One of the most valuable attributes a musician can have is authenticity, and boogie-woogie pianist David Vest has that in spades.
He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama where he absorbed all the juicy Southern-fried music that any boy with thirsty ears could desire. A keyboard natural, Vest had his first paying gig in 1957 – at age 14 – and never looked back. Soon a regular on the honky-tonk and roadhouse circuits, he saw icons like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and John Lee Hooker in their prime, and played nightly with some guys who later became core members of the house band at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. By the time he was 21, he had opened for Roy Orbison and toured for a bit with renowned blues shouter Big Joe Turner, whose Shake, Rattle and Roll is a cornerstone of early rock. In short, the man embodies a big slice of American musical history. And when Vest makes his debut at the Vancouver Island MusicFest in a few weeks, he’ll bring over a half-century of road-tested boogie-woogie blues and old-school rock to the stage.
Vest is a superlative entertainer: aside from his phenomenal piano skills and handsome growl of a voice, he is an effortlessly funny raconteur with an endless supply of stories about playing with Bo Diddley or writing songs for Tammy Wynette. Offstage, sitting for an interview, he is the same gracious and well-spoken storyteller, his anecdotes warmed up by a Southern accent and ready laugh.
“I decided to move to Canada the day George Bush won his second presidency,” declares Vest, who has been contentedly ensconced in Victoria for the last decade. “Coming up here has opened my eyes, especially the number of great players that are around. And there’s more open-mindedness – there’s not as much commentary from the ‘genre police.’”
Vest has played at a lot of festivals, from Portland to New Orleans, and is eager to perform in Courtenay.
“I like Doug’s [artistic director Doug Cox] festival, it’s the most eclectic big festival I know of,” says Vest, who’s pretty eclectic himself.
Notwithstanding his standard redneck repertoire, Vest is a versatile and inquisitive musician who sometimes does entire shows dedicated to the music of bebop founder Thelonious Monk. That made him a natural to be slotted into the From Memphis to Monk afternoon session, which also features bluegrass superstars like John Jorgenson and Herb Pedersen, versatile guitar ace Amos Garrett, and funky R&B sax star Pee Wee Ellis (most famous for his several years with Van Morrison).
“The idea is to show the connection between roots music like blues and gospel and the tunes of Monk,” he says. “Most people don’t know that Monk left home as a teenager and went on the road for two years with a gospel group. He performed classic gospel songs that a lot of blues and country musicians learn to play.”
As well as being a musical scholar, Vest is a human jukebox – he can play literally thousands of songs – and is also a prolific composer. The full breadth of his talents will be demonstrated during the four separate performances he’ll give during the run of MusicFest, ranging from an In Concert show on the big Concert Bowl stage to participation in the deliciously grim Oh Death workshop in The Barn. Although it’s always a blast to hear Vest play solo, he’ll be letting rip with a great band for MusicFest. His killer frontline includes guitarists Tim Williams and Chicago-born Peter Dammann, while the rhythm section comprises two of Victoria’s best musicians: bassist Joey Smith and drummer Damian Graham.
“These are all great players,” says Vest proudly.
And when he’s not wowing the crowds himself, who is Vest going to be checking out? “Maddy Prior for sure, and I love Mary Flower,” he says. “David Essig is a brilliant guitarist, and I want to hear the Mali blues of Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba.”
But the musician he’s keenest about above all is Ostwelve, a young aboriginal multimedia artist from Vancouver who is most famous for performing hip-hop.
“The guy is doing incredible things!”
Robert Moyes is a Victoria-based arts journalist with a particular interest in music