Harpoonist, Axe Murderer at Gate
Okay, they sound like a gruesome twosome out of a B slasher flick, but that’s far from reality.
The reality is that The Harpoonist and The Axe Murderer are a West Coast duo who embrace the blues and offer up a sweat-drenched live performance.
The Harpoonist and The Axe Murderer (HAM) are Nanaimo’s Shawn Hall (vocals, harmonica, foot percussion) and Vancouver’s Matthew Rogers (drums, guitar) and they play Banff’s St. James’s Gate, Aug. 10-11.
The Gate, said Hall, who lived in Banff for eight months in 2000, is a preferred venue as they’ve regularly played there during the Banff Television Festival. “It’s an intimate place to play and we have a good relationship with them.
“Actually, some of the wildest times of our musical lives happened there.”
As you might expect, many of those wild times aren’t suitable for publication in a family newspaper, though.
One is, though, and it’s one Hall is happy to share. A couple of years ago, on the third of a three-night gig, the bartender called him over to the phone between a second and third set. Hall, naturally, wondered what the hell was going on…
“It was my girlfriend calling me to tell me she was pregnant,” he said. “I thought, ‘who’d call me at the bar?’ The rest of that night was one for the books. The staff knew what was going on by the look on my face and I don’t remember much of the rest of the night, but that kind of stuff doesn’t happen every night.
“But we’re still together and he’s one-and-a-half now.”
Anyway, back to the band. HAM is touring in support of its album Checkered Past, playing a Kaslo festival with Taj Mahal, along with Banff and Calgary and interior B.C. gigs. The album addresses classic blues themes like heartbreak, addiction, and lay-offs.
The two have now performed together for about six years and produced three albums, with previous releases in 2007 and 2008. When the two perform live, there’s a lot going on as they split duties musically on all songs.
“But it’s not a sideshow circus act,” said Hall. “It’s not, it’s just two people really hitting it hard. On our albums, we have a bass and a full drum kit, but in our live show, it’s all stripped down, but unified.
“This project is our baby, it’s as honest as it gets. We don’t hide behind pedals, or loops, it’s just us. If we’re not drenched in sweat in minutes, we’re not doing our job.”
That job, the blues, is what HAM is all about. They perform mostly originals, but do throw in some covers of tunes by Willy Dixon, Taj Mahal, Little Walter, etc.
“The blues songbook is so old and there is so much weight to traditional compositions,” said Hall. “We try to do something new and fresh and it takes quite a lot of time; people haven’t really touched the songs from the ’50s to ’70s.
“And the question is, what are two white guys in their mid-30s going to offer a genre so rich and deep in history, with so much music about tortured souls and longing? We try to offer something primal, with meaning.
“We can’t just entertain, we go for the heart every time.”
Blues for the heart, yes, but their music has also been described as “blues that gets you in the crotch.”
The duo has played festivals all over Western Canada, including The Beaumont Blues Fest, The Powell River Blues Festival and The Gastown Blues and Chili Festival. Along the way, they’ve shared the stage with some of Canada’s finest blues acts, including Jim Byrnes, Dick Dale and MonkeyJunk.
When Hall was a 12-year-old living in Toronto, his grandmother gave him a harmonica and a book called Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless. At the same age, but on the other side of the country, Rogers was falling in love with the guitar, spellbound by a counsellor at his summer camp who could play “Under the Bridge.”
Hall and Rogers first got together in a studio to work on a jingle for a hole in the wall restaurant called Jamaican Jerk Pizza. Between takes, they realized they could work together, and bonded.
Since then, they’ve put out albums, worked on winning hearts and hit the road to tour regularly. They’ll soon release a video for their song “Rolling With The Punches” (“it’s us getting beat up in the boxing ring,” said Hall) and get regular airplay on college radio and the CBC. They’ve charted at No. 3 on the roots and blues charts.
“We’ve been working hard,” said Hall, “the old-fashioned way. We send out piles of CDs to radio stations; some will play them, some won’t. But Holger Petersen (CBC and CKUA) is a great promoter of the blues and that really helps.”
Hall said he and Rogers have pondered adding a third member to the HAM project – “maybe a B3 player… someone who would have to lug a hell of a lot of gear around. As it is, the two of us can tour in a Mazda Protégé, so it would be a big change.”
Oh, the name? In Kris Kristofferson’s “Bobby Mcgee”, Kristofferson sings, “I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana.” The harpoon is the blues harp, making Hall the harpoonist, while Rogers plays the axe (aka the guitar), to become the axe murderer.
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