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She’s been there and done that many times over during her musical career. She’s played with the greats, played around the world, carved out her own career and embraces three cultures which influence her music.
Slide guitar legend Ellen McIlwaine plays the Union Hall April 30.
Slide guitar legend Ellen McIlwaine plays the Union Hall April 30.

She’s been there and done that many times over during her musical career.

She’s played with the greats, played around the world, carved out her own career and embraces three cultures which influence her music.

And on Saturday, April 30, slide guitar legend Ellen McIlwaine closes the Live on 7th Concert Series at the Canmore Miners’ Union Hall.

As with many performing artists, McIlwaine’s story in regard to her music is noteworthy – on stage with Hendrix, New York blues bars, Atlanta R&B – but then, so is her life story.

Born in Tennessee, a long way from her present home in Calgary, McIlwaine moved with adoptive missionary parents to Japan at age two and lived there through high school.

In Japan, she lived in an international community of families, including Canadians, and at the time, music by R&B artists like Ray Charles was big.

After moving back to North America as a young woman, she lived for years in Atlanta, New York, Connecticut and Toronto (1987) before moving to Calgary in ’92.

Her reasons for moving to Canada were both personal and professional. In Japan, she attended Canadian schools and grew up singing “O Canada”. The school principal was Canadian and McIlwaine shared classes with his daughters.

“They were all like family to me,” she said, Friday (April 15). “There were 200 students from 28 nationalities and I learned a lot of about other cultures.”

Then again, in the ‘80s, when McIlwaine was working in blues bars in the U.S., she found it very difficult for a woman to front a band. Such was not the case in Canada, however, and she found herself playing more and more north of the 49th parallel.

Like Ronnie Hawkins, she moved to Canada, began hiring Canadian musicians, and made a home for herself. “I think Canada sometimes doesn’t know what it has going for it,” she said.

These days, she’s applied for Canadian citizenship and says, “it’s a big deal for me. I’m travelling less now and I think it’s important to vote in Canadian elections.”

Today, after many albums, bands, gigs and much travel, McIlwaine has reduced a hectic touring schedule which saw most of 2008 to 2010 spent touring with Patty Larkin’s La Guitara ensemble and Sue Foley’s Guitar Women and working the festival circuit in Canada and the U.S.

With a little more time on her hands, she’s back writing songs in anticipation of releasing a new album, writing memoirs and experimenting with new material.

Her new music, like her last release Mystic Bridge, will be a melding of her beloved blues and world music.

McIlwaine’s music, which has been dubbed a blues/world hybrid, a term she favours, combines elements of the blues and R&B, but also contains hints of Japanese and Indian stylings.

“I listen to music mostly from other lands,” she said. “I think musicians owe Peter Gabriel a great debt for inviting musicians from all over the world to play with him. I think it was the start of world music.

“And I think every culture has blues music; you can tell by the timbre. The blues is not as small as people think it is and to me, when somebody says ‘you have to think outside the box’, I say, ‘there is no box’.”

For McIlwaine, the creation of a new song typically is a music-first endeavour. Put simply, she plays her guitar every day, “and songs rattle around in my head. I have the music first, then the words come to me as I play.

“I write and re-write and it just comes to me and grows as I work with it.”

One thing Miners’ Hall listeners won’t hear are quiet, delicate ballads. “I’ve never done a quiet little set,” said McIlwaine. “In New York and Atlanta, if you played a quiet little set, you’d soon be married and teaching school.”

Rather, a typical McIlwaine set features belt it out from the heart vocals and powerful, complex guitar.

Having first dabbled in music at age five on the piano, then beginning guitar at age 19, moving through rock ‘n’ roll and R&B, “music has been a part of me from the beginning,” she said. “To me, music is like having a child. A friend once said, ‘oh, you’re a Libra, you need a soulmate’, but to me, music is a soulmate.

“I think music is a force, whether we play it or not, and it’s timbred by the person it comes out of. It’s something that’s always kept me going and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“I’ve been doing this for 45 years and after I began playing in New York, I never thought of doing anything else. When I started playing a borrowed guitar I thought it was great because I couldn’t carry a piano around.”

As someone who has played with many, many musicians of note, (which should make it easy to write interesting memoirs), McIlwaine says early days included seeing bluesman John Hammond playing at New York’s Café Au Go Go, with Jimi Hendrix in his band. One member of Hammond’s band used to break a wine bottle off at the neck and use it as a slide – something which prompted McIlwaine to give slide a try and never look back.

“As Jimi Hendrix used to say about playing slide, ‘it’s addictive’.”

And sometimes Jimi would hang out and ask to play on some sets with me after jamming with John Hammond.

“So Jimi and I would get on stage and play and in 1966, people didn’t get it. A black man and a white woman… I think they wondered who was sleeping with whom.”

She was also introduced to Johnny Winter’s music. “Hearing his music was like eating an entire chocolate cake.”

In Canmore, for her Live on 7th show, McIlwaine said she’ll play some new material as well as songs from her extensive portfolio.

“But there won’t be anything bland,” she assures.

McIlwaine’s extensive portfolio reads like a Who’s Who and would include living and playing Greenwich Village and Woodstock, opening for many blues greats and getting to know musicians like Hendrix, Richie Havens, Mississippi John Hurt and many others. She’s played solo and with power trios and her albums range back to vinyl offerings like Honky Tonk Angel (1972) and We the People (1973) to The Real Ellen McIlwaine, recorded in Montreal in 1975 and ‘78’s Ellen McIlwaine, which was about the time she went electric.

McIlwaine toured Australia in ’80 and ’84 and recorded Looking For Trouble in Toronto in 1987 after moving there. She played a Canadian blues club circuit and festivals and toured with Johnny Winter in 1990.

In ’97 she created a score for the Tom Cone play True Mummy and a couple of film scores, in Germany and Canada. In ’98 she was featured in the Bravo documentary, A Slide Through Time and in ’99 played the Women in (e)motion Festival in Bremen, Germany.

In 2000, Spontaneous Combustion was released, which included Taj Mahal on two cuts. She toured Europe a couple of times with Mahal and his Hawaiian Blues Group.

In ’01, she collaborated with Japanese electronica wiz Shinichi Osawa and in 2002 with Yukihiro Fukutomi’s re-mix of McIlwaine’s Born Under A Bad Sign.

In ’03, she toured New Zealand and Australia and in ’04 toured with tabla player Cassius Khan, who played on McIlwaine’s 2007 album Mystic Bridge.

The list goes on…

Tickets for Ellen McIlwaine are $25 and available at Second Story Books on Main Street in Canmore.

Rocky Mountain Outlook

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