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  • Writer's pictureErin McCallum

Behind The Curtain: Tom Lavin

For the newly initiated reader of ‘Behind The Curtain’, it makes sense to explain its purpose; each instalment strives to reach deeper than the press release and promotions, and investigate within a biography to uncover something more about the artists at the core of the Canadian Blues Collective. Each edition provides something exclusive about the featured artist, and importantly, the enterprising content comes straight from the source. In some cases, years of study is required to uncover the relevant curiosities that remain about those notable artists; and that investigation provides a solid foundation prior to any direct conversation. All artists featured in this column have biographies that cannot be covered within the confines of an article, and it is always encouraged for readers to seek more information via different resources.

In this month’s edition, name recognition is high, for those who have been privy to Blues music in Canada for the past half century. Perhaps most recognizable for his work as the frontman in The Powder Blues Band, Tom Lavin has been woven into the fabric of the Canadian Blues scene for decades. The Powder Blues Band (now known as Tom Lavin and the Legendary Powder Blues) formed in 1978, and since that time, has managed to achieve commercial success that few Canadian acts boasting the genre of Blues in its name have. For quick reference, the band’s first album Uncut went double platinum in Canada. While preparing for this investigation, my own reference is that Tom Lavin has achieved gold and platinum record status 12 times as a producer who has worked with multiple notable acts. Also of note, The Powder Blues Band has sold 1 million albums, and received both W.C. Handy Award and JUNO Award recognition. As always suggested, readers of this column are encouraged to discover more via independent research; there is plenty of accessible information about Powder Blues and Tom Lavin via other resources – this brief introduction serves to substantiate investigating beyond the accessible info via a direct conversation with Lavin.

In studying Lavin’s career, there are portions of it that paved the way for investigating the remaining curiosities; prior to founding Powder Blues, Lavin had already seen some commercial success with the band Prism. Although born in Chicago, he came to Canada in 1969 to study film at Vancouver School of Art (later renamed Emily Carr University) and planted new roots in Vancouver, and the West has been Lavin’s mainstay since. Although this column’s investigation focuses mainly on the curiosities that emerged while examining the decades that include Powder Blues’ existence, it is important to note that Lavin’s prior endeavours also served as reason to look closer at his career – by the time Powder Blues was formed, Lavin had already established himself as a multi-instrumentalist and a professional musician, dating back to his time in Chicago. The band Prism (a Rock band formed in Vancouver in 1977, with Tom Lavin serving as bassist) had solid traction, and remained active after his departure. In short, it appears as though Lavin has already forged a successful path as a professional musician prior to founding Powder Blues. Further to that, when looking at the history of Powder Blues, it becomes evident that Lavin’s ambition, instincts, and efforts to establish and drive the band’s success are rather remarkable. In a time when record labels and talent agencies ruled the music business – decades prior to the DIY era we see today – every record label in Canada had turned The Powder Blues Band down for a record deal, and Lavin’s pursuit – and the band’s success - despite that hurdle is worth investigating.

On the basis of knowing that Lavin persevered with The Powder Blues Band, even though denied a record deal, it made sense to ask him what made him confident that the band was worth pursuing. Lavin’s response:

“So many artists, when I was coming up, were chasing their own tail, and because of that – they never caught up. I knew the product I wanted to hear, and if I could have gone to a record store and bought it, I would have. It wasn’t there, so, I made what I wanted to hear. It just so happens that people who heard it liked it too. That’s why it was worth pursuing.”

For those who are privy to knowing about the early years of The Powder Blues Band, and the time period, it’s a fair assumption that the band got most of its traction – and the band’s definitive tight sound – by performing live. As the biography indicates, the band honed it skills and gained a solid following by performing 6 nights a week, regularly. By Lavin’s account, the band fine-tuned its sound, both in execution and sound quality by capitalizing on residency gigs; everything from recording and reviewing each performance to refining and perfecting the audio for attendees who attended live shows. Knowing that those 6-night residency gigs were crucial in cultivating the band’s identifiable sound and delivery, it made sense to address the fact that the music landscape has changed, and ask Lavin what he thinks it takes, in an ever-changing music business where 6 night a week residency gigs are not the usual offering for artists to gain traction in today’s music business:

“There are players today who are better than the most virtuoso players of those days. There are people who are taking things up to a whole new level - and there is some truth to it that the cream rises to the top. What is there today that can replace that experience of playing 6 nights a week? Nothing. You can woodshed and get tight, but there’s nothing to replace being able to develop your sound and performance through playing. I recorded every set, and reviewed what we were doing every time, and we got better and better because of it.”

Arguably, Lavin’s approach to The Powder Blues Band’s live delivery is what shaped the identifiable sound of the band. One could also comfortably assume that it also allowed the band to develop and succeed organically, without the support of a major record label in Canada. Another thing worth noting is that Lavin continued to pursue success with the band independently; ultimately, he pressed his own albums, built a recording studio, served as the band’s agent, and started his own label. For the current generation of artists emerging on the music scene today, these undertakings are far more accessible in the DIY era, but still formidable, nonetheless. For the first quarter century of The Powder Blues Band’s existence, these ambitions – and executions – were certainly not common, and rarely successful enough to sell a million records and reach gold and platinum sales. Knowing this, there’s merit in asking Lavin what he thinks is the biggest lesson that has served him in his career:

“The lesson? It’s all about learning, really – and it’s about learning to learn…there are two facets out there with that. Two prime factors; the first one is curiosity – and trying to nurture that child inside to keep that curiosity. Beneath that curiosity is the second factor; skepticism. If you investigate through curiosity to figure things out, you’ll learn a lot. If you have that curiosity and you have that healthy skepticism to investigate and find the answer, you’ll always be learning. I’ve always had curiosity about how things work, in music and in life, and being able to investigate those curiosities has allowed me to learn – and it continues to be that way. For me, it’s all about learning.”

As the conversation drew closer to its conclusion, there was one more point of interest to put on the record for ‘Behind The Curtain’ readers… Although this month’s issue is certainly enterprising (I state with confidence that these topics have not been explored and published in conversation with Lavin previously), Lavin was asked to share something about himself that people might not know about him when examining his career. His response:

“If I’ve noticed one misconception about how other people see me over the past five or six decades, it’s that people think I’m clever. People think that I’m “playing chess” or that I’m plotting or strategizing. People over-complicate me – I ask direct questions, and I am a straight shooter.”

Lavin’s response serves this investigation quite well. Although each instalment of this column takes an objective look at the artists of interest, it is plausible to think that others who have read his biography would naturally assume that Lavin did implement a strategy that shaped his career path. In truth, it appears as though Lavin has been putting his lessons into practice, one curiosity at a time.

As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires further investigation. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find more information about the music and career that substantiates these conversations. In Tom Lavin’s case, there is a lot of information to find via other sources. This article is a regular monthly contribution, published exclusively in the Sound Café magazine with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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