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Chain-Smoking Altar Boys, Ghost Town Blues Band & More Shufflin’ into Thorold

Chain-Smoking Altar Boys, Ghost Town Blues Band & More Shufflin’ into Thorold

By Cathy Pelletier

The last time Reverend Raven and the Chain-Smoking Altar Boys stormed the Summit Tavern in Thorold, the “Reverend’s” raw energy — coupled with the crowd’s enthusiasm — was so strong the Summit couldn’t contain him, and he surprised and delighted spectators when he strutted offstage, still playing his smoking guitar, out in the middle of Front St.

It’s these impromptu over-the-top type performances that make for memorable moments at Canal Bank Shuffle concerts. And after 13 years of presenting hundreds of the best blues artists from both sides of the border, the Canal Bank crew, comprised of a dozen local volunteers, is ready to open the musical floodgates again.

This year, more than 30 top-notch blues acts — the good Reverend and his Chicago band among them — will appear at the 14th annual Canal Bank Shuffle, performing every type of blues imaginable, from Australian-based to Celtic to rock blues to reggae at various downtown Thorold venues from October 15-18.

If you like “fabulously bad-ass blues” (one music critic’s description) with a Native flair, catch the returning Pappy Johns Band at Donnelly’s Pub. If you prefer pure traditional acoustic blues in an intimate setting, see Alfie Smith at the Panini Café. Fans of sizzling guitar licks, expertly served up by one of Canada’s multiple award-wining blues artists, should not miss Shuffle veteran David Gogo from Nanaimo, B.C..

His new album, Vicksburg Call, “is getting some of the best reviews of my career,” Gogo said, adding he plans to feature many of these new songs with his band at Holy Rosary Hall, and “maybe one or two during my acoustic (solo) set” at the Summit Tavern. “I have been lucky to be involved with The Canal Bank Shuffle and associated events for several years now and have enjoyed it immensely,” said the charismatic performer. “Great people to work with, great audiences and it is so cool that it raises money for charity. I also look forward to seeing other artists perform as the festival always has an amazing line-up!”

Along with Gogo, the Juno award-winning Jack deKeyzer — who’s played all 13 Shuffles and consistently packs the 400-capacity Holy Rosary Hall — and dance floor; local favourite guitar whiz Brant Parker, and the Red Dirt Revelators — who bring swampy bayou blues from North Carolina, peppered with genuine southern warmth and wit — have all become like family to the Shuffle committee.

Krista Blondin — whose uncanny Janis Joplin tribute typically brings audience members to tears — will return by popular demand at the Belvedere Club on the Saturday. Blues lovers from across Canada and the U.S. flock to see these favourite acts every year, along with talented newcomers, four of whom will kick off the Shuffle Thursday night.

First up is teen sensation Spencer Mackenzie, an old blues soul in a young body, followed by Texas prodigy Brent Johnson, fast-rising Canadian star Kirby Sewell, and for the finale, Grady Champion; a Mississippi-born singer/songwriter/harp and guitar player who’s often been compared to Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson.

The Shuffle is thrilled to present Mad Dogs and Englishmen this year, a larger-than-life, sensational all-star showcase recreating the nostalgic famous tour of the late great Joe Cocker and Leon Russell.

Other exciting debuts include one of the great southern blues artists – Johnny Rawls, the legendary Cedric Burnside Project, and Cécile Doo Kingué, a talented globe-trotting guitarist/singer who blends blues, afro roots and soul to create a unique sound, along with the young Conor Gains, fresh from a standing ovation gig at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Grounded in gospel, the pure power and passion of Alexis P. Suter at last year’s Shuffle earned her a return spot this year. An extremely emotional performer, she has opened for legends like B.B. King, Bo Didley, and Etta James.

By its very nature, blues brings an authentic connection that resonates with the audience, unlike the over-produced technotronics that dominate today’s music scene, and Suter is a prime example of establishing that immediate rapport with her audience.

At its core, the blues genre is an art form that tells the tale of universal sadness we’ve all felt, though Shuffle members take pride in delivering a lively, party-type atmosphere throughout four fun-filled days. This ever-growing, highly-anticipated festival has earned a fantastic reputation for showcasing first-class musicians, all of which can be seen — by “shuffling” from venue to venue to see bands of your choice — for a mere $25 in advance or $30 at the door.

In the past 13 years, the Shuffle has donated a whopping $165,000 to the Niagara Autism Society, Wellspring Niagara, the Animal Assistance Society, and countless other charities. This year’s proceeds are earmarked for Community Care of St. Catharines &Thorold.

The festival was founded by Tim Sinnett and John Davis, who, after attending the Spring Blues Festival in Orillia in 2002, decided, “Why not try this in Thorold?”

Twelve Canadian acts appeared over three days the first year. To cover the cost of bands, they sold Crispy Creme donuts for six months, never dreaming the Shuffle would evolve into such a resounding success.

Last year, the four-day Shuffle featured 35 shows and included many international artists. Now, sponsors and advertisers — including the Shuffle’s new title sponsor, the Pen Centre — help keep the cost down to less than $1 per band for appreciative music-lovers, who delight in “discovering” several talented stars, all within walking distance. Often the musicians also join in the shuffle to catch other acts between their own gigs, inviting each other onstage for jam sessions.

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As Artistic Director, Sinnett has a great knack for booking superb bands; he and fellow committee members travel to Memphis and other music havens, scouting talent.

When the Ghost Town Blues Band delivered a dynamic standing ovation debut performance at Shuffle 2014, they’d just captured second place at the International Blues Challenge (IBCs) in their hometown of Memphis, considered the blues capital of the world. Traditionally, the second-place IBC winner is invited to play the Shuffle that same year, making Thorold the band’s inaugural gig in Canada.

“We were just happy to have one of the prizes be that spot in Thorold,” said Matt Isbell, colourful Ghost Town lead guitarist/singer/songwriter. “The crowd lit up like fireworks! And if you know anything about music, it takes a crowd with energy and musicians with energy to really make it happen. Everyone in the audience seemed to be having a good time, even the president of the Blues Foundation, Jay Sieleman and his beautiful wife, were bobbing their heads” (the Shuffle also sponsored the Sielemans’ trip from Memphis to come see what Thorold has to offer).

Naturally, the Shuffle crew invited Ghost Town back this past spring for an encore show, which sold out quickly.

“Since the Shuffle has adopted us into their family,” Isbell added, the relatively new Ghost Town Blues Band has played more than 15 Canadian festivals, and been named one of the top five blues bands touring the U.S. today.

“We are very honoured and humbled to have made so many great new fans and friends so far from home,” Isbell said. “We’ve even run into some of our Canadian fans on Beale Street and at places like Ground Zero blues club in Clarksdale, Mississippi. On our most recent trip to Ontario, we ran into a repair issue and needed a soldering iron to make the fix. With perfect Canadian hospitality, our new friend Lloyd invited us over for drinks and dinner while he repaired our electric analog push-broom (a homemade microphonic broom used on the title track of our new CD, Hard Road To Hoe). Y’all come see the show and hang out with us afterwards!”

Jeremiah Johnson from St. Louis was another phenomenal performer this past winter, captivating the crowd with his original country blues flavour, and instant fans of that show demanded he be invited back to this year’s Shuffle.

For a full line-up, and to purchase tickets online, visit

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