Local blues musician flying under the radar despite unique style

It’s hard not to get immersed in the rustic charm of The Blues Can. The lonely venue, located on what seems to be the darkest corner in all of Inglewood, plays home to a ragtag bunch of employees, patrons and musicians.

Among them is Mike Watson. One of Calgary’s long-standing musical figures, Watson brings to The Blues Can a guitar-playing style little seen on the city’s blues circuit every Sunday evening.

“He’s doing a lot of cool picking stuff,” says Bob Richardson, longtime blues musician and owner of Slaughterhouse Studios, a rehearsal space and recording studio located in the Ogden industrial area.”

“He just woodshedded for a couple of years and all of a sudden he’s out there playing way more than before.”

It’s mostly small audiences – like the one at The Blues Can this late fall Mike Watson serenades a sparse crowd at The Blues Can, Calgary’s premier blues venue in Inglewood.

Photo by Brandon McNeilevening.

The scene at this particular Watson jam is one that a blues song could have been written about. The mostly empty bar has a handful of what appears to be dedicated regulars who have seen Watson do this before, cheering him on as he and his blues trio – The 6L6s – try to find jamming subjects.

With mish-mash bravado, Watson’s musical style is modeled after old-time players such as Big Joe Williams and Muddy Waters. It combines Watson’s slick, organic guitar playing with a traditional blues swagger and a modern flare that can be attributed to his love of 90’s alt-rock artists.

“It has to be real and from the heart or else it won’t mean shit!

“I find that as hard as that is to get to emotionally, that’s easier to do with the blues,” Watson says.

But Watson hasn’t always been a devotee of the scene.

Originally, his creative output was focused on the stylings of Seattle-based groups such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam. In retrospect, Watson’s love of that city’s grunge scene isn’t a surprise. After all, it arguably had more blues-based elements than any other sub-genre – from moody lyrics to dark, cynical musical progressions.

But all that changed because of a world tragedy and a public broadcaster.

Watson pointed to the airing of a Martin Scorsese produced PBS special “The Blues” as being one of his main influences in joining the blues scene.

He watched that special shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which had set him on a personal mission to find a more organic music form with which to express himself.

Reflecting on his transition from alt-rock to blues, Watson says, “It’s insane, all these bands full of musicians that aren’t really doing it for me anymore, emotionally, and yet this guy with one guitar and no amp can do that?”

It was then that Watson started to make frequent visits to the King Eddy – a Calgary hotel that was home to a legendary blues bar. There, he would either play his own jams or watch artists such as Buddy Guy or Derek Trucks, who would frequent the venue. After the Eddy shut down, Watson found his way to The Blues Can.

He’s now fully entrenched at the club, playing his Robert Johnson-influenced, fingerpicking tunes to the crowds every week.

Nathan Hurd, general manager and talent buyer at the Blues Can, noted Watson’s style is important to the reinvigoration of the Calgary blues scene.

“He’s bringing the old back but bringing the new as well to bring in the younger demographic” Hurd says. “He’s pretty inspiring. He’s doing some pretty amazing things.”

bmcneil@cjournal.ca