“I’ve always believed that music chooses you – you don’t choose music. Being an artist certainly isn’t the easiest thing in the world in terms of making a living. We do it because we love it, and we’re so passionate about it that there’s really no choice.”
Juno-award winning bluesman Steve Strongman demonstrated that when it comes to the blues, there are no rules. And on Saturday night at Ottawa’s home of the blues, The Rainbow Bistro, he wowed an enthusiastic crowd with a repertoire that hopped all over the blues spectrum – from colours of country, rock and beyond, to traditional 12-bar goodness, in various rhythm flavours of shuffles, swings, rock beats, and just some good old fashioned foot-stompin’ fever. I had an opportunity to talk to the man, who told me about his musical roots.
“I sort of came to blues by way of classic rock bands that had a heavy blues influence, like Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and Clapton – all those bands that we all know and love. I figured out very early on that what I loved the most about what they were doing was their blues ‘over-fluence‘. So then I started digging a little bit deeper. There was a wonderful guitar player from Mississippi who settled in Kitchener, named Mel Brown who really influenced me. I started sneaking into clubs, one club in particular, Pop the Gator, was a real hotbed in Kitchener for blues music and all the touring artists would come through there. So I got hit by that bug pretty early, and it was there I knew it was the blues that I wanted to play.”
A Kitchener native now living in Hamilton, Ontario, Strongman celebrates his now 10-year solo career that begun with his first album, Honey. His third CD, A Natural Fact, won a Juno in 2013, followed by another Juno nomination for his latest effort, Let Me Prove It To You, which is alive with electric blues muscle. He is currently putting the finishing touches on his next album, which is due out by the spring of 2017. He is joined on this tour by musicians Dave King (drums), and Colin Lapsley (bass), who have brought their full-sounding rhythm backbone, and further heightened the versatile dimensions of the music.
Strongman, armed with his big red Gibson, began with one from his latest album, an energetic piece entitled, “There’s Something Going On”, which immediately spawned on the first dancers to the dance floor. The country influence came through with “Lie To You”, where Strongman also demonstrated his harp prowess, followed up with “Whatever You’re Doin’”, that grooved with a catchy walking beat, and featured some smoking hot solos. He kept up the solo action, where he shredded up and down the blues scale with, “Big Legged Woman”, and its fiery momentum that kept the dance floor busy from the first note. The amazing range of musical styles and influence had already begun to show within the first few songs of the night:
“I love all styles of music, although everything that I do is steeped in blues… but I always think everyone wears their influences on their sleeve. In my 20’s, I played in a touring country band. I’ve always played right out of high school, basically professionally, and all those influences come out in what I do. As an artist, I’m open to a lot of different styles. I also like to keep challenging myself and to come up with new music and ways to express myself.”
I loved the B.B. King classic “How Blue Can You Get”, where Strongman’s wonderfully round and crisp bluesman vocals shone. He worked his way from the bottom-ended tones of the neck in a slow, heated climb to the top, with bass/rhythm grooves closely in tow. His rendition of “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do”, was as scorching torch Blues as they come, with riffs that covered the board as the song intensified.
The band left the stage during a short acoustic segment, where Strongman not only showed off his amazing songwriting skills, but his agility as a picker and slide player. He made a mention of his 10-year milestone as a solo artist with a tune called, “River” from his first album, Honey. The passionate gospel tones of his voice rang out with long sustains and trills, as he kept up pace with the heel of his boot on the wooden stage floor. The band later returned to pump out Strongman’s current single, “Let Me Prove It To You”, that possessed a rocking R&B/soul quality, sporadic rhythm punches, vocal unisons, drops to half-time, and was rich in deep barrelling guitar tones reminiscent of Stevie Ray Vaughan. Next came a vamped-up version of “Call Me The Breeze”, which had a great country/southern rock flavour, and packed the dance floor. By the end of the set, I was left pleasantly punch-drunk from heady doses of blues from all sides of the dice.
Aside from his obvious guitar, harp, and vocal talents, it’s also the connection Steve Strongman makes with his audience, and the passion of how he plays that reels you in. There‘s a exhilarating sense of freedom about watching him play, as he seems to let each song lead him down a fresh, open stretch of highway.