There’s a blues revival in Joe McDonald’s barn

Joe McDonald in his barn recording studio. Photo: Marissa Dubrofsky

By Jordan Omstead

A young Ottawa band is looking to bring new life to a timeless genre, and their biggest stage to date will come this summer at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest.

Joe McDonald and the Walkin’ Hawks will debut as a blues trio on July 14 at Ottawa’s main music festival, to be held this summer from July 5-15 at LeBreton Flats, part of the large contingent of local artists who perform each year at the event.

Frontman and guitarist Joe McDonald, 27, likened the opportunity to a young hockey player debuting at the professional level.

“It’s like a big game that you prepare for. You keep your stick on the ice and your head up,” he said with a laugh.

McDonald and bass player Zach Ledgerwood met while playing in a five-piece roots ensemble called the Ramblin’ Valley Band. They were known for high energy performances and they made their own Bluesfest appearance in 2016.

That band amicably parted ways in January, at which point McDonald and Ledgerwood, along with drummer Matt Aston, began to focus their creative energy on the Walkin’ Hawks.

McDonald has steeped himself in the history of blues. He listens to artists from Mississippi Fred McDowell to Stevie Ray Vaughan and enjoys perusing his collection of concert posters, marvelling at the lineups.

Blues is like a conversation with your dad, McDonald says. In those conversations, an entire history can be communicated, rooting you in a past much larger than yourself.

“There’s this sacred ghost that floats around when you’re really playing the blues. There’s this deep tradition of all these people who have lived and put their feeling into this genre, and wanting to connect with that,” he said.

But just as children become more than a simple composite of ancestors, McDonald wants to be more than a living history of the blues. “I feel like what’s been on my mind is how to move the blues into another world,” he said.

To that end the Walkin’ Hawks are a self-described “blues revival” band. McDonald said, he sees a body of work into which he can inject new life — creating something that’s both interpretive and transcendent, balancing a tension between past, present and future.

It’s a tension revealed in his description of the band’s debut record, Underground Rattlesnake Party, which was released at the beginning of the year.

In the same breath, he said he wanted to get back to the old-school shuffle and rawness of the blues; in the next he emphasized experiments with new lyrical themes and harmonic palettes.

The album embraces these contradictions in a way that, above all, sounds honest.

On the album’s first track, Kerouac Jungle Scream, a blues riff plays underneath a string of lyrics paying homage to the energy of the Beat Generation, with its penchant for stream-of-consciousness expression and spiritual enlightenment.   

We’re born like bambinos into this repetition of cycle style bewilderment on yippie yi yi yo highways of constant character discovery,” McDonald sings.

For most of the songs on the album, McDonald funneled his singing through a harmonica microphone and into a guitar amp, giving the vocals a nostalgia-infused distortion, as if he was sending his words through a time machine — or an AM radio.

The album was recorded on McDonald’s family farm in Dunrobin, about 30 kilometres west of Parliament Hill along the Ottawa River. He spends most of his weekdays with his fiancé in Toronto, writing and refining songs, before returning to the farm on the weekends to play gigs in Ottawa.

The old barn and farm house, with its red roof and white siding, sits in the middle of 100 acres of rolling fields. A stream runs the length of the property, past the long laneway, and out to the fields where apple trees dot the landscape.

The trio would usually spend the morning strolling around the property with a coffee, “to get the vibes nice between us,” said McDonald.

He would set up the equipment the night before in the hay loft — the high ceilings and worn wood forming a kind of cathedral to roots music — so that it was only a matter of hitting “record” come morning.

“It felt it was more of the old-school approach. It felt like we were playing music together, because I find that’s when the magical stuff can happen,” he said of the recording process. “Roots music, in general, should be a conscious spontaneity. We’re going to let it be natural and spread its own wings.”

That free-spirited spontaneity comes out in the band’s performances, too. During a recent gig at Tooth and Nail brewery in Hintonburg in March, McDonald was generous with the guitar solos and keen to work the crowd, despite an awkwardly arranged performance space.

After one particularly stirring solo, he high-fived a guy sitting with a group of friends closest to the band.

The bartender leaned over at one point during the show. “It’s always fun when Joe plays,” she said.

Others who have seen him perform, including CKCU radio host and music manager Trish Bolechowsky, share the same impression.

“There’s such passion there, and it’s very obvious when you’re watching Joe that music is his calling,” said Bolechowsky. “This kind of music, these new projects that are really rooted in the blues — it’s where the future of Bluesfest lies.”

This story was produced in collaboration with Centretown News and Carleton University.

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