Lonnie Powell’s passion for percussion dates back to a childhood night in B.C.’s Kootenay region, when he attended a wedding reception with his mother and watched a “really animated” drummer strut his stuff.
“He was having so much fun that it was infectious. That stuck with me, because he was having such a ball on the stage,” recalled Powell. What really sealed his musical fate, though, was a birthday present from his older sister when he was 12—the drum kit she had found in a second-hand store in Calgary.
“It was an old Rogers set. I still have some of those pieces today, but that was a game-changer, for sure. Once I had those, I don’t think I’ve ever stopped hitting things to this day.”
Powell’s father had been a guitarist, but died before his son could see him perform publicly. Not long after getting his drum kit, the teenaged Lonnie was using it to play local gigs with his dad’s brothers.
“A lot of my friends were delivering newspapers and working at Sears, putting appliances in warehouses, but I think I might have been making better money playing these shows on the weekend with my uncles’ country band,” he said.
It didn’t take long for him to recognize the sense of unity the music brought to a roomful of people.
“Once I got to do a few live shows, I realized that people would dance to what we were doing, and that we were the source of that feeling.”
Getting attention and approval definitely added to the experience in the early days of a musical career that’s been unfolding now for more than 30 years.
“I did get the attention of girls, too, which obviously is kind of cool. The ladies like the drummers,” he added with a laugh.
Over the years, Powell has heard his share of lame jokes denigrating drummers as tone-deaf people who love to hang around with musicians.
“It used to affect me. I used to feel like, ‘Oh, I’m less than the rest of these people because I didn’t have a university background or a music degree.’ But I also realized the importance of the groove and the feeling of the song—we call it the pocket.”
Powell had little interest in emulating the “drumnastics and fancy licks and how fast you can play” pyrotechnics of some of the more flamboyant percussionists. Instead, he found himself attracted to “really musical” drummers, such as Steve Gadd, John Bonham and Max Roach.
“I moved to Vancouver and heard Duris Maxwell (also known as Ted Lewis) playing with the Powder Blues Band. That guy could shuffle as good as anybody on the planet.”
Although he didn’t know it at the time, Maxwell had also been highly influenced early on by Powell’s own mentor, Scottish-born drum guru, Jim Blackley. It was Blackley who imbued Powell with an awareness of the need for drummers to get out of their heads and into their bodies.
“Blackley said it. ‘You should be dancing with your hands, laddie. It’s a dance.’ And he was a dancer. Buddy Rich was a great tap dancer. Steve Gadd was an excellent tap dancer before he was a drummer.
“They had the showmanship, but those guys could really play. When the substance is there and the showmanship is there, it’s awesome,” Powell added.
“Those guys would flip sticks, and jump up and down, and be all over the kit, but they never got away from the fact that it has to really swing.”
A carpenter by trade, Powell moved to the Yukon in 1995 to pursue a different kind of swinging—with a hammer.
“I came up to build Bob Hamilton’s Old Crow studio. The moment we had that studio ready, I started playing and tracking. And that has had a huge effect,” he admitted.
“All that little stuff you think you’re playing just gets in the way of the singer-songwriter and their music. So I know when I go in and my ego’s going on, then, when I listen to these tracks, it’s pretty humbling.”
Besides his day job with Yukon Housing, Powell has maintained a busy performing and recording schedule since moving to Whitehorse.
“I’ve had the chance to play all kinds of music, with players who’ve been able to lift me to places where I didn’t even realize I could go,” he said.
“I’ve recorded with some really good players and played genres I’m normally not comfortable in, but it has inspired me.”
On Thursday, Feb. 7, Powell’s musical journey will take a new direction. He’ll be leading a nine-piece group of some seasoned Yukon performers in a Jazz in the Hall concert at the Old Fire Hall. (details at yukonartscentre.com)
The personnel will include Andrea McColeman (keyboards), Dave Haddock (bass), Jim Holland (guitar), Keith Todd (trombone), Adrian Burrill (trumpet) and Olivier de Colombel (sax). Vocalists Lucie Desaulniers and Lorène Charmetant will also join.
The program will be dedicated to Steve Gadd, and feature numerous tunes he made famous with an eclectic mix of performers such as Eric Clapton, Rickie Lee Jones, Paul Simon and Chick Corea.
“I’m including all those different genres because it’s an example of how much the drummer affects those grooves,” he said.
“It kind of glues the whole thing together. It’s got that ability.”