Big Dave McLean steps outside his comfort zone

With decades in the blues business, Big Dave McLean is still finding ways to learn and grow

With decades of blues under his belt, you would think Winnipeg blues man Big Dave McLean has played and seen it all.

He is still finding ways to step out of his comfort zone with his latest album. Better The Devil You Know, the latest offering from McLean which came out last year, has been received well worldwide since its release.

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A collaboration of blues, folky Americana tunes and more, Better The Devil You Know was produced by acclaimed Canadian guitarist Steve Dawson.

It was McLean’s second album with Dawson, who currently works in Nashville out of Henhouse Studio.

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“It’s always been a thrill for me because it gets me out of my comfort zone, my regular style of playing which would be a little more early Chicago and Mississippi-delta flavours. Whereas we have a little bit of country sounds and even my original stuff is a little different than what I used to write,” McLean said.

It’s a step outside of his familiar styles and the old touchstones of blues writing. McLean said Dawson was a big driving force behind the switch from what he called the “cliché blue style.”

Though McLean noted, he was not getting tired of the traditional blues.

“Hell no, not at all. That’s been my life, it’s what I do,” McLean laughed. “(Dawson) put a whole different spin on it, even my original stuff. I would write something and I would show it to Steve and the band and they would add any flavour they wanted. Sometimes it would turn out a little different than what I thought it would be when I first composed, but you got to be open minded.”

Working with the vocals of Ann and Regina McCrary, of Nashville’s McCrary Sisters, Kevin McKendree on keyboards, Fats Kaplin (legendary string player who has worked with Mark Knopfler, Waylon Jennings and more) and Johnny Dymond and Gary Craig of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.

“It was amazing I had a wonderful time playing with all these guys. It was like being in a candy store,” McLean said. “I was thrilled. They really helped me grow as a musician and a player.”

There were no months of rehearsal or practice beforehand, with most of the artists meeting McLean for the first time in Nashville for the recording.

“I’d have a rough idea what we were going to play but it was up to everyone to bring the magic to the moment. That’s the cool thing about recording live in the studio with everybody is that it’s a feeling man. It goes down immediately. It’s not a paint-by-numbers sort of situation,” McLean said. “It’s emotions and raw passion and feel.”

With 40-plus years playing blues, McLean would only change one thing if he could go back in time.

“More barbecue,” McLean said with a hearty laugh. “I read that on an album cover, if you could go back and change things what would you do, I’d have more barbecue.”

McLean is often asked about the time he spent with arguably the biggest legend in blues, Muddy Waters, first meeting in 1977 when he opened for him at a Winnipeg concert hall. He compared the times as an opening act for Waters, and the time they spent together outside the stage, to “having a good professor.”

“I got to spend a fair bit of time in his dressing room talking to him. Sitting around telling jokes and having a good time with the band,” McLean said. “I’ve been very fortunate over the years. I’ve had the opportunity to meet quite a handful of the first-stringers like Muddy, Snooky Pryor and Johnny Shines.”

He said he could talk for hours about his different encounters with almost every blues legend there is.

“It helps you grow and had some real good personal experiences with them too and some stories you can’t share,” McLean laughed.

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McLean is getting through the Winnipeg winter plugging away at different things. He joked he’s currently working on a few new songs “so the crowd isn’t always singing along with me,” and working with different bands he’s part of across Canada — Raoul and The Big Time out of Toronto, the Electrifiers out of Calgary, bands from the Yukon, Vancouver and more.

“That’s the cool thing that makes even the old material people are used to hearing you play, it has a different spin on it with every different band you get together with,” McLean said. “Each one of those players has a whole different way of playing those songs. I always find that fascinating I would love to record an album with all the different groups.”

Big Dave McLean comes to the Penticton Dream Music Festival May 12 and 13 at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre. Tickets and more information available at www.thedreammusicfestival.ca.

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