Big Dave McLean, easily Western Canada’s foremost all-purpose bluesman, has made Sunday evenings at the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome an indispensable way for Winnipeggers to wind down the week. Every Sunday night, McLean and his well-travelled blues band perform a set and host a jam session that gives amateur musicians an opportunity to shine.
“I think it’s probably been about 36 years. I’m still a touring musician, so when I’m on the road, I have other people take over the jam for me,” McLean, the veteran singer, guitarist and harmonicist, says.
“I’m the puppet master. I put the bands together, and I try to do it as intelligently as I can to make sure we have the right lineup of people. Most of the time, they’ve never even met each other before. We try and encourage people to come down and play, and a lot of times they’re right beginners, but that’s okay. Everybody gets their turn.”
After decades of blazing his own trail and racking up various prestigious awards and nominations, including a Juno, McLean was bestowed with the Order of Canada in 2019 and recently took part in the appointing ceremony in December 2022 after COVID-related delays. The Order of Canada honours citizens of outstanding merit for major contributions in their field, from art to science.
“It was absolutely amazing. I never thought in my lifetime that I would achieve something like that,” McLean says. “It made me very happy to have my wife and kids there. What an absolute honour and a privilege to represent musicians.”
John Scoles, self-proclaimed janitor first, president second of the High and Lonesome Club, has run the show for the last 23 years and reinvented the formerly tame, sit-down blues café into the staple it is today.
“I had an opportunity to take it over and deconstruct it into something that looked much more like the old honky-tonks and juke joints of my youth that I loved and respected so much,” Scoles says.
Before acquiring the club, Scoles had been good friends with McLean and even played in his band on occasion.
“I think we’re pretty lucky to have each other, because we’re both really motivated by all the same things,” Scoles says.
McLean’s origins as a blues luminary can be traced back to the 1969 Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto, where a young McLean found himself under the tutelage of prominent blues musician John P. Hammond, who gave him guitar lessons and a head start in the music business.
Years later, McLean would also rub elbows with the legendary Muddy Waters, for whom he wrote his first-ever song, “Muddy Waters for President.”
“It turned my life around right there, getting to know Muddy Waters. He talked to me like you would talk to your neighbour over the fence. I opened for him in 1977,” McLean says. “He wanted to record (“Muddy Waters for President”), but he passed away before we could do that. But it made my life right there.”
Alongside McLean’s trophy case of honours, the High and Lonesome Club was also recognized this year with the Western Canadian Music Award for Impact in Live Music.
“It’s the category that now includes festivals and venues that are 10 times the size of this.
We’re very, very proud of what we’ve accomplished here,” Scoles says.
Published in Volume 77, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 2, 2023)