By Jason Paul
Don Walsh cannot be stopped. He is a man through which the very spirit and soul of the blues lives vicariously. Having led Canada’s premiere blues band Downchild, and written songs for the Blues Brothers, you’d think he’d get just a tad tired. But after 35 years of virtually non-stop touring, he is still going strong and shows no signs of slowing.
“There was a particular time, probably between ’76 and ’80 when I did about 300 shows a year,” explains Don, in his motel room on a dreary Monday evening. “I was younger then, and it was rocking. In those days you used to go and play clubs for a week, so if you did a 16 week tour, you’d play 16 different places. And of course it would be tons of miles to go to, but there’d be extra money for everybody.”
Don Walsh, also known benevolently as “Mr. Downchild”, founded the band in 1969, and is the only member who has been with the act for its entire 35 year run. Most groups would buckle under a touring schedule this demanding and for Downchild there were bumps along the proverbial road.
“It’s not so much now but yeah, I remember going nuts. I remember it was a long time ago, probably in the mid-70s, we were at this party after the gig and it was probably like three or four in the morning and I just started crying for no reason. It was overwhelming man, that work was big.”
You would think being on the road for so long might dissuade others from further travels, but for this icon of the Canadian blues scene, each new tour remains fresh and exciting. Don remains passionate for the craft and intensive touring schedule, but it’s an enthusiasm not shared by all of his fellow band mates. Over the years, for this reason and others, Downchild has had upwards of 90 members. Some, including current bassist Gary Kendall, have left and come back more than once. But other members have also left to pursue other projects.
“Just around when I started here were all these guys in blues bands and of course they were impatient and they wanted to make some more money so they became rock bands,” explains Don. “I played the blues then and I play the blues now. That’s what I love.”
Before, blues waned in the public eye and rock dominated the music scene, but people like Don have maintained their sound. Thus a younger generation of great blues musicians were ready and inspired to wrestle the mantle from brash rock stars who shouldn’t have left their parents’ basement. The blues are on the rise again on a local and international level.
“The really neat thing is there’s tons of blues bands, like younger guys that really know how to play the blues. I don’t know who they learn from. When I started playing I learned from black blues artists like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. It’s guys that can play really neat blues, so you can dance to it and groove to it and have a really neat time.”
Through thick and thin, Don has always been at the forefront of the blues scene, and he always will be. It’s not just music to him, it’s in his blood. The blues are a very special force for him, it’s what makes him happy, and if other people can benefit from it, all the better.
“It’s a living thing, it’s living music. By living and breathing it goes on and what that means is that instead of being the same kind of music somebody else wrote years ago, it lives and evolves. Blues is serious stuff, it’s a heavy kind of music in your soul. You show up with the blues I play, you lighten up. That’s what it’s all about. It’s like medicine.”