Doug Cox and Sam Hurrie Ghosts

From The Georgia Straight
Vancouver, BC

The groove’s the thing for Hurrie and Cox

By Alexander Varty

Publish Date: 23-Mar-2006

If it’s hard to picture Sam Hurrie as a bluesman, it’s even harder to believe that he was once a Churl. A slight, serious-looking man, Hurrie could easily be taken for an aging intellectual, and with his soft voice and gentle laugh he sounds like one, too. But put a guitar in his hands and it’s quickly apparent that he’s a blues virtuoso, and that he’s been playing that music for a long time. Since the late 1950s, in fact, when first Buddy Holly and then John Lee Hooker changed his life.

“I grew up in Toronto, and I started playing just before Buddy Holly got killed,” Hurrie explains on the line from his home in Cumberland, on Vancouver Island. “I really liked Buddy Holly because I thought ‘If that short, geeky little guy with glasses can go onto The Ed Sullivan Show and do that, I can probably do that too.’ And then after I’d been playing for maybe six months I was doing my homework one night—I think I was in Grade 9—and I accidentally tuned my radio to one of the black stations that used to broadcast across the lake from Buffalo and Rochester, New York. ‘Boogie Chillen’ came on, by John Lee Hooker, and that was the first blues I ever heard.”

By the mid-1960s, Hurrie was taking a serious interest in acoustic blues, while also playing electric guitar for the aforementioned Churls. “We were basically a very derivative Rolling Stones–type band,” he says dismissively. But the would-be rock stars were good enough that they were soon lured away to New York City, where they became the house band at the Scene, one of the era’s leading nightclubs. John Lennon and Paul McCartney came to see them play. Jimi Hendrix was an occasional jamming partner. Fame eluded them, though, and eventually Hurrie came back to Canada, settling in Powell River.

“Starting in about 1970, I took 35 years off,” he says.

Since retiring from his paper-mill job and moving to Vancouver Island, however, Hurrie’s been making a quiet return to his days as a touring musician, most often in the company of his neighbour Doug Cox, an internationally acclaimed Dobro and slide-guitar specialist. And pleasant though their debut, Hungry Ghosts, might be, it only hints at the subtle depths of concerts like the one they’ll give at Rime next Friday (March 31).

Both Cox and Hurrie are great guitarists. Hurrie has a very fine voice. And between them, the two are developing a particularly lovely and unforced kind of on-stage chemistry. They’re obviously respectful of each other—and of the material they play, which ranges from Delta-blues classics to raga-inspired instrumentals to original songs.

“We’re kind of hoping that the music will be what sells the shows, as opposed to tap-dancing bats,” says Cox, interviewed from his own Cumberland home.

“We have the same approach, in that the groove’s the thing, to paraphrase Shakespeare,” Hurrie adds. “We do very few tunes that don’t involve generous portions of groove. We also spend a lot of time listening to each other, and if Doug starts taking a tune in a certain way that I wouldn’t have thought of, I’ll go, ‘Oh, this is new. This works well for me.’ Then I’ll kind of follow along—and he does the same. So it’s structured, but it’s very loose at the same time. We try to leave lots of air, and lots of room for innovation and for improvisation.”

Innovation and improvisation will soon become an even larger part of Cox and Hurrie’s musical life, for their duo is on the verge of becoming a trio with the addition of Bangalore-born, Montreal-based percussionist Ganesh Anandan.

“We’re going to have to rethink everything we do, because we don’t want it to look like it’s just Doug and Sam with a percussionist,” Cox says. “We want it to look like a real trio, so I think it’s going to really stretch all of us a lot, because we’re going to be heading off into a lot of new directions.”

Directions that might include Tuvan-influenced overtone singing and Weather Report covers; Cox is eager to explore some relatively radical instrumental techniques, and he reports that Anandan is capable of a variety of vocal and percussive styles beyond those of South India. But as long as Hurrie’s in the picture, the blues will remain the cornerstone of their music.

“I’m always drawn back to the appeal of Robert Johnson,” says the veteran guitarist. “Why does he speak to us across the generations? I mean, why is it that you can listen to ‘Hellhound on My Trail’ and it’ll still make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? I don’t know if we’ll ever really know the answer to that question, but there’s an agelessness and a timelessness about the blues that has always appealed to me.”

1. Little Martha
2. Cool Drink of Water
3. Beware of the Man (Who Calls You Bro)
4. Grinning in Your Face
5. Carry Me Away
6. No Expectations
7. Nap Time for Sam
8. Fear
9. Kansas City
10. Valse Frontenac
11. Bad News
12. Canned Heat Blues
13. Red Haired Raga