String masters bring shades of blues and Indian music this weekend

“For me, when music is really great, there’s an excitement. It can enter your body and just elevate you,” – Tom Lavin

As he approaches his 70th birthday bluesman Tom Lavin has left his road warrior days behind.

The guitarist-singer long since paid his dues, setting a personal record — 322 one-nighters in 1981 — when his Vancouver-based Powder Blues Band was taking off beyond all expectations. But the man still loves to play the blues, interact with a band, and “still feels obliged to play the hits.”

“I still love blues guitar. I’ve been doing it for 52 years and I still like the freshness and starkness of going on stage and remembering what it’s like to be making original music.”

Despite monster hits like Boppin’ With The Blues and Doin’ It Right, Lavin admits he wasn’t always the most motivated songwriter.

“My history was basically, get an advance from a record company, spend the advance and then wait for threatening letters.”

Lavin is back at Sherwood Park’s Festival Place Saturday, and after 41 years fronting Powder Blues he has to be one of Canada’s favourite blues imports. Born in Chicago, he grew up in an integrated disctrict so most of his grade school friends were black. That got him choice seats to witness the blues greats at club shows or concert halls.

After starting ukulele at age five he graduated to guitar at 10, but Lavin’s real epiphany came at 14, seeing Buddy Guy and Junior Wells on stage together.

A girlfriend lured him to Vancouver in 1969 and he liked the city so much he moved there to enroll in the Vancouver College of Art, only to moonlight playing for dancers in strip clubs at night.

“That’s how I met all the musicians I still know.”

He still savours the story of Powder Blues’ initial success. Lavin, his bassist brother Jack Lavin, and keyboardist Willie MacCalder started the band in 1978 and self-produced the debut album Uncut in 1980. After numerous record label rejections they released it themselves, only to win a Juno Award for Most Promising New Group and see the album go double-platinum (topping 200,000 sales) by 1982.

Despite their American birthright the brothers Lavin won a W.C. Handy Award for Best Foriegn Band in 1986, and all these years later Powder Blues Band has sold over a million units.

Like that name, Powder Blues have their own unique shade of blues, somewhere between horn-heavy jazz and blues shuffles, reflected in the title of their last 2004 recording — Blues + Jazz = Blazz!

“I like that Bauhaus theory of form follows function. People ask if I want to make music people can dance to, and I tell them I want to make make music it would be hard not to dance to. For me, when music is really great, there’s an excitement. It can enter your body and just elevate you, sometimes even in an intellectual way. It’s about getting off and finding that zone.”

Tom Lavin and the Legendary Powder Blues play Sherwood Park’s Festival Place 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $38 to $46 from the venue (780-449-3378, or festivalplace.ab.ca).

Indian music evolves

More and more, India’s virtuoso musicians are integrating contemporary global influences.

Consider Purbayan Chatterjee, who performs here Saturday for the Edmonton RagaMala Society.

He’s a master of the sitar, born in Kolkata (Calcutta), now based in Mumbai (Bombay). He started vocal lessons at age three and sitar lessons from six, with instruction from his father, also a sitar virtuoso. His first major public concert came at 15 and he began touring internationally at 20.

Chatterjee is happy to have been raised on sitar.

“I still love singing but it’s not something I perform in concert. The sitar comes very close to the human voice so I’m glad I picked up an instrument that can do a lot of things the voice can do.”

Now 43, he’s one of the most celebrated players in the North Indian Hindustani music with a list of awards (Best Instrumentalist at 15) and numerous recordings, but that’s the only part of his story.

Aa a student of English literature he had a curious predisposition for western culture. Chatterjee has gone on to explore other musical avenues and the technology behind them.

“I was always an avid fan of jazz music since my childhood, and by the time I was a teenager I was given recordings of vintage jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of interacting with a few modern legends too, like Chick Corea and Pat Metheny.”

Global touring and meeting other musicians has only enlarged his perspecitive.

“The more you seek those musical associations the more you learn about them, and now if you look at my iPhone you will find all sorts of musical genres.”

As a co-leader or collaborator in four side groups, including Shastriya Syndicate and Stringstruck, he has developed custom variations on the sitar, a model with electric pickups called a dwo, and a transparent version made of plexiglass with integrated electronics he calls the SeeTar.

Chatterjee married into music and he credits his wife Gayatri Asokan for introducing him to more sounds. She is a gifted vocalist, specializing in the lyrical form of Persian poetry known as ghazal but she also sings in films and in classical ragas. She performs Saturday along with notable tabla virtuoso and rising percussion star Ojas Adhiya.

He steers new listeners to his streaming YouTube channel for the latest material.

The sitarist promises a mix of classical and light classical forms in his third Edmonton concert Saturday, but whatever the style or the collaborators involved it still comes down to one thing:

“You have to play your heart out.”

Purbayan Chatterjee, Gayatri Asokan and Ojas Adhiya perform for Edmonton Ragamala Society 7 p.m. Saturday at the University of Alberta Campus Saint-Jean Auditorium (8406 Rue MarieAnne Gaboury). Tickets are $20, or $15 for students and seniors online from Edmonton RagaMala or at the door.