By David Farrell
Chuck Jackson’s on the phone–the same Chuck Jackson who has been with Downchild Blues Band for the past 32 years, singing and playing the harmonica-and when he’s not, he has several side shuffles that include organizing the annual award-winning Tim Hortons Southside Shuffle Blues and Jazz Festival that he founded 22 years ago.
Chuck’s calling me from Musquodoboit Harbour on a day off between Downchild shows on the east coast. He’s there with his wife visiting family. Mr. Downchild, Donnie Walsh, is flying in later the same day to prepare for the band's appearance at the Rebecca Cohn Theatre in Halifax. It's one of 15 Maritime shows that end May 11 at the Imperial Theatre in Saint John.
“We’re touring our 50th Anniversary Live show (indelibly recorded in June 2019 with guest appearances from David Wilcox, Gene Taylor, Paul Shaffer, Kenny Neal, Erja Lyytinen (from Finland) and Dan Ackroyd). It’s two years after the fact, but this Covid thing has forced us to cancel the East Coast tour five times. Now we are here, finally, and ready to meet our fans,” he tells me.
Travelling in three cars, one for the smokers, there is little time for seeing the countryside, he reports. “Unfortunately, when we’re travelling, we get to the gig, there’s a soundcheck, dinner, hang for a while, do the show, then back to the hotel and tomorrow it’s the start the same all over again.”
But working on the road has its rewards.
“The high points are the shows,” Chuck tells me. “We have such great crowds; I mean, after 52 years, we’ve got three generations of fans coming out to see us. Our original fans who are now grandparents, their kids and now the grandkids. My granddaughter’s coming to the Halifax show, and it will be the first time she has seen me play, so that’s pretty exciting.”
The band works like a well-oiled machine, and with almost 20 studio albums to choose from, there’s no shortage of songs to play–although the expected hits and favourites like Flip, Flop and Fly, I’ve Got Everything I Need (Almost), and Shotgun Blues will be on the setlist any night Downchild performs.Tyler Yarema is a new edition to the line-up, replacing keyboardist Michael Fonfara who died from cancer in January of last year. Yarema’s matinee idol looks, flair as a singer and jump-blues piano performances are adding dynamism to the band “and bringing the average age of band members down from 75 to 65 years old,” Chuck laughingly adds.
Downchild averages about 100 shows a year, always in concert halls or, in summer, playing key festivals. It's a long way from playing Grossman's Tavern on Spadina Road or any number of boozy R&R halls that dot the country. Downchild has grown up, cleaned up its act in part just to survive, and for years now the band and the brand have become synonymous with fun-loving, clean-living blues.
Wrapping up, Chuck wants to make sure he gets a plug for Downchild’s newly released 50th Anniversary – Live At the Toronto Jazz Festival 2020 DVD. “One more thing, our live CD and DVD with Dan Ackroyd and Paul Shaffer is available on our website at Downchild.com, and if you’re interested in knowing where we’re playing in future, you can find that information on our website as well.”
Playing the blues may be fun for these guys, but it’s also a business, and after a long hard climb to the top of the blues universe, there's no forgetting that.