Mem Shannon & The Membership at the Silver Dollar Room (486 Spadina), Friday (May 2). $15. 416-763-9139. Rating: NNNNN
Mem Shannon has one of those wicked, deep velvety baritone voices. It's immediately recognizable, so when he calls for his interview before the time I'm expecting him, there's no need for him to identify himself."Hi!" I chirp. "You're early!"
He seems taken aback for a split second. What? I wonder. Does he not realize how unique and cool his voice is? Or does he maybe think I've got a bevy of groovy bluesmen calling me every day? I'll go with the latter.
Shannon is speaking to me from "somewhere around" Ottawa.
"It's got a French name," he says. "I get confused. People assume if you're from Louisiana that you're fluent in French, but that's not the case."
Shannon, now 43, had actually never travelled outside of New Orleans, where he'd worked as a cabbie for 15 years, before the release of his 1995 debut CD, A Cab Driver's Blues.
"I was always bringing people to the airport and never getting on a plane myself. I was just never in a position where I could travel."
Still, he managed to learn a lot driving that hack. The lyrics on his latest record, Memphis In The Morning, don't seem at all unworldly. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"Driving a cab taught me a lot about people. When you deal with different people every day you become a bit of a psychologist. And emotions change a lot when people are drinking. When they get drunk, suddenly they're telling you things they wouldn't tell their best friends."
Sometimes, he admits, people tell you things you don't want to hear.
"I was driving a man to the children's hospital once and he confessed to me that he beat his kid. He was on his way to see his kid and telling me this."
Shannon channels the insights he gets from these experiences into social commentary - like on the track SUV, named song of the year by Living Blues magazine - or on moving family love songs like Tired Arms.
A good bluesman speaks to common sorrow without getting self-indulgent and whiny. Shannon has this down.
It's not traditional blues, in that Shannon incorporates some jazz, some funk, a little Motown and a touch of 70s R&B into the mix.
"I started out playing top-40 R&B in my sophomore year in high school," he says. "So I kind of came at the blues from the back door, so to speak. I'm a bit of a renegade."
Besides, to simply stick with tradition is boring and, as Shannon points out, a little limiting.
"The guys who wrote back then were writing about their lives at that particular time. I'm writing about what's happening now. So in a way, what I'm doing now is more traditional than guys who just emulate what was going on back then."