The Legendary Downchild Blues Band
Can You Hear The Music starts the way all things Downchild should: with the jump–blues sound that makes you want to jump up and dance.
And, as band leader Donnie Walsh will tell you himself, that’s the sound Downchild audiences all over the world want to hear.
Forty–four years on, Downchild remains a blues force, true to itself and without equal.
For just about every waking moment since he formed the Downchild Blues Band — Canada’s best known and best loved blues outfit — Walsh has been living the dream that changed his life back in the mid–1960s, when someone dropped a Jimmy Reed album onto the turntable at his girlfriend’s 16th birthday party in suburban North Toronto.
It’s a moment Walsh — he also answers to his “given” name, Mr. Downchild, taken from a song by Sonny Boy Williamson II — says he will never forget.
“That was it. I was hooked. I never wanted to play anything else.”
He drove his girlfriend crazy learning Reed’s lip–splitting harmonica technique, then James Cotton’s. He locked himself away from the world while he picked apart Muddy Waters’ and Albert King’s guitar licks, reconstructing them in his own inimitable style on a beat–up electric guitar. And when he did venture out, it was to one of Toronto’s legendary blues dives to catch his heroes Luther Allison, B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, all of them regular visitors in those days to Walsh’s hometown of Toronto, Canada’s blues capital.
Walsh was a good student. He is recognized around the world as both a blues harp virtuoso with few equals, and an unusually expressive guitarist.
He wasn’t the only one, of course. They say Toronto is built on the blues, but all across Canada the blues, particularly jump–style and Chicago blues that used to blast across the border from radio stations in northern U.S., is a basic, shared language.
Singer Chuck Jackson, tenor sax player Pat Carey, drummer Mike Fitzpatrick, bassist Gary Kendall, and pianist/organist Michael Fonfara — Walsh’s compadres in Downchild for the past decade and a half, and, he says, the “best musicians I’ve ever played with” — were soaking up the blues in their teenage years as well, in different parts of the country.
Downchild’s 17th album, Can You Hear the Music, dropped October 29, 2013, on the Canadian independent label Linus Entertainment.
The album is both distinctly Downchild and proudly Canadian, right down to its cover art, which features the iconic Sam The Record Man sign from the landmark Toronto record store on Yonge Street.
Much like that record store, Downchild has given music lovers all over the world what they want. Walsh penned eight of the eleven songs on the album, delivering the mix of jump–blues and classic blues songs that Downchild audiences crave.
“I wrote most of the songs over the four months before heading into the studio,” says Walsh. “A couple — “Scattered”, which is an instrumental, and “One in a Million” — came together during the recording sessions.
“‘One in a Million’ is different from other songs I’ve ever written. I had the guitar riff in my head for weeks before and during recording; if I sat down with my guitar, it’s the first thing I’d play,” he continues. “Over time, it became a song. It has a lot of old–style acoustic slide guitar elements and it lent itself nicely to a smooth gospel sound.”
Walsh really enjoys the production side of making an album; although he’ll tell you it’s not really producing when you’re in a studio with musicians you know as well as the Downchild members know each other. However, the most recent trip to the studio took a bit of a turn.
“A funny thing happened on the way to the studio,” he says. “I was planning to book time at Metalworks Studios in Mississauga, where we normally record, but I was surprised to discover there was no time available in any of their studios. It turns out that Drake had booked the entire facility for a month or so to record his album.”
Fortunately, L. Stu Young — “engineer par excellence,” as Donnie calls him; he’s engineered Downchild albums since 1994’s Good Times Guaranteed — got the situation under control. Can You Hear the Music was recorded at the Drive Shed Recording Studios in Toronto, with additional recording and mixing at Loud Mouse Studios, also in Toronto.
Walsh and his band mates have won countless music industry awards, including a JUNO (Canada’s GRAMMY) for “Best Roots and Traditional Album” in 1991. They also received a JUNO Award nomination in 2005 for “Blues Album of The Year” for their album Come On In. In 2007 Downchild was named “Entertainer of The Year” at the annual Maple Blues Awards (the Canadian equivalent of a W.C. Handy Award).
With more than 80 great musicians on the payroll during its long life, Downchild is a robust road beast, having racked up thousands of performances at concert halls, fairgrounds, saloons and roadhouses in every corner of the continent.
The inspiration for Dan Aykroyd and the late John Belushi’s fabulous creation, The Blues Brothers — they recorded Downchild’s “Shotgun Blues” and Walsh’s “(I Got Everything I Need) Almost”, the latter shortlisted as one of Canada’s Essential Songs in a survey conducted by the Toronto Star in 2007 — Downchild is an institution in their homeland, and revered by blues fans around the world.
America’s National Public Radio service pays regular tribute, featuring Downchild in concert specials and blues programs.
For years a favourite on the North American festival circuit, the band made its first concert appearance in Europe in 2008, at the Lille Blues Festival in France, returning in 2010 to perform at the largest blues festival in Europe, the Notodden Blues Festival in Norway.
Apart from its earliest incarnations, with Donnie’s brother, the late “Hock” Walsh as singer, Downchild was always more than a bar band. A party band, sure — good times guaranteed, just as it says on one of Downchild’s album titles.
But musicianship of the highest order, sharp arrangements, strict adherence to its legitimate sources, slick pacing and a steely fix on the moods of its audiences, have always set Downchild apart. This has been a class act for the better part of its 40–plus–year life.
About the reasons for Downchild’s success, Walsh is succinct and unequivocal.
“First, it’s knowing your audience, and knowing when to give them what they want,” he says. “If they want to dance, you step up the groove. If they want to watch, you give them lots of solos.”
“As for keeping a band together for as long as Downchild has been around, it’s an unspoken thing, finding a balance between what I need and what I know each musician can give. Every member of this band is well–equipped to do what each of us wants and needs. Downchild has always been bigger than the sum of its parts, and I can’t really explain why.”