Pianist’s new album defies the blues

Victoria-based blues pianist David Vest has been touring Canada and parts of the U.S. in support of his acclaimed new album Roadhouse Revelation (Cordova Bay Records). The Alabama-born Vest won Canada’s Maple Blues Award for Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year, and his album reached No.1 in Canada on the Roots Music Chart. Known as a boogie-woogie piano player, Vest has jammed with legends such as Big Joe Turner and Bo Diddley, and opened for Roy Orbison before Vest was old enough to vote. Vest’s shows have been selling out across the country, and he will return to Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria on May 1. The Coastal Spectator’s Emmett Robinson Smith chatted with Vest before a recent show.

Your new album Roadhouse Revelation incorporates a lot of styles, from the guitar-driven light-rock of “Stand Your Ground” to the Latin-infused “Santa Fe Steamer” to the piano-based groove of “Ramblin’ Man.” How deliberate was this?

I’m really big into co-mingling the different arts. I don’t think blues musicians should just listen to blues. They should listen to all others. They need to get out and meet the painters and dancers. I’m thinking about doing theatre. So I have a friend in the blues, Raoul Bhaneja, who is the actor that’s on Canadian TV all the time, and he’s put together a play called Life, Death and the Blues. He’s got this soul singer, Divine Brown, co-starring in it with him, and they invited me to be a guest performer in the play in Toronto and Winnipeg and Edmonton. It’s a great show. I’ve seen it five times now. It gets better every time… It’s got a live band playing in it and it just knocks away every cliché of the blues. You know, if you’re in this field, it’s really burdensome. People have stumbling old dorks playing the blues and the boring, plodding bar-band music that young people think of it as, and it’s not that at all. So it’s nice to see the story get told right.

Do you find there’s a different attitude towards the blues in Canada than back where you’re from?  When people think “blues music,” they don’t usually associate it with Canada. It’s more of a Southern thing.

There’s definitely an openness to my style of it. My style is… I don’t sound much like the typical old blues festival blues act. First of all, I’m a piano player, and sometimes I play blues festivals without a guitar or a harmonica or any of those iconic instruments. I bring in some sax players like Fats Domino used to. And I do material all the way back from the nineteenth century. It’s not just BB King. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s a lot of unheard stuff out there.

Your new album Roadhouse Revelation is super tight musically, and your piano playing top-notch.  After you released the album last year, you won the Maple Blues Award in Toronto for Piano/Keyboard Player of the Year. It’s our highest blues honour. How do you feel about winning it a second time?

Yeah, the Maple Blues Award again. The first time I won it, two or three years ago, that kind of felt like, “Welcome to Canada. Here’s your award. Glad to have you, now take a seat.” That felt real nice, but I thought it had got something to do with me being the new kid on the block. Not that I’m a kid, but you know, the newness of it all, people haven’t heart me or anything like me, really. Because I play a different style of piano from the other piano players that I know. And there are great ones up here. But this time, it just felt like they’re saying I’m here to stay, and it was a serious thing, and they’re taking me seriously. Sure surprised me.

You have a strong personal connection to Victoria. Your wife, Anne, is from here. That explains the very pretty last song on Roadhouse Revelation, titled “Pretty Things for Anne.”  Strictly solo piano. Can you talk about the origins of this song?

[Anne’s] … dad was in Canadian radio, and she’s a music lover. She likes my field of music, and listens to the local broadcast and the guy in Seattle that does the blues on the weekend. So I met her, came up here and had a cup of tea, and said, “How long has this been going on?”

When I’m on tour, we’ll Skype or FaceTime or something and I say, “What am I forgetting?” and she’ll say, “Don’t forget pretty things for Anne,’ you’re supposed to bring back pretty things for Anne. Jewelry or something. Lingerie, whatever. So one trip I hadn’t had time to pick up anything so I wrote that song.

Blues music is very much based in “realness” lyrically, and your album illustrates this. Do you think this is what makes the blues special?

The one thing that distinguishes this music from others for me is the wealth of stories in it—the characters… the people that sang it and wrote it. Like W.C. Handy grew up in north Alabama, his dad was a minister and he didn’t want him playing this “devil’s music.” You know, “Put the trumpet down, come to church and play the organ.” Handy and three of his friends, teenagers, ran away from home. And they thought, “Well, our parents don’t understand us, we’ll go up to Chicago where people will be into what we’re doing.” They didn’t get anywhere near Chicago. They got up to the Mississippi River to Cairo or someplace, ran out of money, the gigs they thought they were gonna get didn’t materialize, and actually wound up on the street, sleeping on the cobblestones down by the river where the sailors come in. And Handy said that’s where he got the first line of “St. Louis Blues,” when he laid down on the cobblestones trying to sleep in a dangerous neighbourhood. “I hate to see that evening sun go down.” If you’ve been there, you’ll understand where they came from.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

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