If the Carson Downey Band were a fighter, it would be Mike Tyson.
Every show the pride of North Preston, Nova Scotia, gives, it seems, is a battle for the allegiance of the audience. The trio likes to come out swinging, but instead of biting ears, they make them ring with a sonic assault that has left a veteran bluesman or two on the ropes.
It happened that way earlier in a Toronto club where the burly guitarist/vocalist Carson Downey, along with brother Murray on drums and bassist Marlowe Smith, opened for Buddy Guy, at 64 perhaps the last of the great Chicago bluesmen. The Downey crew unleashed a seven-song set of sweat-drenched intensity and left the delirious audience primed for the expected coup de grâce from Guy. Guy, however, failed on the follow-up.
The members of the Carson Downey Band have been in the music business for more than 20 years, but it has been only in the last few that they’ve broken through to a bigger, trans-Canada audience. They’re a rarity in Canada’s music scene: an all-black, all-Canadian band playing the blues from a part of the country better known for Celtic-style fiddling and indie rockers such as Sloan and Thrush Hermit. Their hometown of North Preston, population circa 3,000, about 6 miles northeast of Halifax, is one of the almost exclusively black townships scattered around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Like all these communities, North Preston can trace its origins back to the late 18th century when an estimated 6,000 blacks, both slaves and free, came to Atlantic Canada as part of the Loyalist diaspora of the American Revolution.
Carson Downey has five brothers and four sisters, and they were all raised in a small house with an oil furnace, a wood stove, and kerosene lamps for illumination. His father, Leon, and mother, Maureen, held a number of jobs to keep the family together. North Preston, like the other black townships rimmed around Halifax, was a community poor in cash but rich in soul and solidarity. “We only had each other to feed off back then,” Maureen Downey once explained to an interviewer. “We had to stick together.” Music was one of the glues of the community. Maureen Downey sang in a gospel choir. She “bought me my first guitar when I was 11 or 12,” recalled Carson Downey, and found the money for a set of drums for his brother Murray.
Carson Downey’s musical roots are in soul and rock, bassist Marlowe came from funk, and Murray was a drummer-of-all-trades. Carson’s life changed in the mid-1980s when he went to hear Joe Murphy, a legend among Maritime blues and roots-music aficionados. “It’s hard to put into words, but something just clicked. Then Joe says to me, ‘I know you play, come on up and play something.’…I managed to put together a few Johnny Winter songs, and it went over well. The next day he called and asked if I wanted to play in his band. I knew instinctively why he wanted me: I brought a spark to his band. Maybe I wasn’t as seasoned as some, but I was burning with the fire of a man with a new love.”
Carson Downey stayed almost four years with the Murphy ensemble. When he set about starting his own band, he leaned heavily on brother Murray to “come over to the blues side.” “Back when we were coming up,” recalls Murray, “blues wasn’t all that popular. It was all disco, funk, and R&B.”
A first album “All The Way” came along to critical success, along with over a dozen awards right across the country. Several tours from coast to coast, as well as extensive tours of Germany, Greenland, as well as Asia and parts of the US. “Burnin’ Up Live” is the band’s second CD and it captures what the band does best: burning up a stage with their intense delivery. A new studio CD is receiving the final touches and is expected to be released shortly.
Whenever the Carson Downey Band starts playing, it doesn’t matter if the audience is brand new, young or old, they leave the venue amazed and as fans. What could be better than that ?
Guitarfest is not scheduled for 2017. Watch for a future announcement!