Blackburn: Band of Brothers (Part 2 of 3)

Continued from Part One…

Many Paths Converging Into One
For their own musical journeys, the four Blackburn brothers each built upon their father’s foundation. “I got a great start from my dad,” says Cory Blackburn. “I’m much younger than my brothers; they had already been gigging before I was accomplished enough to start playing out.” Father and son played a number of gigs as an organ-and-drums duo. “My dad’s an excellent entertainer and musician,” Cory says. “He’s got a strong left-hand rhythm, so he played bass with his left hand. I learned a lot playing with him.”

“I played drums with my dad,” says Robert. “And then as I grew up, I started playing with friends in town, putting a few bands together: r&b, blues bands.” After a few years with local Toronto outfits like 20th Century Rebels and the Basement Blues Band, Robert was ready to play with his siblings. “Then,” he says, “we started going on the road and doing our thing.”

Brooke’s story is similar. “I played with my dad,” he laughs. “Because that’s the way it works, y’know?” He learned guitar by age 13, eventually joining Robert in the reggae band 20th Century Rebels. “That’s where I discovered my love of horns,” he says. “And then Robert started playing the saxophone.”

Since his dad had the keyboards covered, a young Duane Blackburn came up playing bass with him. After years watching his brothers play in bands, He and Brooke put together a band to back local entertainers. “We did that for ten, fifteen years in Toronto,” Duane recalls. “Then in the late ‘90s we decided to put our own thing together.”

Even with those rock-solid foundations, today the Blackburn Brothers believe they weren’t predestined to play in a group together. It simply happened. “We just got tired of backing up other people,” says Duane. “My cousin Nathan, me, Brooke, Cory and Robert just started jamming, writing original music for ourselves. And that’s where it started.”

The brothers built their own recording studio in Malton, Mississauga, some 20 miles northwest of bustling Toronto. With today’s modern digital technology, most every musician can claim to have a “studio,” but back then, a setup with a 12-track Akai machine was impressive indeed.

“When I say ‘built,’ I mean built,” Brooke emphasizes. “It was a three-car garage, and we did everything: the drywalling, constructing a six-sided room for the drum booth, and installing a console.” The studio had dedicated rooms for recording the organ and other instruments.

Billed as Blackburn, the group released 1997’s Soul Searching. Continuing to develop their style, the group made a decisive step toward the blues with 2009’s Brotherhood.

Benefits of Brotherhood
Every member of the Blackburn Brothers believes that there are significant advantages to making music with one’s siblings. “There’s definitely a comfort zone,” says Duane. “You know what [everyone else] is doing, and there’s a dependability in that.” He notes that if one band member has a problem, there’s a safe space to let it out. “No repercussions in the long run,” Duane says. But he adds that there are some drawbacks to being a band of brothers. If something bad goes down, “you can’t kick their ass,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Because you’ve got to see them the next week.”

Robert believes that the brotherly connections help when it comes to songwriting. “We’re all in the same vibe, yet different,” he says. “We can run ideas across each other and get good feedback, because while we like the same stuff, we each bring a different flavor.” He notes that after getting input from every member of the group, a song might sound different than it did when it first came to the studio. “But 99% of time time,” he insists, “it sounds better.”

“I wrote a song on Brotherhood called ‘Four Brothers,’” says Brooke. “It talks about the strengths of family. No matter how musical you are, you still have that sense of family. You may write a song, you might do a nice gig. But then it’s ‘Okay, where are we [getting together] for Thanksgiving?’ With family, you have that sold bond that can never be broken.”

Building on the Blues
While the Blackburn Brothers’ music is immersed in multiple genres – including soul and funk, as the title of their newest record makes plain – they’re in agreement that blues is the root of everything they do. “But,” says Cory, “our contemporary take on the blues is to ask, ‘Where can we go to have elements of traditional blues but make it a bit more cutting-edge for today?’”

Cory cites a recent exchange with his eight-year-old son as a case in point. “When I put on certain records, he’s like, ‘I like it, Dad, but it’s old music.’” After pointing out to his young son that it’s perfectly okay to like “old” music, he thinks to himself, “How can we make what we do fresh and accessible? Not just to blues societies, but to the new generations?”

That mindset leads to some intriguing and outside-the-box choices in terms of arrangement and production. Cory says that in the ‘80s he listened to a lot of “dirty, dirty funk” and was impressed with what he heard. He was especially intrigued by the use of “Golden Throat” talk boxes. “I remember listening to those Roger Troutman albums and thinking, ‘My god, is this ever funky!?’” he says.

Thus inspired, the Blackburn brothers incorporated similar textures into their original music. A highlight of SoulFunkn’Blues is “Freedom Train,” a song that make prominent use of the Vocoder, an electronic treatment of vocals that’s a technological cousin of the ‘70s and ‘80s talk boxes.

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