Friday, 18 March 2016

A new Mel Brown CD from the lost tapes of a 1991 show at Pop the Gator

KITCHENER Ont., March 18, 2016 ---- When the late, great soul-funk-jazz-blues fusion guitar master Mel Brown played, everybody listened.

And 25 years ago, when Mel anchored the house band at Pop the Gator on Queen Street South in downtown Kitchener, everybody listened with extra special attention.  That's because the club owner, Glenn Smith, had brought Denny Freeman up from Austin, Texas to play with The Gator's house band --- Mel Brown and the Homewreckers, for three nights in a row.

It happened Feb. 14, 15 and 16 in 1991.  It was magic.  It was transcendent. Two of the shows were recorded and mixed on the fly.  But for 25 years nobody could find the tapes. Then, a box of Mel's unreleased recordings was found in the dusty basement of a Kitchener house on River Road. And Toronto-based ELECTRO-FI Records (electrofi.com) has selected the best tracks and released a new CD called "Over Yonder: Mel Brown Live at Pope the Gator 1991."

So a CD release party and tribute to Mel's music is scheduled for Saturday, March 19, 2016 at the Starlight Lounge and Social Club in Waterloo. The door opens at 7 p.m.  This promises to be one of the best blues shows of the year in Southern Ontario.

"I never thought there would be another Mel Brown release," Andrew Galloway, the head of ELECTRO-FI Records, said.

The first cut on the new CD is called "Shawn's Shuffle."  Mel wrote that instrumental song for Shawn Kellerman, one of several talented musicians who learned everything they could from Mel during jam nights at Pop the Gator, the Red Pepper and the Circus Room.

"When I was going up to jams every Wednesday, and I was like 17 or something like that, Mel would always kind of get me up on this song," Kellerman said.  "He started this melody, and he played it over and over from week to week, and all of a sudden one week he said: 'You know what? It's yours."

Kellerman will not be at the CD release party Saturday  because he is touring in Australia with Lucky Peterson's band.  Kellerman is the music director for Lucky's band.  Mel's musical influence is still heard around the world during Kellerman's blistering solos (shawnkellerman.com).

"I loved Denny Freeman and I loved Mel.  It was two totally different guitar players, but I just loved both their styles. One was raunchy and one was jazzy, and they both switched off on piano and organ.  I was in love with both guitar players," Kellerman said.

Denny (dennyfreeman.com) and Mel both played in the house band at Antone's in Austin.  Denny and Mel also played together in Angela Strehli's  band.  Freeman was a mentor to Jimmy and Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Mel played and recorded with a long list of legends, including T-Bone Walker, B.B King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Hubert Sumlin, Bobby Blue Bland, John Lee Hooker, Van Morrison, Waylon Jennings and Willy Nelson.

In 1989 Glenn Smith travelled to Austin and offered Mel a new job --- Come to Kitchener and anchor the house band at a new blues club called Pop the Gator.  Mel arrived in December 1989, six months after he had married Miss Angel in a ceremony in Clifford Antone's living room in Austin.  Clifford gave Angel away to Mel. Kaz Kazanoff played "Here Comes the Bride" on his tenor sax.  The wedding reception and party were held back at the blues club.

Kitchener blues fans embraced Mel like no other musician.  He remains the musical spirit of the Kitchener Blues Festival, one of the biggest and most successful blues festivals in North America.

In addition to Kellerman, Mel mentored and taught several Kitchener musicians who went o to become the leading  blues artists of their generation, including Julian Fauth (julianfauth.com), and Steve Strongman (stevestrongman.com).  Julian usually plays with Angel for the Friday night show that kicks off the weekend of the Kitchener Blues Festival (kitchenerbluesfestival.com).

Miss Angel has gathered the original members of The Homewreckers for this very special night -- Randall Coryell on drums, Al Richardson on bass, and John Lee on keys. Chris Latta will play guitar.  Chris is the keeper of an old, hollow-bodied Gibson that Mel played for decades.  It is signed by B.B. King.

Also expected at Saturday's show are blues singer Charity Brown, guitarist Rob Daymon, accordian player and singer Sylvia DiDinato and The Divines.

The new CD will bring back memories for many blues fans, but Kellerman needs no help in recalling the three nights of incredible music.

"It is a show I will never forget," Kellerman said.  "I used to talk about that show with everybody.  I would be like: 'Man that was one of the best nights I heard.'  Mel and Denny.  It's like Mel was with one of his old buddies."

Added Kellerman:  "It was like one of the best shows I have ever heard in my life, to this day."

After the shows finished John Lee had possession of the tapes for a few days.  So Kellerman and Lee dubbed the recordings onto some cassettes.  Lee made Kellerman promise he would not tell anyone.  For years Kellerman listened to the cassettes.  Lee also dubbed cassettes for Mel, which disappeared into his box of unreleased recordings for 25 years.

"I have been listening to it forever," Kellerman said.  "Mel was in his prime.  That live show, that was kind of my Holy Grail, something that nobody else had for so many years."

The songs on the new CD are: "Outskirts of Town," "Georgia," "Get Out of My Life Woman," "Blues on the Green," "Shake, Rattle and Roll," "Under Yonder Blues," "I've Got My Mojo Working," and one of Mel's signature songs, "Hey Joe."

During the late 1960s and early 1970s Mel had a recording career with ABC's jazz label, Impulse.  The first release in 1967 was called "Chicken Fat," and he released five more on the Impulse label by 1973.  Mel did not record again as a leader until after he moved to Kitchener, and Andrew Galloway signed him to ELECTRO-FI Records.

Long after The Gator closed in 1994, many of Mel's fans enjoyed the great man at The Boathouse in Victoria Park.

Last year Miss Angel released a new CD called "Down in Mississippi," also on ELECTRO-FI Records.  And Shawn Kellerman played guitar, drums and bass on almost all of the tracks.  That's what Mel and Angel always did when they recorded in their music room at home.  That's how Angel learned to sing the blues.

Angel remembers when her friend Philomena Petch called her about a box of cassettes she had found.  Angel had just moved out of a house on River Road in East Kitchener.  She was headed back to Mississippi for an extended stay.  Philomena went over to the empty house to have one last look around.  She found the box of Mel's unreleased recordings in the basement. Philomena kept the box safe until she and Angel got together again.

"None of the tapes had labels and names and you couldn't tell what they were.  So we decided to listen and label them," Angel said.  "About an hour into that, we came upon this tape.  And I called Andrew and let him hear it while we were listening to it.  And he wanted it, so he came and got it."

That box might have more surprises for blues fans.

"We had a bottle of wine.  Sipping and playing those and labeling them, you know, putting names on 'em so the next time we go into that stack we know what's what.  And we still got another box-and-a-half to go through, all cassettes," Angel said.

And the man who started it all, Glenn Smith, will also be around for the Saturday show.  A couple years back Glenn visited with Buddy Guy behind the Clock Tower Stage in Victoria Park during the Kitchener Blues Festival.  They laughed like old friends. The artists get the headlines, and rightly so, but this is my shout out to a tireless presenter who brought the blues to town --- the incurably social Glenn Smith.

Buddy received The Mel Brown Award that night, and it was about time too.

Buddy is from Louisiana.  Mel was from Mississippi.  Both made their lives playing music steeped in their Deep South backgrounds.  Buddy and Mel played together at Antone's.  Buddy and Mel played together at Pop the Gator.  Buddy and Mel played together on-stage at Centre in the Square in Kitchener during Buddy's show there in 2007.  Many in the audience jumped to their feet, yelling and clapping.  It was the only time Mel ever played on that stage.

When Mel passed in 2009 Buddy was on tour, but he took the time to call Miss Angel, and talk about Mel.  Not everyone did, and Miss Angel was always grateful for that small, but classy act of human solidarity.