Liner Notes by Peter North
It’s mere hours after Roy Forbes has wound up a weekend playing the 2014 edition of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival and our man Roy has plenty of reasons to be pumped.
For starters, he’s just played a city that was one of the first to embrace his multiple talents some forty years ago. As has been the rule, his performances caused a stir for all the right reasons, whether in a solo concert setting or on a workshop stage, like the one that put him in the company of the Blind Boys of Alabama.
After that particular workshop, as Roy was paying his respects to the Blind Boys, gospel legend Jimmy Carter declared, 'You know that If I Were A Raven tune you played? I want that tune'. It's been that way forever. Roy makes an unforgettable first impression.
Jimmy Carter's need to have Roy's song If I Were A Raven reminds me of a line I wrote several years ago in the Edmonton Journal, simply stating that, “over the years, Roy Forbes has amassed a catalogue of tunes that’s the envy of any Canadian folk-roots artist of his generation.”
It’s those beautifully spun lyrics of emotional depth, coupled with his soulful singing, unique turns of phrase, and guitar playing that covers the dynamics of an entire ensemble, that have kept so many of us going back to Roy’s shows and his deep well of song for so many years now.
So here we have it, Strikin’ Matches. Finally, and I mean finally, we have some live Roy sides that cover all that musical terrain, to listen to any time we choose.
And as you may have guessed, the disc you are holding has had a ridiculously long gestation period, but that’s Roy for you.
He started flirting with the idea of a retrospective around 2009, one that would draw on album and alternative tracks. But the burr under his saddle, the real catalyst for Strikin’ Matches, was that Roy never had a version of Love Turns To Ice that he was happy with, from the studio or a concert.
“Eventually I started recording shows seriously and finally got the version of Love Turns To Ice I was hoping for in Deep Cove during my series of 40th anniversary shows in 2011. That in turn was when I started to see the possibility of a live album. It also made me woodshed a bit more,” says Forbes, with a chuckle, while recalling all of this, just days before sending his set of live performances off to the manufacturing plant.
More gigs, in the kind of venues where you’d expect to find Roy, followed, from Salt Spring Island to the Rolla Hall near Dawson Creek, where he was raised. All were documented.
“The gig at the Rolla Hall was a real barn burner. Then, I went back to Deep Cove in 2013 and recorded two more concerts. The second night was the one that is the basis of this album. We got some gold there,” says Forbes, who then stepped away from the project just long enough to center himself again before diving into the task of deciding on which takes, of which songs, would be mixed and make it out into the world.
There are many variables that go into the equation of creating a live album, but one of the most important variables on this project was that Roy started digging a bit deeper, and taking second looks at his entire catalogue. His focus slowly shifted to the “Roy years”, meaning he tapped into songs that were released after he had put his long-time moniker Bim on the shelf.
Take, for instance, Crazy ‘Bout Lovin’ Me. Roy had rarely played the song live, but he ended up on a festival workshop stage with Suzie Vinnick, who had covered the piece on her Me 'N' Mabel album. In a blink, the song was back on Roy’s set lists again. It’s one of his blues-based numbers that has refined itself, and fans love that he brought the song back into the fold.
Another chapter in the “post Bim” era found Forbes hanging withlongtime friends Bill Henderson of Chilliwack fame, and Shari Ulrich who played many of the same halls as Forbes back in the seventies when she was either touring with Pied Pumkin or the Hometown Band.
Ulrich, Henderson, and Forbes spun a bit of magic together over the course of two albums and a bunch of appearances at clubs, intimate theatres and festivals. We’re only two songs into Strikin’ Matches, when one of the three tunes from the UHF era appears. That song is Do I Love You.
Ulrich doesn’t hesitate when offering up her impressions of Do I Love You, or for that matter any of Roy’s tunes.
“Do I Love You casts a spell from the first guitar arpeggio. It sings love from the rooftops with a sincerity and pristine beauty that only Roy can give us,” says Ulrich.
Ulrich goes on to call Lifting My Heart, which originally found its way onto UHF II, “the most spirited, happy, and aptly titled song ever!”
As an artist who experienced that rush of performing the tune and felt the waves of appreciation coming back to the stage, Ulrich added that Lifting My Heart, “continually lifts the heart of everyone who hears it, and to have played it with Roy was pure joy personified in song.”
It is also worth noting that Roy, who like so many of his peers can be his own worst critic, cleared the necessary emotional and technical hurdles required to get this set to those of us who so admire his talents.
“I do feel that this record is an important part of my story and it has made me take a real look at what has gone down the past 25 years. I think this is the cream of the crop, as I speak. Tomorrow, however, it could be a whole different set of songs,” admits this musician, a one-man band who gives nods to his many influences in the blues, jazz, country, folk, and rock and roll worlds, without venturing into emulation. Roy rightly says those influences are "echoes of tradition" and he can and will go on at length about how those influences inhabit the songs. Those spoken interludes can be just one part of the charm of a Roy show.
Though he insists he is no virtuoso on the guitar, and some of us would question him on that line of thought, he’s definitely a unique, confident and studied istrumentalist who can lay you out with economic ferocity one minute and a soothing, tasty, melodic set of lines the next.
“I know the early (Bim) repertoire has a certain cachet and charm with people but I think the writing is stronger in these later songs. Like most of us, I’m a guy who strives to do better,” says Forbes, who with his gifted engineer Dave Meszaros mixed these songs to a point where listeners will feel like they’ve paid for the best seat in the house.
Superb renderings of material originally presented on Crazy Old Moon, The Human Kind, and the UHF discs, are seasoned with that essential live take of Love Turns To Ice, as well as About My Broken Heart, first presented on the acclaimed Some Tunes For That Mother of Mine in 2006.
Capping the collection off is Days Turns To Nights, which dates back to those days when Roy was Bim. “It’s a country-rock tune from the days between the first two Bim albums and a song I never recorded until The Human Kind. It spoke to me again,” says Roy. The entire combination of material makes for a most welcome, if slightly overdue, live set from this one-of-a-kind artist who has handed us so many timeless, inspired and beautifully crafted tunes over the past four decades.
Strikin’ Matches, is also an aptly titled disc, as Roy has been putting a spark in the dark for so many years now.
Ms. Ulrich sums it up best about Roy the performer, this set of an even dozen live tunes, and the song Keep Lightin’ That Fire, from which the title of this disc takes its inspiration.
“It’s a grinding, searing, simmering call to keep the fire burning baby. I’m telling you, when Roy sings the song on stage he grabs you like prey and three and one-half minutes later you sit dazed, wondering what the hell just happened!”
Those words also all but sum up any Roy Forbes performance in a nutshell.
Peter North. (Peter North is a veteran Canadian journalist, broadcaster and events organizer who has been following Roy's music for the past forty years.)