ELLEN McILWAINE performing as part of the Toronto Blues Society's 20th Anniversary WOMEN'S BLUES REVUE with SUE FOLEY , RITA CHIARELLI , JACKIE RICHARDSON , KIM RICHARDSON , DIANA BRAITHWAITE and SAIDAH BABA TALIBAH at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Saturday (November 25), 8 pm. $35-$45. 416-872-4255. Rating: NNNNN
Quick, who's the only artist on the bill of the Women's Blues Revue's 20th Anniversary show to have her recordings remixed by David Holmes, sampled by Fatboy Slim and compiled by BBC DJ Gilles Peterson?
Here's a hint: she's also collaborated with celebrated Tokyo sample jazz crew Mondo Grosso as well as DJ/producers Yukihiro Fukutomi and Kei Kobayashi. No, it's definitely not Sue Foley, but rather Calgary-based guitar slinger Ellen McIlwaine, whose fiercely funky six-string technique on classic club joints like Jimmy Jean and floor-shaking overhaul of Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground inspired Soul Source mainman Kenichi Yanai to bring McIlwaine to Japan for recording collaborations and dance club tours in 2002 and 05.
"Going to Japan was a wonderful experience," recalls McIlwaine from her Calgary home, "because my father was born there and I was raised in Japan, so it was my first trip back since childhood. And returning last December was great, since my collaboration with Kenichi Yanai on the song Toe Hold turned out to be a pretty big club hit, so we got to play shows in Osaka and Fukuoka. When I began addressing the audience, I could see jaws dropping because they could tell immediately that I wasn't speaking the Japanese you learn from lessons.
"I've always been a big fan of experimentation. Working with people from other areas -- or different disciplines -- is fun for me. Actually, I just finished working on a track called Reflections with [nu-jazz producer] Robb Scott in New York for his new Afro Odyssey [Sunshine Enterprises] disc. That was quite challenging, because he just sent me these two sections of music that repeated over and over and left me to come up with the melody, lyrics and the concept of what the song was about."
Between her frequent flights to Japan and recent studio sessions, McIlwaine found time to record and release the entrancing East-meets-West collision Mystic Bridge (Festival) album with Edmonton tabla master Cassius Khan, which she'll begin touring in earnest after her Saturday-night appearance at the Women's Blues Revue gig.
The annual Toronto Blues Society event, bringing together promising young talent with established blues scene veterans, is a concept McIlwaine heartily supports, knowing first-hand that showcase opportunities for women in the male-dominated blues world are, sadly, still few and far between.
"I love the idea of the Women's Blues Revue. I think every city should have one. There's a guy here in Calgary -- I won't mention his name -- who puts on a guitar festival each spring and a blues festival every summer, yet to my knowledge he's never had a woman perform at either. I'm a woman and I could just walk a couple of blocks down my street to play that guitar festival, but I've never been invited. I e-mailed him a list of all the women guitarists on Sue Foley's Blues Guitar Women (Ruf) comp who were still active, and he responded with 'Thanks for the list.' I don't know if anything will come of it, but, hey, you can hope.
"If you're a woman playing guitar, you still get a lot of flak because it's outside of what some people believe to be a woman's role in society. Back when I started performing in the mid-60s, people felt women couldn't and shouldn't play guitar, but I never let that stop me then and it's sure not going to now."