In life, there are people who merely go through the motions, and then there are those who set things in motion. Randy Bachman is definitely a setter. Ask him the first question, and he’s off and running, speaking nonstop for ten minutes. Granted, in his long and esteemed music career he’s done thousands of interviews and it’s probably second nature to him, but he really does seems genuinely excited about his latest album Heavy Blues.
The album is a break for Bachman in several ways. Most of his previous work has been self-produced, but this time he chose to work with noted producer Kevin Shirley. In addition, of the 11 tracks on Heavy Blues, seven of the songs feature solos by guest guitarists, including such prominent names as Joe Bonamassa, Neil Young and Peter Frampton.
“This whole thing was spawned by Neil Young,” says Bachman. “We were in Nashville, I got inducted into the Nashville Musician’s Hall of Fame, and Neil was there and I said to him ‘Neil, you won’t believe I just got a record deal!’ He said ‘reinvent yourself. Don’t do the same old stuff, get out of the box, and don’t just say ‘here’s my new album.’ Get a different guitar, get a different amp, change your band, change your whole persona. Change your way of thinking and writing.”
“With this in mind, I didn’t know how to go forward. So I go backwards to my roots, which are the roots of rock and roll—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, who are a step away from Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and things like that. I threw together some songs and started to do the album, and I’m doing a Jimmy Reed song Baby What You Want Me to Do, and Kevin says ‘why are you doing this song?’ And I said ‘I’ve been doing this song for about 40 years, it’s one of my favorite songs.’ He said ‘yeah, but everybody’s done that. There was an album out last year, A Tribute To Jimmy Reed and you’re just doing stuff that’s already been done. Why don’t you rewrite it, make it faster?’ So it becomes Learn to Fly. There’s a line in it ‘baby what you want me to do’ which is the title of the Jimmy Reed song. It progresses that way. Every time I pull out a song, Kevin says ‘don’t do that—everyone’s done that. Write your own.’ So I write my own overnight and we come back and we play it, and it ends up being an album of original songs, which really pushed me, but opened doors for me. Some of the songs that had 12 or 14 chords, really jazzy, like Little Girl Lost I ended up making it a three or four chord riff and Neil Young solos in that and it ends up becoming a very Neil Young/Crazy Horse thing. So I pared everything down to make it simple, to give more emphasis on the vocals and on the guitar playing.”
Bachman’s bandmates on this album are bass player Anna Ruddick and drummer Dale Anne Brendon. He tells the story of how the power trio with the interesting configuration of a 71-year-old man and two 30-something women came to be.
“About a year and a half ago, I went to see Tommy, the new digital version, and I found out that Pete Townshend was going to be there. So I had dinner with him, and sat behind him and watched the play. He leans over and says ‘the drummer is fucking incredible, sounds like Keith Moon.’ We look at the program and it says Dale Brendon. I said ‘I think this is a woman.’ He says ‘It can’t be. A woman can’t play like that, it’s maniacal, like Keith.’ I told him ‘I think it’s Dale Ann Brendan. I played a gig with her. We did some country songs and then we played Taking Care of Business for the encore—she’s really a great drummer. ‘“
“After the show we go backstage and it’s her. I said to her ‘About eight years ago we did a gig together, and I really want to do some recording with you. Let’s do an album, because you’re such a manic on drums and with just me on guitar, and we’ll do a White Stripes-type thing, and she says ‘great, I’m in.’ So I tell Geoff Kulawick [head of True North Records] and my manager and they say ‘uh, that’s a bit overdone. There’s a band in Wales doing that, there’s the Black Keys, why don’t you just get another player?’”
“March of last year BTO was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame in Winnipeg, our home town, which was really cool. There were a zillion bands playing there during Juno Week, it’s kind of like Grammy Week. I go and see a band called Ladies of the Canyon. It’s four incredible ladies who look like Crazy Horse—they’ve got scraggly blond hair, ripped flannels, ripped jeans, and they’re playing like early Eagles or Crazy Horse. Blazing country rock. The bass player’s this gorgeous girl who I meet later. Her name is Anna Ruddick. I ask her about her playing, and find out she’s got a degree in stand-up bass and jazz, but she’s playing in rock and blues bands to pay the rent. I tell her about my project and she says ‘I’m in’.”
Barely pausing to take a breath, Bachman continues: “Out of the blue I call Kevin Shirley, who I’ve known for a long time, and he says he’s booked for three years, ‘but for you I owe you a favor. I’ll give you a week from my vacation time, but you have to come to my place in Malibu because I need time with my wife and kids.’ He flies to Toronto, I get the girls together, and we have one day’s rehearsal to record some demos. I tell them I want them to go a little crazy, Anna shows up in a John Entwistle T-shirt, and I say ‘do you like John Entwistle,’ and she replies ‘he’s my favorite bass player.’ So I have a girl drummer who plays like Keith Moon and a girl bass player who plays like Entwistle. We start playing and my jaw hits the floor: this is just absolutely amazing.”
“I saw The Who in 1967, in London, at the Marquee Club, and it was just like that. There was so much energy it was blowing out the back walls. Along with the sound there was so much exuberance; these girls were constantly pushing, pushing. There’s no relaxing in the rhythm section. Every eight bars there’s more of a push and there’s more stuff going on and it’s really incredible. In five days we did 12 songs, Kevin then left and went to Australia to do Jimmy Barnes and came back to Malibu for three or four days of mixing and balancing the tracks to see what was there, and I flew in to see it and he said ‘by the way, I got my neighbor to play on this—Joe Bonamassa.’ I’ve known Joe for a long time, his dad brought him to a BTO gig when he was like 10 or 11. He looked like Beaver Cleaver and played blues like Buddy Guy. Pretty amazing. A few years before that I was with [Fred] Turner and we played the High Voltage Festival in London and Bonamassa was on right after us, so I got to chat with him. So he did the first solo.”
Bonamassa played on the track Bad Child, and of all the songs on the album, this might be the most interesting because of the marked contrast between his guitar style and Bachman’s. When Bonamassa cuts loose, the difference is instantly noticeable. “His guitar playing is so diametrically opposed to mine, which is a slow Hendrix or Clapton kind of guitar and then he comes in with this biting Les Paul tone and plays two or three times faster than me. It’s such an incredible contrast that it just blows you away as a guitar player.”
Another of the tracks features a solo by the late Jeff Healey, which is a touching tribute to the guitarist who passed away in 2008. “I thought gee, wouldn’t it be great to get my buddy Jeff Healey on there? So I called Jeff’s wife and said to her ‘I’ve got tracks that I did with Jeff in Toronto before he passed away; can I use one of his guitar tracks, I think he’d like to be on this album.’ She said ‘he would love to be on this album, go ahead.’ I took a song called Early In The Morning, which is a BB King song that Jeff and I did, which is in G, and thought ‘I’m just gonna write a song around this in the same key, kind of a Bo Diddly beat, I called it Confessin’ To The Devil. I fly in Jeff’s solo and it fits exactly, because I match the tempo, and when you hear him play it’s very BB King-ish because what’s really behind it is a BB King template and that was on of King’s signature songs, and it was one of Jeff’s also.”
There’s another track on the album, Oh My Lord which contains the unforgettable line “let the bad times roll.” It has such a delicious, bad-boy ring to it—how many times have you heard the overused phrase “let the good times roll?”
“That’s exactly why I wrote it! I’m glad you pointed that out,” says Bachman when asked. “I’m trying to do ‘come on baby let the good time roll’ and there’s all these people saying ‘this is how I roll’ and I thought ‘nobody has ever said let the bad times roll.’ Because life is good and bad, it’s ups and downs. You’ve got to live through the bad times, and then when you live through that you really know what a good time is. I was at a writing camp in Ontario, and as I was singing the verses the girl I was working with started to sing ‘oh my Lord’ over them and I said ‘wow, what’s that?’ So I said ‘OK, that will be the chorus, let’s put it together.’ When I recorded it, Anna Ruddick ended up singing it and it’s so sweet. Rather than having a big choir it’s like a little girl singing along. The song was quite short. We did a video of it, just the three of us, but when we played Frampton’s Guitar Circus in August with Peter and Buddy Guy and Robert Randolph, I saw Robert Randolph for the first time and he blew me away. It was like seeing Hendrix playing a lap steel. I said ‘would you like to play a track on my album?’ And he said ‘brother, I’m in. Send me the track.’ Well, he’s from the church of the pedal steel. I’m gonna send him Oh My Lord, it’s kind of a bluesy, gospel thing. The song is really short, so I said to Kevin Shirley ‘take the intro, put it in about ten times in the middle and we’ll let Robert fill the spot.’ Not only does he fill the spot, every time we go through the progression he plays higher on the neck and he plays better. I told everyone the same thing: I’m not going to tell you what to play—I know how you play. With Peter Frampton, who plays on the title track, I wouldn’t mind some Humble Pie kind of stuff. I don’t want the talk box—give me Humble Pie. When I got the solo back, Heavy Blues, that’s my favorite track. It blows me away. It’s not call-and-response, he steps on my toes a little, he steps on my notes, he’s behind me, and it’s like we’re on stage. We don’t know who’s doing what, but we’re so into the song that we don’t care.”
One of the most exciting aspects of the album (well, at least if you’re a guitar player) is that Bachman will have a contest where the guest guitarist tracks will be available without those solos. People will have the opportunity to add their own solo, with the chosen winner getting the opportunity to play onstage with Bachman. “You record your own guitar solo, send it back to me or the radio stations that are sponsoring this contest, and it’s like The Voice—the best one gets chosen. When I come to town, that person gets on stage with me, gets an Epiphone Les Paul, plays that song with me and also plays Taking Care of Business, and they’re a local hero because the radio station is going to be playing the version of the song with them soloing on it. We’re making all seven of the songs that have guest players available without the solos. People are saying it’s a great idea—it’s like guitar karaoke with a real band. Doesn’t matter if you’re 14 or 65—it’s the solo that matters. As I was growing up I would dream when a band was coming to Winnipeg that they could come on the radio and say ‘Oh, Jimmy Page broke a hand, can anybody play Led Zeppelin’ and I would go and play. Kind of like when Keith Moon passed out, some guy went on stage and played drums, and he was a hero! You keep dreaming of that happening, so I’m going to make that happen.”
At a point in a long, illustrious career where a noted musician could easily release a predictable album and sell a fair amount of copies to loyal fans, Randy Bachman instead puts together a band with two women half his age, relinquishes the production duties and takes a chance by writing songs far outside his comfort zone. But he’s not done yet. He decides to give back to the music community by giving unknown players a chance at the spotlight; a golden ticket to the big stage. Heavy blues indeed.