Blues in the blood

'It's a love thing," says guitarist Manfred Janssen. "We could all be doing other things, and we do a bit, but it always comes back to wanting to play some blues," says drummer Ed White. "We just dig it," Janssen adds.

‘It’s a love thing,” says guitarist Manfred Janssen.

“We could all be doing other things, and we do a bit, but it always comes back to wanting to play some blues,” says drummer Ed White.

“We just dig it,” Janssen adds.

The two describe themselves as products of the same era: the Toronto Sound, as it is known throughout rhythm and blues circles around the world.

The clubs that lined Yonge Street and the coffeehouses of Yorkville in the mid-to-late 1960s saw Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Steppenwolf, Ronnie Hawkins – and his Hawks that would later become known as The Band, and many others also saw much younger versions of Janssen and White.

When the two talk about the blues, they get so excited they talk over one another constantly, often finishing each other’s sentences. They refer to other blues musicians as “cats” and pepper their comments with affirmations like “you know it” and “that’s right.”

When they talk about their younger days in Ontario, they continuously unravel into a world of band and club names that few know, or remember: Jon and Lee and the Checkmates, Luke and the Apostles, Chez Monique and the Rockpile.

But they never knew each other back then.

It was only about five years ago, here in the Yukon, when they met and realized they lived similar lives: moving in the same circles, playing the same gigs, watching the same shows, all in the same place.

But when they did meet, along with piano player Annie Avery and bassist Drew Thompson, the “juvenile delinquent” of the group who is 20 years their junior, it was an instant connection, they say.

“When you’re into the same music, it doesn’t take long,” says White.

“Music is an international language,” says Thompson. “A ‘C’ is still a ‘C’, the note’s still going to be the same, no matter where you play it.”

Originally from North Carolina, Thompson came to the Yukon for a girl – now his wife and mother to his children. He says playing with White and Janssen, who both found the territory through love as well, has been like going to “blues school.”

“That’s the one good thing about music. If you want to know how to do it for real, you have to get with people that have done it,” says Thompson. “You have to get with the cats who played the stuff and have been there.”

Thompson just absorbed music as a youngster, he says, and has never looked back.

“I’ve been on the road for the past 10, 12 years or so,” he says. “I was your typical, working musician, hustling whatever gigs I could get.”

“I’ve played stuff which, I can be honest with you, was just about the money – it was just about being paid,” he says.

“This isn’t about that.”

“This is about people being together, chemistry is there, you can feel the songs. That’s what the blues can do to you.”

Whenever the conversation grows quiet, their heads nodding to recognize a good point, repetitive slide guitar chords glide out of the room’s speakers, accompanied by plaintive blues-singer growls, filling the silence.

It’s those everyday stories from everyday people that you can relate to, Thompson says of the genre.

“A perfect medicine,” says Janssen who says he never leaves the stage feeling bad.

It’s only ever a few chords, he says, but his face contorts to the suggestion this repetition gets old.

“It’s what you do with them,” White jumps in.

“All you got is the emotion you put into it,” says Janssen.

“Blues is life,” White says.

Music is the main priority for all three musicians, who now pay their bills by backing and directing other artists and working for the local radio.

But all three have led successful music careers as artists and band members on international stages.

One of Janssen’s solo tracks was featured in the Special Olympics’ opening ceremonies this past year. White was given a Maple Blues Award for best drummer in 2000, when he played with the Juno-winning group Fathead, and Thompson’s impressive resume even includes shows for the American troops in South Korea.

Here in Whitehorse, however, the Janssen White Band – more colloquially referred to as Freddie and Eddie – call the Gold Pan Saloon home.

“There’s a little bit of room up here (for blues),” the two say in unexpected unison, both holding their thumbs and index fingers before their squinting eyes to stress how tiny the space is.

It’s hard to be a blues band up here, there’s not much of a scene.

They have been invited to play the Porquis Bluesfest in July and are looking forward to heading back to Ontario for a little bit.

But the main goal right now is getting back into the studio, they say.

“The big thing is getting product out there so we can get on to that stuff: blues concerts around Canada. So we’re looking for a rich backer,” says White with his gruff chuckle.

“We’re going to be doing it, whatever happens, it’s just something we do,” says White.

“And every time we get to play, it’s such a good thrill,” says Janssen who says he always thinks of his performances as “honest.”

“Blues is life,” White says again. He reminisces about an old, Toronto friend/blues musician who played a song with the lyrics: The blues runs through me.

“When you’re in a club and it’s really happening and hopping with blues music, and people are into it, that connection – it’s hypnotic. It’s infectious and it makes you happy. There’s so much blues out there in the world and it’s a part of life for me.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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