Don’t try to tie Gary Comeau down, or pigeonhole him in one category of music or another.
In his career, he’s moved with apparent ease through realms of blues, jazz, cajun, blues, roots and the singer-songwriter idiom, and, in his own unique way, been true to all of them.
He sings, he plays fiddle, mandolin, accordion and piano and he tinkers, endlessly, with other instruments and musical ideas that take his fancy.
As we talked recently, he ruminated on his, as yet unfulfilled, yen to play trumpet and cornet – inspired by one of his many musical idols, Louis Armstrong. At the same time, he’s fascinated by the “rich, bottomy, droning sound” he got with his bow from a cigar-box slide guitar a good friend gave him, and obsessed with the notion that he might be able to build his own cigar-box violin.
Comeau’s an authentic minstrel – a genuine character with a top hat, a soul patch and a penchant for colourful clothing – and when he gets that certain gleam in his eye, and a smile of pure joy spreads across his face, fans know they can look forward to being carried along on a powerful wave of good music and good times.
And that’s what ticket-holders can expect when the Nova Scotia-born musician and his Voodoo Allstars appear for the kick-off concert of Peninsula Productions 2014-15 season, Saturday, Sept. 27 at 8 p.m. at White Rock’s First United Church, 15385 Semiahmoo Ave.
As Peninsula Productions’ artistic director Wendy Bollard said, noting Comeau’s expertise as a musician and as an all-round entertainer, “it promises to be a hot and spicy evening, filled with New Orleans rocking roots and blues.”
“I call it Louisiana Gumbo music,” he drawled, affably.
“There’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that. There’s some Louisiana fiddle and a little bit of that Mississippi Delta sound. There a little bit of that Cuban-Carribbean feel, and a little bit of Celtic music from another shore. It’s really a melting pot of everything I’ve done and everything that inspires me.”
Comeau never really works from a set list, he said – he prefers the feel that “anything can happen” and that he can go where inspiration takes him.
“The freedom of it is that I could walk out into the audience, or I might start playing from the balcony. You just don’t know – it will hit me at the moment how things are going to be. With me people won’t see the same thing twice, it’s a guarantee. Hopefully, they’ll leave having had a good time.”
It helps, of course, that his Voodoo Allstars are just that, a close-knit, highly experienced group of first-class musicians.
Drummer Chris Nordquist, bassist Dennis Marcenko, guitarist/slide guitarist Tim Hersey and saxist/percussionist Jerry Cook – as well as having renowned chops in the musical community – have worked consistently with Comeau for the last seven years and know how to follow the merest blink of his eye.
Comeau first came to the west coast as a teenage folk singer with guitar and harmonica, playing the kind of material that inspired him, by songwriters like Bob Dylan and Jesse Winchester.
Then, as he picked up the mandolin and fiddle several years later he began a long love affair with other idioms, including Western Swing, Appalachian music and jazz influences such as violinist Stephane Grappelli, old-time pianists Fats Waller and Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, and clarinetist/bandleader Benny Goodman.
He believes his affinity for Louisiana music are partly due to his French heritage and shared Acadian roots.
But he believes his easy-going, free-wheeling ‘Southern’ attitude also stems from idyllic summers he spent at camps organized by the Catholic orphanage school he attended, at Mahone Bay, just outside of Lunenberg, N.S.
One of six children of a single mother, he had to get used to the school and various foster homes, which, at the time, were the only form of social services available.
“It was strict at school the rest of the year, but in the summer you’d be swimming and fishing all day long – I used to read Mark Twain and I just went into this Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer world,” he recalled.
Tickets are available through Semiahmoo Arts, Good Day Sunshine Cafe and online at tickets.surrey.ca