He may have been a little too young to frequent such an establishment, but there’s not a law in the books that will prevent a bluesman and barroom from becoming acquainted, and Andrew Galloway still remembers that rambunctious teenaged evening in 1972 when he slipped into a Toronto tavern to watch one of the genre’s true behemoths hold court.
“It started for me when I went to see Howlin’ Wolf when I was 17,” the founder and president of Electro-Fi Records explains while cradling a cold one in an apartment plastered with paintings and paraphernalia honouring blues greats of the past and present.
“I went down to Yonge Street with some buddies of mine to see a local band and it was sold out so we were just walking down Yonge Street, and a sign said: “This Week Appearing: Howlin’ Wolf”…so we went and checked it out.”
“The phrase, ‘may be too intense for younger viewers’ comes to mind,” he adds with a smile. “This was just like the soul of man and I was just blown away. It scared me because it was so intense, I didn’t know music could be that intense…so that’s where the road trip into the blues started, with Howlin’ Wolf.”
Electro-Fi Founder Andrew Galloway. (Muddy Waters painting by artist Dania Madera Lerman.)
For the next 20-plus years Galloway engulfed himself in what he mischievously calls ‘that devil’s music,’ soaking in boozy live performances and seeking out rare scratchy recordings from long forgotten singers and stars alike. He even flirted with the idea of starting his own label — flirtations that developed into an arduous affair when he realized that dreams, like hard-living bluesmen, have a limited lifespan.
“I was working in the corporate world, working in corporate communications, and the big 4-0 was on the horizon and I thought gee, I always wanted to have a label…if I’m going to do this I better get to it now.”
In the fall of 1996, he founded Electro-Fi records, and hasn’t looked back since.
At the time, it was an abrupt and somewhat disorienting career change.
“I thought well this is good because if it doesn’t work I can just write it off to a weird mid-life crisis. But it’s worked, it’s a small market but it’s a very loyal market the blues, and people that are with you, they are with you.”
In a similar fashion to Fat Possum records, which chronicled the largely overlooked, but brilliantly raw works of Mississippi hill country bluesmen like R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough, Galloway was intent on recording the artists he felt didn’t get their fair shake from the industry.
“Some of the older guys, there’s nobody like these guys who have lived the kind of lives and have the kind of stories. When they are gone sadly that’s a whole era of music that’s gone.”
“I recorded Malcolm “Little Mack” Simmons, who was kind of an unsung hero of Chicago blues who came up in the early 50s…that was our first release and man it’s a learn as you go business, there’s no school that you go to.”
Galloway gets up and throws an old Muddy Waters record on the vintage turntable he proudly snagged at a garage sale. The first guttural groans of Manish Boy fill the air and he can’t help but get a bit sentimental.
“A lot of that post-war generation, God love ’em, they were maybe the cream of the blues, the greatest generation,” he continues. “But a lot of those guys are sadly gone, or they are not recording. So it’s time for a new generation of blues.”
When he talks about the new ‘generation’, he’s referring in large part to Electro-Fi artist Julian Fauth. The multiple Juno nominee is the freshest face on Galloway’s label and he represents the inevitable changing of the guard. He’s also a rare performer who manages to tread the fine line between traditional blues and his own unique style that defies classification.
“He’s one of a kind Julian…It’s like he’s from another time, he’s such a student of the blues. He kind of takes all the pieces of the puzzle and he puts it back together in a way that’s much different than anyone else,” boasts Galloway, who sealed a deal with Fauth the old-fashioned way — with a handshake.
“He does something that is virtually impossible to do, which is to take old style blues traditions, and not mimic it, but to combine that with his own original voice and lyricism, and it’s just magical.”
“It’s a foot in the future and a foot in the past.”
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and Julian Fauth is stomping out a John Lee Hooker-style beat on the floorboard while attacking the beat-up piano with brawling intensity. It’s his usual matinee gig at Axis Bar and Grill in the Junction, and although there’s no more than a dozen people on hand, Fauth and bass player James Thomson are putting on an inspired performance.
Fauth’s interest in the blues began when he was just six-years-old and happened to receive a record from his father that was packed with legendary performers.
“My dad gave me a discarded LP that he picked up at a radio station and it was called The Golden Blues, it had about 20 tracks, Mississippi John Hurt, Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy…all the way up to Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and some great live recordings of John Lee Hooker and Otis Span and Lightning Hopkins was on there too.”
“I just fell in love with the blues, I used to get around 25 cents allowance a week and I’d save that up and I would buy a record and bug my parents to buy me records and that’s how it started.”
Howie Moore is seated at the side of the stage, entranced by the delicate but brawny interplay between Fauth on piano and Thomson on the standing bass. The lines in his face tell more stories than his words ever will, but he’s quick to explain the personal significance of Fauth’s music.
“The first time I walked into a gig that Julian was playing I thought that I had been transported to the main street in New Orleans, this is exactly what it sounds like down there in more bars than you could ever imagine.”
“There’s always a piano and there’s always somebody up there playing and he sounds like the real genuine article. It just transports you.”
Blues fan Howie Moore
And therein lies the great accomplishment and ongoing challenge of Fauth’s music — conjuring up sounds from a storied past, while writing songs that are relevant to our times. It’s a challenge he embraces and an ability that sets him far apart from standard 12-bar blues practitioners.
“I don’t find it hard to play the traditional style because that’s really all I know how to do,” he humbly admits. “But I’ve always tried to write songs that have something to do with the world we live in now.”
Julian Fauth at Axis Bar and Grill
Back at Galloway’s apartment the beer is still flowing and the records are still spinning. Despite his respect and love of the old guard, he realizes that change comes with the territory.
“I’m always open to new talent, you have to move forward,” he admits. “I’m more into younger talent these days…I’m not interested in anybody doing B.B. King songs because B.B.’s been here, he’s done that, you can’t improve on it. But guys like Julian Fauth are bringing something new to the blues while remaining true to the tradition of the blues.”
“I’m looking for people to make the next step down the road.”
As Galloway sees it, the time is ripe for a blues revival. Not only are blues-rooted bands like the White Stripes and Black Keys making young listeners aware of pertinent influences like Son House and Junior Kimbrough, but the economic times we’re living in seem more in tune with the blues than any other form of music.
“The blues comes out of hard times, it’s born out of hard times, and it gives you some relief from hard times, it makes you feel that you’re not in this alone.”
“It’s shelter from hard times and everyone can use a little bit of that these days.”
Fauth With Bassist James Thomson
Thomson at Axis
Axis Gallery & Grill 3048 Dundas St. W. 416-604-3333
Every Sat & Sun Julian Fauth noon-3pm