Home for the Holidays with JW Jones and some of his musical friends

JW Jones is set for a concert with some of his musical friends.

JW Jones spends a lot of time away from his home in Ottawa.

The veteran guitarist and well-known bluesman is now back for more than a break. He’s performing a holiday concert at Centrepointe Theatre this week with an eye on celebrating local artists as much as he is marking the season.

“This isn’t a show of Christmas songs, but, that said, there will be some Christmas music,” he said in an interview with ARTSFILE.

The concert line up includes names that are well-known to the local community. On the bill Dec, 13, are Amanda Rheaume, Jeff Rogers, Rebecca Noelle and Matthew Chaffey.

“These are all musicians I have looked up to, rubbed shoulders with and played on stage with.”

This concert, Jones said, is hopefully the first of what will become an annual event.

“We wanted an equal mix of male and female talent. And we wanted to mix it up and have a good mix of sounds and textures — all that good stuff from the blues to rock and roll, soul and folk.”

Jones and the folks who program Centrepointe Theatre have been talking about this concert for a few  years now. It can be tricky co-ordinating schedules so it has taken until now to get the stars to align.

Now that it has, he said, “it would be a great thing to do this every year and change the guest list every year.”

At this point, he sees it as a showcase for Ottawa performers for now.

“There is so much talent here. I don’t see why it wouldn’t continue like that. But I have tons of amazing friends all over Canada and U.S. who could also easily fit into this. Home for the Holidays is a vague enough term that we could broaden out the lineup.”

JW has 20 years as a professional musician under his belt and he’s watched the Ottawa music scene mature.

“I tend to have a different view because I’m not entrenched in the scene and working at all the venues. I tour a lot. I only play three or four shows a year here.”

But he does believe that the Ottawa music is more diverse today than it was when he started out. Institutions such as the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition and the RBC Ottawa Bluesfest have been very important in that development.

“I personally have taught blues guitar to students who are now in their 20s through Blues in the Schools. That alone proves to you these things are working.”

As for his own career, it’s matured too.

“My goal posts have changed as time goes on. In the beginning, when I was 15 watching Tony D at Tucson’s, my dream was to play on that stage. I thought to myself, ‘Man If I could ever just play a gig here, that’s all I’d ever need’.

“Then I was playing that stage, then the Rainbow Bistro and Ottawa Bluesfest.”

In those days he was trying to capture a traditional blues sound. He was listening to and learning from B.B. King, T. Bone Walker, Albert King, Howling Wolf, Texas guys like Jimmy Vaughan and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.

“I wanted to be respected as a traditional blues guitarist by my peers. That went pretty well. I had Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds come in here when I was 22. He recorded with me and played with me at the Rainbow. That worked out well.”

But that was then. As the years have gone on, Jones has become more than just a blues man. “I feel like I have developed into a songwriter and musician.”

This happened organically, he said.

In 2002, he recored an album with Kim Wilson and a song made the cut that was, Jones says, “a bit poppier than the rest. It was more of a rock song.

“I asked Kim if he thought it would be OK to include it. He said ‘Listen, you’re not selling out, you’re buying in’.”

It was like getting a blessing from a favoured relative.

“It was the first little bit of information where I went this is OK.”

Not that that wasn’t somewhat controversial.

“I definitely bump into blues purists. It’s such a major thing in the blues world.

“It’s a strange thing. I was a blues purist and, in a lot of ways, I still am. For example, if you are going to play an Eddie Taylor song, you might as well play it and honour that tradition.”

But, it’s also now OK for JW to experiment with roots and rock styles in a manner that doesn’t sully the blues tradition but allows him to grow as a musician and a performer.

That’s not an easy place to be. “I am on the fence all the time with the whole debate about whether something is authentic blues. Is it pure or not? I could go on for hours.

“Everyone has to find themselves musically. It can be very difficult. Some people come out and automatically they have a thing going for them and a sound and a style, but I don’t think I was one of those people. It’s taken some time but I’m OK with that.”

The big change happened when he recorded his album Belmont Boulevard in Nashville with producer Tom Hambridge.

“That was a huge moment for me. These songs didn’t sound like traditional blues. They were mixed in a completely different way. A lot was so far out of my comfort zone that I was not liking parts of it.” Then it came out.

“And it was ‘Wait a minute this sounds really cool’.”

It helped that people were loving the record. It even snagged a JUNO nomination for blues album the year.

“It was an eye opener. I had never hired a producer before and when I did, this is what happened.

“I still listen to all the traditional blues stuff. But I have a wider range of respect and ears for newer country music or Tom Petty or whatever is on satellite radio stations. I hear the music differently now. Now I hear chord changes and other things that get my ear pricked up.

“These are the things making me adapt and change as a songwriter.”

He admits that when he was more of a traditionalist, he closed his ears off.

“It’s a funny thing. Still I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to go down into that well of the blues. I would never have worked with all my favourite players if I hadn’t done that.”

He followed up that recording with an album called High Temperature produced by Colin Linden again in Nashville. This one was more roots.

“It had so many elements. It was all about songwriting and songs and less about the blues guitar. Because of that, those two album are my best for songs.”

Jones has just come off six weeks on the road giving his latest recording Live a boost. It’s … what else … a live recording and was in response to requests from fans for a record.

Jones does tour a lot. In 2017, he did 130 shows and in 2018 he will have done just more than 100. He is expecting the arrival of a child in January so things will slow down for a year, he said.

“I have always had pretty good balance in my life in terms of the business side of things, the music side and the personal side. I feel I have done pretty well with that. I have been really lucky.”

He’s also learned how to be a business person.

“I’m at an age now when I get asked a lot about the business side.”

He tells people who ask that the first thing to learn is that it’s hard work.

“You will be behind a computer eight hours a day. That is only way to do this. There is no magic potion that will make you a star.”

He is very proud of the fact that he was named one of the 40 under 40 in 2014 for his business acumen.

“That was an award that is calculable. All the hours I put into building my business was recognized.”

He still does a lot of his own booking including on his last tour which started in Chicago went across western Canada, down through California, across Arizona and Texas and up through Memphis.

Now this road warrior is back home doing what he loves to do … making music a few of his friends.

JW Jones and Friends: Home for the Holidays
Where: Centrepointe Theatre
When: Dec. 13 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: meridiancentrepointe.com

Share Post
Written by

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.