Canal Concert: Lucas Haneman talks about the back story to the blues

The Lucas Haneman Express: MartinNewman, Lucas Haneman, Megan Laurence, Jeff Asselin. Photo: Nevill Carney

Ottawa’s Lucas Haneman Express is paying tribute to the men and women who built the Blues during the past century in a Concert by the Canal at Southminster United Church on Bank Street. The show is Saturday April 8 at 7 p.m. More information can be found here. Haneman replied to questions about his concert from ARTSFILE’s Peter Robb. What follows is an edited transcript.

Q. Who are you and your band?

A. The Lucas Haneman Express is a soulful, fun filled and electrifying musical ride featuring myself on guitar and vocals, Jeff Asselin (drums), Martin Newman (bass), and Megan Laurence (vocals). Our musical philosophy is that blues music and all of its sub-genres make up a vast and beautiful musical landscape. Our collective mission is to explore the often overlooked facets of this genre, and combine them with our love of other contemporary music. This has allowed us to create our own sound that has a little more commercial appeal and pop sensibility, while still being respectful of the blues tradition. It’s not uncommon for us  to meet an audience member who says that they don’t usually enjoy listening to blues music, but they enjoy what we do with the style, and for this we are truly grateful.

Q. Whose music are you singing?

A. For this show the Express will explore a cross-section of blues music with a particular focus on visually impaired blues artists from the 1920s until present, and female blues/soul artists through the generations as well. The artists include: blind Willie Johnson, blind Willie McTell, blind Blake, Reverend Gary Davis, Sonny Terry, Jeff Healey, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Anne Peebles, Bonnie Raitt and Susan Tedeschi just to name a few. We will also play a couple of our own songs from our new album Tearing Up The Rails. We can’t wait to perform so many songs that are new to our repertoire, and tell a musical story that reaches far back into the past, even before the 12 bar blues form was the norm.

Q. What sparked you to do this program?

A. This program was  sparked by a desire the band and I had to do a show of mainly material  by other artists. Most of the shows we play are comprised of our own musical catalogue.  We also wanted to do a show that not only featured me as the band’s lead singer, but gave equal vocal attention to Megan Laurence. For myself as a visually impaired artist who grew up on the music of Jeff Healey, who was a colossal guitar giant, irrespective of his ‘disability,’ performing some of his music was a no brainer. But it’s also amazing to hear about all of the legendary blues artists who happened to be visually impaired as well. I have known about blind Willie Johnson, blind Blake, and the others for quite some time, but going back to learn some of their music has been a great joy and challenge, particularly because these solo artists were  writing music before the 12 bar blues form was the standard.

For this reason we’ve created full band arrangements of tunes that were often performed by one or two artists. This has been a fun challenge. Megan has been a  fan of all of the female blues artists in the program for quite some time as well, as they are all groundbreaking artists individually. Many of these women had to hold their own against male performers when this would have been difficult, particularly in the blues genre.

Q. Have you always listened to this material? What is the appeal of it for you?

A. As a blues musician today, it’s easy to be somewhat narrow minded. Everyone has listened to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, BB King and Muddy Waters. These artists are extraordinary. There is a reason why we all listen to them. That said, it’s nice to know there is so much other music out there to draw inspiration from. For me, since the age of about 18 or 19 I have been checking out artists across a number of genres who may be somewhat overlooked, purely out of my own curiosity. For example around that time, I became aware of the country blues artist, Rory Block. Not only is she a fantastic singer and guitarist, she is a blues music history buff. It was actually through watching interviews with her that I discovered many of the visually impaired artists in this program, and started diving deeper into their music. This will be the first time I will perform any of it though.

One of the nice things is that this is music is much more about telling a story then it is about playing impressive guitar licks. That is very interesting to me and the band. Much of the material by the female blues artists is new to Megan as well, but she is excited to perform it.

Q. How do you think these artists could accomplish what they did?

A. This is an interesting question. Perhaps because I am visually impaired myself, I don’t really think about the differences between an artist who has sight and an artist who does not have sight.  I don’t really think of my disability as something that defines me as an artist, as it is something that maybe gives me a different perspective on my instrument, and a different  method in which I have to learn and absorb music.

In general I would say that the visually impaired artists we are exploring in this program performed with a lot of feeling, and each has a unique and unorthodox approach to the guitar, which poses interesting and rewarding challenges for me as a player with my own technique.  I just adore their music, and, as an artist with a visual impairment, I feel a desire to pay homage to other visually impaired musicians, to absorb some unique perspectives and outlooks on music. Music is such a complex and nuanced language , and I know I will be learning new things about it, and growing as a musician until the day I die.

Q. Have you recorded or do you plan to record this music?

A. The original music from this program we have recorded and is on Tearing Up The Rails. Coincidentally, most of the material we will play from the new album was recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee, when we were there for the  2016 International Blues Challenge.

All of the cover material we will be performing at this show is music that is new to us, so we have not recorded any of it yet, but it is great music, so who knows what the future holds?

Q. What’s next for The Express?

A. The Express has been hard at work promoting our new album Tearing Up The Rails, which has been receiving rave reviews as well as a great deal of airplay around the globe. The next step is performance. Throughout the next few months we will be at a number of venues and festivals, some in Ottawa, and some out of town, to promote the new release, and get the album in the hands of as many fans as possible. Looking into the future we will be starting to perform out of town more often, eventually doing some touring abroad, and of course, writing and recording the next album. We are always moving forward, and we are so grateful that there is so much positive energy and momentum around this band, when we have only been a true four piece for almost two years at this point.

We will play at Westfest on June 3, and the Donacona Blues Festival in Quebec on Aug. 12, but there are a couple of other exciting dates we just can’t let out of the bag yet. For all the other club dates we have coming up people can stay tuned to our Facebook page and website:

Q. One last thing: Jeff Asselin is playing something called a cajon. What is that?

A. A cajon is basically a big box with snare wires on it that a percussionist sits on and plays with his or her hands. Jeff will be playing this instrument as well as his traditional drum set.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.