Downchild Blues Band – Live at the Toronto Jazz Festival
Diesel Management Productions
12 songs – 64 minutes
Delivering horn-drenched music like their American cousins, Roomful of Blues, since the late ‘60s, Downchild Blues Band returned to their hometown to celebrate their 50th anniversary with this pleasing, star-studded set, proving beyond a doubt that they’re just as vital now as the day they were formed.
Established in 1969 by guitarist/harp player/vocalist Donnie Walsh and his drummer brother Richard – a/k/a “Hock” – and making their debut at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto, the group took their name and Donnie his nickname from the Sonny Boy Williamson tune, “Mr. Downchild.” They quickly became a hit on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border and served as countryman Dan Aykroyd for the Saturday Night Live skit that evolved into the Blues Brothers, who covered two of the band’s tunes on their multi-platinum Briefcase Full of Blues debut album.
With 18 albums to their credit, the group’s a multiple Juno Award winner – the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy. Fronted by Walsh, they’ve been performing with the same lineup for the past 25 years. Chuck Jackson handles lead vocals and harp with Pat Carey on tenor sax, Mike Fitzpatrick on drums, Gary Kendall on bass and Michael Fonfara (Rhinoceros and Lou Reed) on keys.
They’re augmented by frequent contributor Peter Jeffrey on trumpet with guest appearances from Aykroyd, former Late Night with David Letterman band leader Paul Shaffer, Canadian blues-rock guitarist David Wilcox, two former bandmates — Gulf Coast legend Kenny Neal and (ex-Fabulous Thunderbird) Gene Taylor – as well as Finnish slide guitar master Erja Lyytinen.
Captured outdoors in front of an enthusiastic crowd of 10,000 fans, Aykroyd handles introductions before the band powers out of the gate with “Can You Hear the Music.” Not to be confused with the Beatles’ song of the same title, it’s a swinging jump blues delivered by Jackson and aided by steady horn fills throughout. It bookends perfectly with the easy-greasy love song, “Understanding & Affection.”
Wilcox joins the action for the next two numbers. “It’s a Matter of Time” features dual vocal leads and tasty slide guitar runs, which fit perfectly with a fiery, uptown re-do of the Elmore James standard, “Madison Blues,” which is updated with full horn arrangements. Donnie’s original love ballad, “One in a Million,” follows before Taylor’s featured for a blazing take on Jimmy McCracklin’s 1955 jump-blues classic, “I’m Gonna Tell Your Mother.” A terrific mid-tune stop-time harp solo leads into Gene’s runs on keys.
Erja and Chuck share the spotlight for “Mississippi Woman, Mississauga Man,” a harp-driven duet that plays off Jackson’s hometown, a Toronto suburb, before Neal takes the stage on guitar for the slow-blues pleaser, “Shotgun Blues.” Aykroyd joins the action for the next three numbers, all of which have been featured prominently through the years in the set lists of both Downchild and the Blues Brothers. Sam & Dave’s familiar “Soul Man” kicks off the action aided by Erja and Kenny before Shaffer replaces Lyytinen for “I Got Everything I Need (Almost)” and the entire ensemble combine for a six-minute rendition of Big Joe Turner’s “Flip, Flop & Fly.” Another Big Joe tune, “TV Mama,” brings the action to a pleasant close.
Even after 50 years, there’s no slowing down Downchild. The music here can raise the dead and have them dancing in the aisles. Strongly recommended, and certain to be considered for live album of the year honors when next season’s awards come around.