The blues have a long tradition in Canada and there have been great Canadian blues players and bands, like Jeff Healy, Downchild Blues Band and Dutch Mason. Mason in particular had a roughness and soul that put him alongside great American bluesman.
Guitar player and singer/songwriter, Mark 'West Coast' Comerford - naturally from the country's west coast. - is another Canadian bluesman who plays the real thing. He's not famous but he has recorded albums and gigged all over the country while playing exactly what he wants - the blues. He started way back in the mid-70's and as 2013 approaches, Comerford is still playing the blues.
"I been playing blues for 43 years and started playing it just because I was attracted to it." the 57 year-old said during a recent interview at his home in Victoria, B.C.. "I was fortunate to have older brothers around who were playing blues records when I was growing up. It was also an easy music to get together and jam with when you're just learning to pick.
"I have played other types of music like rockabilly and rhythm and blues but I have come full circle back to blues. It's like putting on comfortable clothes or something. it just feels right. I feel that being a blues man has a great tradition and I have to admit that when I get on my black suit, sunglasses and fedora, in my own mind I feel like I am the coolest thing going."
Comerford's favorites: Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson
When he started playing he was listening to players that today are still his favorites, blues stars like Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lowell Fulsom. He and his drummer for years, Ciggy Johnson, would rent a place to live with a basement and when they didn't get a gig for a week or so, Comerford says they'd simply invite people over and play.
The early years were great times, he says, the gigs and a near-obsession with blues. He'd buy as many blues albums as he could and built up a collection of hundreds, learning from each record he played. It wasn't just electric players he learned from, either. He began each Sunday listening to Reverend Gary Davis then on to other country blues players like Mississippi John Hurt, Lighting Hopkins and Robert Johnson. It was a tradition he and his drummer kept up for years. He still listens to those players.
Songwriting important to bluesman
Listening to so much stuff from so many great blues players contributed to a desire to write blues himself. He started writing early in his career and continues writing blues songs. He's written with his drummer, who said over the phone he would bring lyrics and melody ideas to get Comerford to "make into a song." On his own, Comerford has written dozens of blues songs.
"For me playing originals has always been a big reason to play music and I guess my goal is to get more recognition as a songwriter and performer," he said. Comerford's songs have played a major role on the three albums he's recorded in his career. His uptempo salute to love, Lovin' received lots of radio play when it came out, and still does.
He's got a band going now called 'The West Coast Blues Doctors' and he proudly says he's got a "...great big grab bag of songs and ideas for songs that I have co-written with Ciggy or written on my own to go drawing from. There are not that many bluesmen in Canada writing good blues songs and I like to think I'm one of them."
Playing the blues, recording blues, touring blues
Two of the albums he made was with a band called 'Uncle Wiggly's Hot Shoes Blues Band', who were recently elected into the Victoria Blues Hall of Fame (tracks from those albums are available on iTunes). Another was with the great Hubert Sumlin, who died late in 2011, for years Howlin' Wolf's guitar player. He and Johnson met Sumlin on a pilgrimage to Chicago in 1978 where they jammed all night in a West Side club. They eventually played with him in Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria and on Saltspring Island. For Comerford it was invaluable.
"We hit it off immediately and I got the name of Hubert's manager and arranged to fly him out to do some gigs with us. Playing with him gave me more confidence in my sense of how the guitar should fit into the musical spectrum onstage. Hubert plays with an effortless ease and there is a softness to it he while at the same time his rhythm is like a jungle beat and it has a looseness and drive that carries the music along.
"To rub elbows with a blues superstar like Hubert was a dream come true. I continue to learn from the experience as I recorded as much as I could for future reference and I love playing old vinyl Howlin' Wolf records and listening to Hubert." Sumlin died late in 2011 but Comerford continues listening to the legendary guitar man's music.
Mixing family life and the blues
Over the years Comerford had a chance to meet and even play with other great blues musicians, a highlight was two gigs with Waters, the last in Vancouver's famed Commodore Ballroom months before the legendary bluesman died. He said just meeting Muddy and being on a bill with him was one of the greatest music thrills he's ever experienced. Some of the other bluesman he enjoyed meeting were Johnny Littlejohn, Walter 'Shaky' Horton and the blues drumming legends, Fred Below and Clifton James.
When younger, before the responsibility of kids (he's got three "wonderful" daughters) Comerford played more, toured more, was immersed in the music more. He's had to find other ways of earning money and for years has run a day care for people with developmental disabilities. But he still plays the blues in clubs and in concerts in Victoria, where he's well known, and, though less often nowadays, hits the road now and again.
"I still feel like I might get famous one day, no different than when I was a kid. When I listen to my solos it sounds to me like they go on a musical journey and I'd love to take lots of other people on it. At least trying to make great blues makes me happy and as long as I can find an audience, I'll keep playing."