Copyright © 1999. All Rights Reserved
by Mary-Lynn McEwen
Thursday, November 18
Engineered Air Theatre
Big Mama! The Willie Mae Thornton Story
Monday November 15 to Saturday, December 4
Talk of blues musicians, and thoughts turn to a smoke-filled speakeasy where people trapped in dead-end lives might go to burn away the knot in their throats with whiskey and the knot in their hearts with music. You think of a guitar player caressing with calloused hands a Stella guitar that moans a charmed answer to unasked questions, or of a harmonica player spitting blood into a stageside bucket between every sweet change of key. Its not likely that you picture a musician checking in his daytimer before setting his alarm for early morning, so he can be alert for a noon-hour performance in the concrete caverns of a downtown oil building. Not likely, that is, unless you know what a unique piece of work Tim Williams is.
And that daytimer seems gluttonously full right now, as hell roll outta bed early every day but Sunday for three weeks in support of Toronto actress Jackie Richardsons role as Big Mama Thorton, who happened to be an acquaintance of Williamss in the West Coast blues scene in 1969 Los Angeles, during an era when there was more time for strumming and less need for daytimers. And as interesting as Williamss life appears, its a character like Thorton, he says, whos worthy of a play.
"An interesting contradiction, to be a black woman that size, and she was huge, she was bisexual, and came from a pretty down-home kind of upbringing. She was pretty tough, but she was a nice lady. Shed drink a little too much and screw up sometimes, and if you pissed her off shed just haul of and pop you one," confides Williams, while taking a break from rehearsal at Lunchbox Theatre, surrounded by slides that will augment the performance. He denies ever giving the lady any reason to haul off and pop him one, however.
"She was great, she was a good musician, a real good drummer, a good harmonica player, and the last of the classic blues singers, to me, before rock and soul absorbed that or came to influence that more. She was in that true line from Mamie Smith to Bessie Smith to Ma Rainy to Memphis Minnie to her. I havent heard anybody after her that comes close to, what feels like to me, to be pure blues."
But if Williams seems a little groggy in performance lunchtime Friday, go easy on him, because, keep in mind, he will have spent the previous night at The Arts Centre, creating his own acoustic recording of some treasured tracks for the Carma Unplugged Blues Series.
"Ill play some old traditional tunes, a couple of new tunes, couple of my friends songs, maybe one or two things Ive recorded on the last few albums I dont know. I dont want to record all the same tunes that people have got on the studio albums."
And its always good to test drive that venue, because during the first weekend in December Williams and Ron Casat will become the backing band for the live version of Coaldust Grins, an album Williams produced based on Larry Christmass book of photographs from Canadas coal industry. The combined music and slide show were well received previously when shown at the U of C.
This is the point at which your daytimer would roll over and play dead? Well, the affable guitarist will also be throwing in some one-nighters in small towns before he and Casat put in their New Years gig in Kananaskis. Luckily for Tim, his presence isnt necessary at Theatre Calgary, where the current production of The Glass Menagerie features Williams-penned tunes that he pre-recorded. From writing to recording and mixing, this took him a leisurely six days. Dont feel inadequate yet? Remember, while doing all this, the mans been reviewing music for Victorias Real Blues magazine and contributing to the Canadian Folk Music Journal. Time off is a bonus, though, because then Williams can work on restoring his vintage guitars and cooking red beans and rice, a favourite from the many Memphis gigs hes played. In the meantime, getting up to be downtown for the play isnt a bad thing for a guy whos spent 30 years working in nightclubs.
"A change is as good as a rest. Its sometimes good for me to stay home and sleep at night and do business instead of playing til two every night."
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