Blackburn: Band of Brothers (Part 3 of 3)

Continued from Part Two…
Soul music figures into the Blackburn Brothers’ mix as well. The lyrics of “Bobby’s Blues,” the new album’s opening cut, display a social consciousness reminiscent of Marvin Gaye’s recording of “What’s Going On.” Brooke Blackburn says that song is drawn from his father’s experiences. “It specifically references a hurricane that hit Toronto in 1954,” he says. The song also makes reference to the intriguing story of the Avro Arrow, a supersonic fighter plane built in Malton, one that was never used.

“It talks about Black power, too,” Brooke says. “We come from a mixed family; my mother is white, and my dad is Black. And we grew up with a strong sense of African Canadian culture.” He notes that when he was coming up, if you weren’t completely white, you were Black. “So I write a lot about the history of Black people in this country,” he says. “And ‘Bobby’s Blues’ sort of encapsulates that.”

While the lion’s share of songs on SoulFunkn’Blues are band originals, Blackburn Brothers include a well-chosen cover. “Sister Rosa” was first cut by the Neville Brothers in 1989. A paean to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, the song featured on Brotherhood, the group’s 2009 release as Blackburn. While that version has merit, a completely new recording of the song – with a remarkably different arrangement – is a highlight of the brothers’ latest release.

“Sister Rosa” had been in the Blackburn Brothers’ live set for years, and over time, the arrangement developed into something much more soulful, much funkier. “Live, we do it with more of a James Brown feel,” says Duane. “It’s funky as hell. I love the funk feel to it, and of course the message.”

Blackburn Brothers Live
Like most everyone, the Blackburn Brothers found themselves sidelined during the Covid-19 pandemic. They used that time to write and record. But with a new album and a return to live concerts, the group is once again placing its focus on in-person performances. “I think our strongest quality is our live work,” says Duane.

Duane Blackburn emphasizes his band’s energy and arrangements onstage. “They’re not used to that in the blues scene,” he says. “The telepathic communication between us is special; we know where each other is going, so we can follow and give each other space.” The Blackburn Brothers’ approach, he says, is to keep the audience as engaged as possible. “There are [times] in the show when it breaks down to a nice, gritty blues,” he says. “But then we bring it up. There’s our horn section, and we have a lot of action happening onstage.”

Like the United States, Canada is a big county with a lot of open spaces. That means that the logistics of touring on the road can be challenging. “We drive a lot,” says Brooke. “We’re talking like 10, 12 hour drives to a show.” Blackburn Brothers have played at White Mountain Boogie N’ Blues Festival, the Pennsylvania Blues Festival and others; they’ve even traveled as far as Memphis, a more than 15 hour drive.

Asked to name a gig that felt like a significant breakthrough, Cory Blackburn mentions this year’s Montréal Jazz Festival. First launched in 1980, the annual event features a staggering 3000 artists from dozens of countries, drawing more than 2 million attendees. He laughs as he recalls the brotherly conversation that took place during the drive to Montréal. “Okay, guys,” he told his band mates. “This is the NBA playoffs, okay? We’ve got to bring it.”

And they did. “I was so proud of everybody,” Cory says. “and we were surprised with some really good reviews after. We knew we did good, but when you see it in print – and when you see the reactions from people who are outside your circle – that’s a validation.”

Just before the pandemic hit, Blackburn Brothers had been booked to play the prestigious International Blues Cruise as well as the Panama International Jazz and Blues Festival. Both of those events were put on hold, but now they’re back on the band’s upcoming concert schedule. “So we’re getting out there internationally,” Brooke says. While there are no firm plans as of yet, the group has set its sights upon Europe as well. “We’re hoping more than anything to get to Europe [in support of] this new album,” Brooke says. “It’s a big world, and hopefully we’ll get everyone to know who Blackburn Brothers are.”

The band’s Brotherhood album marked a momentous turning point for the Blackburn Brothers. “We did some traditional blues on that,” says Duane. “And it got a great response. So I said, ‘Let’s go this direction.’ Now there’s a mixture of everything, but the blues foundation is at the root of all of our music. The blues community is very accepting of what we do, and it works for the Blackburn Brothers.”