Despite frustrating restrictions on public performance, the 2020s have been a particularly fertile time for Canadian blues rockers, at least as far as their recorded output is concerned. Several of Canada’s established stars have released new albums, and exciting new talents have appeared on the scene.
There’s no unique “Canadian sound”; musicians from the Great Blue North map the same range of styles as their south-of-the-border and across-the-pond colleagues. Their influences are Delta and Chicago blues and Memphis R&B, as well as ‘sixties and ‘seventies blues rock.
A list implies a ranking, but these albums are too diverse to be usefully compared: there’s everything from thunderous rock to old-timely acoustic picking. The only metric is the listener’s enjoyment, and that’s unavoidably subjective.
Here’s a dozen of the most interesting collections from north of the border, all released in the first few years of the Roaring 2020s.
Anthony Gomes: High Voltage Blues (Rat Pak Records, 2022)
If you’re looking for an alternative to being shot out of a cannon, strap on your ‘phones and give the aptly-named High Voltage Blues a listen. Gomes’ latest release is a relentless procession of a thunderous riffs and scorching guitar licks. The anthemic “I Believe” and the two versions of “Darkest Before Dawn”, a slow blues that premiered on Gomes’ Unity album back in 2002, provide changes of pace, but the emphasis here is on thermonuclear blues-rock. High Voltage Blues offers fresh takes on some of Gomes’ strongest material, so it’s a great introduction to his impressive body of work.
Angelique Francis: Long River (Independent, 2022)
A former child prodigy who performed on the Oprah Network at 13, Angelique Francis plays stand-up bass, piano, guitar, and harmonica, and sings brilliantly. She’s also blessed with charisma and stage presence. Did I mention that she wrote most of the songs on her two albums? The title song of her latest set is a gospel-tinged chant that contrasts acoustic guitar with a Chet Baker-esque trumpet solo. By the end of the song, Francis explores her range of vocal techniques, bringing some gravel into her voice and then soaring into her upper register. Francis is a young artist on her way up, and her second album is a can’t-miss treat for blues fans.
The Damn Truth: Now or Nowhere (Spectra Musique, 2021).
Montréal rockers The Damn Truth can be surprisingly eclectic, but their home turf is ferocious blues-rock that takes us back to the glory days of Led Zeppelin and the Jeff Beck Group and adds a touch of punkish craziness—think Iggy and the Stooges, circa 1973. There’s a nice mix of tempos here, but if you’re looking for their usual high-energy rock, this set won’t disappoint.
Colin James: Open Road (Stony Plain Records, 2021)
BRR’s Fidel Beserra called this “an album deeply rooted in the blues and Americana tradition but made bigger by its rock elements”, and that’s an accurate assessment. Open Road is heavy on covers, and could be seen as Colin James’ tribute to some of his influences: there’s choice cuts from the likes of Magic Sam, Albert King, Doyle Bramhall, Tony Joe White, Otis Rush, and John Lee Hooker, as well as two songs from different eras of Bob Dylan’s career. On the Otis Redding classic “I Love You More Than Words Can Say”, James reminds us how soulful a vocalist he can be; it takes some brass to cover Otis, but James acquits himself well. Despite the emphasis on covers, it’s “There’s A Fire”, co-authored by James and Colin Linden, that really stands out: James shows off his silky but incisive guitar work, and the melody and lyrics weave a mesmerizing spell.
Sue Foley: Pinky’s Blues, (Stony Plain Records, 2021)
Sue Foley’s pink paisley Telecaster, known to its friends as “Pinky”, gets a workout here, with a couple of instrumentals, the title tune and the jump blues “Okie Dokie Stomp”. Foley’s latest release is as much a tribute to her adopted home in the Lone Star State, though, as it is a love song to her favorite axe. “Two-Bit Texas Town”, written by Angela Strehli, is a tribute to the pantheon of Texas bluesmen, and “Dallas Man” and “Southern Men” continue that theme. Foley likes to record live in studio, and that preference, as well as her choice of band-mates, accounts for the vitality and fun of this set.
Shakura S’Aida Hold on to Love (Independent, 2022).
Toronto based singer, songwriter, and actress Shakura S’Aida’s fourth album, Hold on to Love, was nominated for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year at the 2023 JUNO Awards (Canada’s answer to the Grammys), but pigeon-holing it as “roots music” seems too limiting: Hold on to Love blends the traditional with the creative, heads into gospel on some tracks and R&B on others. Paige Armstrong, from S’Aida’s touring band, is the go-to guitarist here, but guest guitarist Eric Gales contributes high-velocity fills around S’Aida’s strutting vocal on “Ain’t Got Nothin’ On Me”. “Doodun” reveals the subtilties of S’Aida’s vocal style; she can take a song from zero to Mach 3 in seconds, and her delivery is always confident and melodic.
Blue Moon Marquee: Scream, Holler & Howl (Independent, 2022)
Blue Moon Marquee would be right at home in a Depression-era speakeasy imagined by David Lynch. Jasmine Colette is the one-woman rhythm section, working the slap bass while chiming cymbals and thumping a drum. Her partner, A.W. Cardinal, is a monumental presence on stage, and his T-Bone Walker guitar grooves are the perfect complement to his distinctive voice. The contrast between Cardinal’s Satchmo growl and Colette’s sweet, jazzy contralto gives BMM a wide range of textures and moods. Don’t turn around while you’re watching them perform: that’s John Dillinger at the table behind you, romancing Jean Harlow, and they don’t like to be disturbed.
David Gogo: Silver Cup (Cordova Bay Records/Fontana North, 2021)
David Gogo has released 16 albums in a range of styles from country blues to badass blues-rock. Silver Cup leans toward the acoustic end of that spectrum and features fellow Maple Blues Award winner Steve Marriner, who produced the album and contributed harp, bass, and piano. Stand-out tracks include the salty, good-humoured “Blues For Dollface” (“You really get my engine going, and I don’t need no little blue pill”) and “Old Enough to Know Better”, which showcases Marriner’s harp. “Top Shelf” is touching elegy to a fellow musician, and the title track, inspired by a family heirloom, highlights Gogo’s acoustic guitar technique.
The Harpoonist & The Axe Murderer: Live At The King Eddy (Tonic Records, 2022)
After the out-there experimentation of their previous album, Post Apocalipstick, the popular west coast duo of Shawn Hall and Matt Rogers gets back to its roots with this foot-stompin’ live set. Live at the King Eddy was recorded at a Calgary blues bar using the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio, which now resides at the National Music Centre in that city. The menu for this feast includes choice cuts from Apocalipstick (2017), Checkered Past (2012), and A Real Fine Mess (2014). Geoff Hilhorst mans the ivories, and back-up singers Dawn Pemberton and Alexa Dirks step up front for “Roll with the Punches/Sweat This Pain”.
Crystal Shawanda: Midnight Blues (True North Records, 2022)
Shawanda started her career as a country singer, and there’s still a hint of prairie twang in her delivery. The title track from her latest collection, “Midnight Blues”—not to be confused with the Charlie Rich hit—gives Shawanda an opportunity to show off both the rough edges in her voice and her smooth upper register; the result is a convincing lament that’s further enlivened by some tasty blues guitar from her husband and producer, Dewayne Strobel. As Strobel has noted, country and blues have a lot in common, and Shawanda can work on both ends of that spectrum with equal success.
Layla Zoe: The World Could Change (Cable Car Records, 2022)
Layla Zoe’s 13th album was produced by Henrik Freischlader, who also contributed guitar work and collaborated with the singer on writing all twelve cuts. Zoe and Freischlader give themselves room to stretch out, with several tracks weighing in at over six minutes. There’s a range of moods and styles here, but Zoe is at her best when she has a heavy blues-rock rhythm behind her powerhouse alto voice, as on “Jasmine” and the unforgettable “Dark Heart”. The title track has a Brechtian, theatrical feel, and other songs feature Zoe’s ability to shift into a higher register and a lighter, jazzy tone. The World Could Change is a memorable showcase for one of the most powerful blues-rock singers extant.
Philip Sayce: Spirit Rising (Warner Music, 2020)
Welsh-born, Toronto-raised guitar-slinger Philip Sayce is a sonic explorer in the mold of Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Gales. He’s a competent singer and songwriter, but it’s his jaw-dropping six-string acrobatics that make his work a must-hear. His latest collection, Spirit Rising, mixes originals such as “Once”, a moving tribute to Sayce’s father, with covers of Magic Sam’s “Give Me Time” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Awful Dreams”. Legendary Canadian bluesman Jeff Healey was a mentor to Sayce, and his “One Foot on the Gravel” gets a fine rendition here. “Black Roller Coming” is a standout track, but there are no weak moments: from the Davie Allan biker-movie mayhem of the brief overture to the lyrical exit music of “5:55”, Sayce’s latest offering will definitely lift your spirit.