Brandon Isaak is an authentic, old-school bluesman who looks like he just stepped out of a grainy black-and-white photo in which you’d find the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, or Lightnin’ Hopkins. The image is complete with his battered-up, parlour-sized acoustic guitar — which he calls “the wife” — his sunglasses, black suit, and devilish goatee. The name “Yukon Slim” is ingrained on the fretboard of “the wife,” and even though it looks like something Robert Johnson would play, it somehow sounds like the sultry electric blues licks of B.B. King.
This is how he looked in a video of his performance at Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria, B.C. When I call him, he’s already in Coldstream, B.C., after playing a house show at a 100-year-old mansion. Next, he plays Penticton and then the legendary Yardbird Suite here in Edmonton on May 13. Looking at his tour calendar, I count nine shows in nine different cities for the month of May alone. Isaak says he’s been doing this for over 30 years now.
“I mean, it’s a journey, right?” says Isaak.
That goes for both touring and practicing. Isaak says he followed “the path,” studying anybody and everybody in the history of the blues. When he started early in his career, fresh out of his hometown in Whitehorse, he was ripping the fast and hard electric blues, leading him to a band called the Twisters, where Dave “Hurricane” Hoerl gave Isaak his nickname “Yukon Slim.”
Since then, he’s been sweet on all blues sorts, from the early pre-war style blues with his 2011 album, Bluesman’s Plea, to the jazzier 50’s style that he plays with his Saints of Swing. He’s even gotten his teeth into the country blues.
“You hear somebody like Rick Fines at a gig, and you go, ‘Man, I want to sound like Rick Fines.’ So, you figure out who Rick Fines is listening to, and he listens to Mississippi John Hurt — dudes like that. So, you got to figure out who Mississippi John Hurt is now. And then you find out, you fall in love, and you think that’s beautiful stuff, and that leads to the next domino.”
Isaak keeps practicing several hours a day, even after mastering all these styles. He’s kept up with his technique, but he’s dropped some of the wild habits that tend to come with a life on the road in music. “It’s not like the old days when you would go out drinking all night giving ‘er and then when the gigs over, keep drinking until the morning show and then go play the morning show.” Instead, he and his wife, Cindy Mae, tour together now, with her working as his tour manager. “We are a little more civilized now, you know? A little more mature — not much, but a little more.”
But Isaak still tells me, “You’ve got to be crazy” to make it in the blues. “It’s a tough business these days; there are so many artists out there,” he says. But that’s not to discourage people from trying. According to Isaak, Canada has a great, healthy blues scene that manages to stand toe to toe with the likes of Memphis and Mississippi. Isaak is just one of the many legendary blues musicians we’ve got right here on our own turf, so don’t be shy about checking him out.
Listen to the sounds of the Brandon Isaak Trio on May 13 at the Yardbird Suite.