With a healthy domestic scene and over fifty festivals annually dedicated to the genre, blues is a really big deal in Canada. Favouring blues spanning from its earliest recordings to the 1960s I must be honest in saying I find most contemporary ‘white-boy’ takes on the form rather tiresome, but every now and then an act looking at the blues through a different lens comes along to shake things up. Originally from Alberta but now settled on Vancouver Island, Blue Moon Marquee is one such act.
Actually, I am not even sure it is fair or accurate to tag Blue Moon Marquee as simply a blues outfit. Although the blues is certainly firmly entrenched at the heart of this male/female duo’s sound, there is much more besides: jazz manouche, old-timey country, folk, ragtime and vaudeville all have their parts to play, which is exactly why I find them more interesting than the well-trodden path of 12-bar blues bores.
Blue Moon Marquee remind me of the wonderful work of C.W. Stoneking and Pokey LaFarge, musicians I imagine possessing record collections in which 78’s outnumber 33⅓’s, and are indebted to the popular music, style and even fashion of seven or eight decades back. This is also apparent of Blue Moon Marquee from merely the packaging of their third full-length offering, Gypsy Blues. Firstly, the lovely sleeve painting, Dancehall, by local artist Donovan Rose puts me in mind of African American folk artist Winfred Rembert’s Deep South speakeasy masterpiece, Inside Cat Odom’s Café. And inside the CD, the handsome duo are pictured in vintage threads, the images looking for all the world like the pair could have stepped out of the 1930s. Finally, most tellingly, included in the credits are Lonnie Johnson, Charlie Patton, Django Reinhardt, Memphis Minnie and…er…Danzig.
Formed just four years ago by A. W. Cardinal (vocals, guitar), a Metis of Cree heritage, and Jasmine Colette (double bass, drums, vocals), Blue Moon Marquee has gigged and recorded pretty much solidly ever since. They have popped up on almost every relevant local bill and have established venue residencies since their arrival on Vancouver Island a year or so ago, making a lot of friends in the process with their kickass live performances. On top of hundreds of shows, Stainless Steel Heart (2013), Lonesome Ghosts (2014), the 2014 4-song digital EP, Last Dollar, and now Gypsy Blues have all been delivered since 2012 as the excellent results of a work ethic I greatly admire.
This latest offering is Blue Moon Marquee’s best yet. Over twelve bluesy, jazzy, swingin’ nuggets ranging from head-nodders to stompers, with a waltz in there for good measure, no great lyrical ground is broken – with tales of the poor side of town, whiskey, beer, lost love, tough women, prison time, more whiskey and song titles like Pour Me One, Driftin’ and Saddle Sore – but it is a fabulous listen throughout. Cardinal’s powerful voice is a raspy roar with another huge influence, Tom Waits, stamped all over it, and his deft picking is one moment as soulful as that of Mississippi John Hurt, and reflective of the buoyant style of the great Reinhardt himself the next. Cardinal’s playing is grittier and a tad looser, however, but that is a compliment rather than a criticism, as it adds a real earthy edge to what is generally a cultured sound. His riffs are comfortably familiar, taking the templates of his heroes and working out his own melodies from those starting points, by listening hard and practicing endlessly.
Cardinal takes lead vocal on all but song, the sultry Ain’t No Stranger, on which Colette vamps it up in a song of gratitude for the kind of man she/the narrator has found to share her life. It is a sexy performance and a nice contrast to Cardinal’s guttural, both-barrels-blazin’ vocal attack. Mention should be made here of one aspect of Blue Moon Marquee’s popularity, being Colette’s solid, physical style of double bass playing, which is a treat to witness in a live setting. She rocks from side to side as much as her seated position will allow, eyes closed and lost in the groove, simultaneously playing bass drum and hi-hat with foot pedals, occasionally bashing a cymbal with her hand between bass notes. Who needs a drummer?
Recorded at Vancouver’s Afterlife Studios, produced by Erik Nielsen (bass player for the city’s roots rockers Rich Hope and Ben Rogers), Gypsy Blues is a firecracker of an album that, in the realm of contemporary blues, avoids certain clichés by incorporating the aforementioned influences. In that respect it ticks all the boxes for this fussy blues listener, but above all it is a testament to Blue Moon Marquee’s damn hard work, and as I write they are typically on another (40-date) North American tour, it would seem they have no intention of easing up any time soon.
Gypsy Blues is Out Now