the blues to live audiences, Harpdog has affected their lives. Hearing about other peoples’ struggles helps them realize their situations aren’t so bad, he said.
“Blues is a practice. It’s not something to listen to. It’s something to live and to share. It’s music that can change a person’s life.”
And that’s what keeps Harpdog going.
“Those moments are more valuable than money in the bank.
“It’s about the funny, not about the money.”
Tickets to Harpdog Brown and the Travelin’ Blues Show featuring Sugar Brown are available for $20 at Bourbon St. Bar and Grill, 4411-32nd St., and East Side Liquor Company, 4209-27th St. Doors at 7 p.m. Show at 8 p.m. For more information, visit www.harpdogbrown.com.