January is a busy month for Yukon blues guitarist Brandon Isaak.
The Whitehorse and Vancouver-based musician is touring Vancouver’s lower mainland, releasing a new album, and travelling to Memphis, Tennessee to participate in the largest blues gathering in the world.
At the International Blues Challenge, Isaak will compete as a solo artist against 80 blues acts from around the world. The winners receive cash prizes and gigs, but more importantly, they get the attention of major blues labels and promoters.
Zac Harmon, a 2006 winner, can attest to that. He is quoted on the International Blues Challenge website as saying, “Winning the International Blues Challenge is better than having a $100,000 publicity budget.”
Isaak, also known as Yukon Slim, is a locally grown talent.
His first gig was as a drummer, supporting his father, Ed, in canteen shows, and his first shows with his band Blues Train were in Whitehorse at the Discovery Bar in the Taku Inn, which his parents managed.
Isaak now plays with the Twisters, and with stand-up bassist Keith Picot as the Silver Screen Scoundrels. His music covers the whole range of blues, from Texas country blues, to Chicago style, to ragtime, and even gospel.
“I love the stories of everyday life of people struggling to get by,” he says. “A lot of people think the blues is just a depressing down-and-out music, but it’s not. That just one story in a person’s life. You can dwell on the negative or you can talk about the positive, and that’s just as bluesy to me.”
His latest album, Here on Earth, has just been released, and features Yukon talent Andrea McColeman and Ed White, as well as Picot.
Isaak is planning a CD release concert in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, he was selected by the White Rock Blues Society in British Columbia to represent B.C. in the International Blues Challenge.
“They had a competition in downtown Vancouver and they had acts coming in from all around B.C.,” Isaak says. “They actually called me and asked me to compete. And it was kind of nice to win.
“I get nominated for a lot of things – but winning, that’s a new concept. I like it.”
In Canada he was nominated for two Maple Blues Awards this year: for Best Acoustic Act and Songwriter of the Year. Those awards will have been announced before this issue is on the stands – January 20.
The International Blues Challenge runs from January 21 to 25, and takes place on Beale Street, the centre of the blues world.
“Memphis is quite the amazing city and Beale is an amazing street,” he says. “It’s a little bit like blues Disneyland.”
Isaak is looking forward to making connections with others in the music industry.
“We’ll have all the festival promoters from all around the world, all the European festivals,” he says, “You have all the major blues labels from all around the world, they go there too.
“And then just meeting all the musicians is fabulous. That’s the other half of it, networking with these guys who are doing the same thing you’re doing. You can compare notes and help each other down the road a bit.”
Once the competition is over, Isaak plans to rent a car for a blues pilgrimage through Mississippi.
“I’m going to Clarksdale and I’m staying in a sharecropper’s cabin out on a cotton field to write some stuff down there,” he says. “Then I’m going to Indianola and Vicksburg, and New Orleans for a little while. So I’m pretty thrilled.”