Jake Thomas made the best possible use of his pandemic downtime this past winter.
The 73-year-old bluesman fixed every little cracked wire and hum-creating loose connection suffered over half-a-century of road trips hauling around a truck-load of guitars, mics and amplifiers. “My equipment works better than it has in hundreds of years.
Every wire that had a little crack, all the little humming got it fixed,” he said with a laugh. He’s just about had it, however, with the lack of opportunities to play live music.
He did do several virtual fundraisers for the North Bay Capitol Centre, including a recent paid gig all by his lonesome under the bright lights on the big stage. Not having a real crowd to share energy back and forth leaves much to be desired, he says. And it’s hard to get the creative juices flowing without something etched on the calendar.
“I had a couple offers to play this month and I said, “Thanks, but call me at the end of the month and we can (set something up) maybe in May or June,” Thomas explained, not wanting to get his hopes up while there was so much uncertainty about lockdowns. “Which looks like it was a brilliant move because everything is going to close back down again anyway.”
Thomas had the chance to finish off a few of the songs that were hanging around his head, although he didn’t do as much new writing as expected. “There’s really not a whole lot of inspiration to do a whole lot. I don’t know, it’s kind of in limbo, I guess.” Playing for social media crowds wasn’t his thing, not after 60 years of being at clubs and festivals.
“Younger guys can do online stuff and I don’t have the equipment for it or the interest,” he said. “I’m just sitting here doing other things, got a garden, you know, the grandkids and all that kind of stuff.”
Always a student of his craft, Thomas did catch some online tutorials. “I was learning a few things through some really good online courses,” he said, describing how it’s nice to know the real names for things he picked up over the years. “At first they were free, now you’re going to pay, but for 20 bucks here and there, it’s kind of interesting to tune in for an hour or two and get a lesson from that.”
Thomas also enjoyed having the time to watch a few performers make use of social media.
“I got a nephew in Florida (Jason) that was doing Sunday afternoon live-streaming because he and his buddies were there for a month or two and that was good watching him play. He’s really good fiddle player and I haven’t really seen him play for years, so it was kinda neat.”
Thomas is looking forward to playing live events again and hopes they can at least do outdoor patios this summer. They have one gig booked at Average Joe’s out by the docks. “And I’m sure that’s going to happen this year,” he said, noting the vaccines are finally rolling out and that should help.
“We learned there’s ways to get through without spread the virus, especially in the summer. This latest lock down is going to be tough on a bunch of people.
Below is the feature first published in print in the October 2019 edition of A Bit of the Bay Magazine:
Bluesman Jake Thomas loves to learn
Jake Thomas is still going strong as the bluesman heads into his seventh decade of learning how to make his guitar sing.
“Ten years ago I packed it in for a bit, but it didn’t work,” Thomas said about how he ended up back in action for another serious run at playing regularly. “And then about five years ago, I packed it in again.”
They were looking at pulling together a trio and playing the odd gig but fate had other plans.
“Then my son, Jesse, showed up and Mike (Brewes), our old keyboard player, showed up and sat in. Well, we had a five-piece band all of a sudden. So here we go all over again,” Thomas said during an hour-long podcast interview. Topics ranged from racism to how beginners with early success sometimes don’t realize they’re just starting out on a never-ending road of constant self improvement.
Thomas said they even attempted to go with a new name but that was something beyond their control.
“We changed the name to High Rollers for two gigs and both times the people (organizing the shows) advertised them as Jake and the Fundamentals,” he laughed. “That’s a good thing because it means we’ve made it. You know, it’s in people’s mind. We spent a lot of years, like 20 years, kind of blasting up and down the highway just trying to get some kind of notoriety or something. And I guess it kind of works. I don’t know.”
Good strategy starting out?
Asked what a good strategy would be for a musician or band starting out, Thomas said being active is the real key.
“There’s just no plan, just keep playing. Find a gig and go, yep, that’s it.” Days after the podcast interview, Thomas was joining Danny B, a big name in blues circles, for a special gig at the Moon Café in Mattawa.
“We met about 12 years ago after 100 Georges (now the Raven and the Republic) had a House of Blues weekend,” he said, noting they had an interesting introduction while doing a radio promotion early in the morning after some of them showed up after an all-night blues cruise of their own.
“We just hit it off. And then we got a few gigs together. And he brought me down to Toronto a few times. And so it was,” Thomas said, adding: “Two or three times a year we play two or three nights. You know … it’s great. And he’s a fabulous harmonica player.”
Thomas fell in love with the guitar at a young age.
“I remember being four, five, six years old. My brother is 10 or 11 years older than I am. And he had a lot of what they call hillbilly music, the Carter Family and Levin Brothers and all those nights listening to this stuff. And I remember, one day crawling and playing around with trucks on the living room floor, and Wildwood Flower by the Carter Family came on (the television).
“That was the first time I became conscious of (the guitar),” he said.
“That’s neat. I like that. And it’s a guitar. And my brother had guitars upstairs in our room. So when he wasn’t around, I’d go wail away on it.”
His first lessons came a few years later.
“When I was about eight or nine, maybe 10 at the most, (my brother) gave me a guitar lesson. He said, ‘You need to learn some here.’ And so he showed me a few chords and how the scales work. And there … boom. That was it.”
To this day, Thomas said he has a thirst to learn more.
“It’s just … you hear something and say, ‘How did you do that?’ You know? And it’s because, all of a sudden, it’s never as complicated as you might think it is. There’s always a natural way to do it. It’s discovering that natural way.
“And there’s still a billion things that I don’t know that I’d like to know,” he said.
Thomas said he enjoys this part of his career because there’s nothing to prove and he can just enjoy trying to get better each time out.
“Probably 30 years ago, I quit drinking and then everything had to be relearned,” he said, describing how they could get away without being tight because it was rock and roll. “I quit drinking and it took me about six months or a year to get all the chops back and I could go on. Everything changed,” Thomas said.
“You know, the sloppy stuff works for rock and roll. You wanna do other stuff? Hey. So you’ve got to kind of refine things and keep refining things.”
Thomas said being a musician means you always have something to do that doesn’t require massive investment.
“On its own, that’s fun, it’s enjoyable,” he said.
“It’s kind of a poor man’s enjoyment. Like Chet Atkins always said, the best feeling in the world is to pick up an acoustic guitar, to play with bare fingers. No pics, just play. And it’s true.”
When Thomas was 17 years old and his band at the time imploded, he hopped in with a few people heading down to Detroit.
“We didn’t play very much, played a couple gigs, but it’s like going to university in one of these clubs as the only white guys in there. And then once they knew what we were doing there, everyone was cool about it,” he said, adding they were given opportunities to play and learn. “It’s a learning experience, again. Don’t do that. But do this. That’s where I got hooked on organ, B3 trios … guitar, organ and drums and just funky like that stuff.
“I still love it. Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff. I hear that stuff and it just drives me nuts. You know, it’s the sound of it and the way it works and the grooves, like they’re just timeless.”
Looking back at where he’s been, what he’s got to do and still gets to do, Thomas said he appreciates how lucky he’s been.
“It worked out. And now we have the A-list band for sure, you know. So I can’t quit now that I got a great band. Why would you want to quit?”
Jake and the Fundamentals were playing at a home on Four Mile Lake Road recently with barely two dozen people in the crowd and there was a good time had by all. Thomas said some of the small private shows are better than some of their bar gigs.
Wrong place, wrong band, wrong time
“I’d much rather play a song like that than in a bar where nobody is interested in what you’re doing. We don’t get that very often, but it happens. You show up at a couple of gigs where it’s just the wrong place, wrong band, wrong time,” he said, adding there’s ways to mitigate the situation.
“We have gotten a lot better at that … we’re still a blues band, but we’ll do some Credence but we’ll do it a swampy way …not just straight up rock and roll, add a little bit of spunk and funk to it.”
Thomas said being able to play with his son was a pleasant surprise and a big part of the reason he’s back into it.
“I had no idea that he was paying any attention to what I was doing when he was in high school because he was listening to just pop music, Chili Peppers and Green Day and all that stuff. And I had no idea he was that (into my music). He’s got my Hendrix albums, too. I got to have a chat with him.”
Jesse first asked to be taught how to play guitar when he was about 10 years old but, as an ambidextrous person, he wanted to play left-handed. “And I kind of said, ‘No, I can’t teach you that way. You have to learn this way.’ And he’s, Well, I’m not doing it.’ Ten years later, he buys himself an acoustic guitar and he’s playing (right-handed). And it’s getting way better than it was six months ago (as is his vocals). Every gig there’s a nice little surprise that comes out. That’s a lot of fun.”
He did a lot of playing with a lot of bands in his 20s and 30s before he started a 30-year career at Canada Post, which provided a secure income to have a family. But he said that actually came out of being a decent men’s league goalie.
“Yeah, I can say it now because it’s much later, but I had applied for the job at the post office and then nothing happened and then I played hockey against them. I played in a sportsmen’s league and shut them out,” he said with a big smile.
“And they have a big office hockey team across-Canada hockey tournament every May, and so, ‘You want a job here?’ Anyway, I ended up with just a six-month contract, and one thing leads to another. And 30 years later, I retire here. See you later. Thank you.”