You can delve deep into the history of the blues, you can add political or social commentary to the lyrics, or address gender stereotypes in the songs. But in the end, for many fans and musicians, enjoying the blues comes down to a certain simple pleasure.
“For me, it’s more about a groove or a feeling,” says Trent Schmiedge, founder, guitarist and singer of Saskatoon-based trio The Blue Mules. “We don’t have a lot of lyrics in our songs and there are not a lot of big political statements being made. It’s more about having fun, getting people up and moving, and keeping the energy flowing.”
Check any of their three releases and you’ll catch an irresistible urge to at least nod your head or tap your feet in the way that good blues bands have done for decades now. Or catch them live when The Blue Mules return to Blues on Whyte this week.
Schmiedge shares the band with longtime bassist Dale Ehman and (usually) drummer Graham “Gramma” Templeman. In the case of competing opportunities — as happens this week in Edmonton — Alan Long takes over on drums.
For Schmiedge, fronting the trio competes with his regular gig working as a booking agent with the Saskatoon branch of Graffiti Music, helping to book all sorts of indie performers into venues across the nation. That’s the stable job this veteran guitarist got into after playing with numerous rock, blues and country bands over the years. When he finally got the chance to put together his own band The Blue Mules back in 2012 it was really a labour of love.
“It was something I always knew I would do, but I was always getting sidetracked. I knew my final project was going to be my own blues band and that it would be a trio. I’ve always liked the trio format. It’s a lot of work but it keeps you in tune and leaves lots of room. Music has got to breathe.”
One year in, the trio really began building a reputation with its debut release The Blues Ain’t That Bad. As touring picked up it was followed by an all-covers set called Out To Pasture in 2016, to let people know they could play the classics (they still feature occasional covers of Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters during their live shows, adding a few instrumental tunes for good measure). Then they made their acclaimed all-original album Move On in 2017.
Offering a well-rounded set of blues tempos, it’s geared to an engaging rocking-blues feel. The idea was to capture the sense of their live shows, and you can hear how Schmiedge loves to solo.
“I still tend to over-play sometimes, as we all do. It’s just fun to play a lot of notes. But I also love to lay back in the groove and play less. ‘Less is more’ was the old motto but it’s tougher to do than it sounds.”
Despite the changing realities of the music business the trio still puts in at least 60 shows every year across Western Canada, including seven festival dates last summer alone. They love good blues cities like Saskatoon and Edmonton, and venues like Blues on Whyte.
Growing up in small-town Saskatchewan, Schmiedge was still a kid when one of his uncles introduced him to the so-called ‘British Invasion’ of artists who were into blues rock, with a little surf rock on the side. A quick convert, he started working with his father’s electric guitar at age 11 and wound up playing in bands by his mid-teens.
His love of the guitar didn’t stop at the blues. Between 1985 and 1989 Schmiedge was a guitar major in the music program at the University of Saskatchewan, playing acoustic classical guitar for much of that period. In 1988 he also spent a semester at (then) Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton focused on jazz guitar styles.
“It wasn’t about the music so much as the knowledge. I just wanted to be a better guitar player. It was really about learning as much as I could and then trying to forget it, to just play what you hear in your head. You learn all this theory, all your chords and scales and modes and everything, and then you just sit down and play for fun, what you hear in your head, playing live.”
Over the years Schmiedge has played in or recorded with dozens of acts in different genres, but he always keeps coming back to the blues. One aptly-named song off The Blue Mules’ Move On album — The Congregation — captures the ritual of the road for these blues troubadours in a not-so-subtle reference to spirituality.
“It’s just about touring, about how you get up and go to the next show, have the time of your life every night, and then get up and go to the next show again.”
The Blue Mules play Blues on Whyte 9 p.m. through Saturday night. Studebaker John and the Hawks return to Blues on Whyte Jan. 23 to 27. Into February, the same venue has extended stays booked with the Henri Brown Band and the Scott Ellison Band.
E.B.S. Winter Blues Festival
The Edmonton Blues Society has passes on sale for its next Winter Blues Festival happening Saturday, Feb. 16 and Sunday, Feb. 17 at St. Basil’s Cultural Centre, starting mid-afternoon both days.
A survey of top acts from around Alberta will be on hand to warm up your mid-winter mood including Lynne Chwyl, Dan Sinisac, Samantha King and her YEG Trio, the Rott’n Dan and Lightnin’ Willy Duo, Persons of Interest and the Blind Dog Blues Band.
Passes are on sale for an early-bird price of $50 until Feb. 10. For full details check the EBS site at edmontonbluessociety.net.
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