"It must be tricky assembling a live album, particularly when the act is performing solely with voice and acoustic guitar. Particularly if you’re Roy Forbes and have standards that aren’t easy to meet. This Forbes has done with his Strikin’ Matches LIVE. It’s an album that achieves several things: It spans a career from his days as Bim to now, brings together his blues, country and folk, reveals a performer who engages his audience, contains songs (and performances) that are meaningful to him and shows him off as a peerless singer and accomplished guitarist".
So everyone is listening to records again, right? Vinyl is saving music, right?
Veteran B.C. singer-songwriter Roy Forbes is pushing the ol’ platter “revival” even further.
For Forbes, there is only one way to listen to classics like Billie Holliday and Hank Williams: Straight back to 78 RPM shellac records, a metal needle and one of those old RCA Victor phonographs.
Yes, Roy Forbes is the real deal: A true records purist, a fan of the one-take wonder. Some would even call him some kind of shellac hipster.
“The only way to listen to Billie Holliday is on a silver-and-black label 78,” Forbes said in a phone interview.
“I’m sorry but that’s the way to do it. And I have several of them in my collection. She’s one of my heroes, as you can hear on (Forbes’ song) Let Me Make It Up To You Tonight.”
If you close your eyes and listen real hard, you would swear Forbes’ own well-worn, nasally voice comes straight off of those old platters. Add a few scratches, warbles and pops and Forbes would sound like he belongs in that bygone era.
It’s that kind of quality that has made his music so special to so many, and it works whether Forbes is poring over every detail of a recording or just relying on the intensity of the moment, as he does on his new live compilation album Strikin’ Matches.
“When I was holed up with (singer-songwriter and recording engineer) Emitt Rhodes in California in 1977 doing my third album (the critically acclaimed Thistles), he drove me nuts,” Forbes recalled.
“We’d spend a day on a guitar trying to figure out if the final note should bend up or just quiver.
“I’ve been to both extremes: That microscopic, meticulous attention — and this is before Pro-Tools, you had to figure out how to make it work. And then there’s the other extreme which is the excitement of a real live performance. It comes back to those 78s again, and many albums too. My Kid Full Of Dreams album in ’75 — we had handclaps and Beatles harmonies. I just did all that stuff and I loved it. At the same time, the core of that record was me and my band playing live.”
A fixture of the ’70s West Coast folk scene, Forbes first emerged under the stage moniker (and childhood nickname) of “Bim” in 1971 in Vancouver.
His single Can’t Catch Me, from Thistles, became a Top 10 hit in Canada, leading to appearances opening for Santana and Supertramp.
Thistles was recorded with a band that included a certain David Foster, who would go on to global stardom producing the likes of Whitney Houston and Celine Dion.
Forbes later formed supergroup UHF with Shari Ulrich and Chilliwack’s Bill Henderson, a project that remains on hiatus at the moment.
Strikin’ Matches takes Forbes back to his roots, presenting the 61-year-old in unadorned, unedited glory. Well, mostly unedited.
Forbes admitted a few of the songs, recorded in large part at Deep Cove’s Shaw Theatre in 2013 with producer Dave Meszaros (Colin James), had received a quick post-production tweak or two. The temptation to keep “fixing” things was strong.
“I spent literally three years going through stuff and making very detailed notes,” Forbes said. “There came a point where it was like, ‘Enough already — I need to get this done so I can write a new record.’ There are a lot of imperfections on that record.”
Other performances — including a sweet singalong of his classic Saskatoon Moon — were recorded in Coquitlam, on Salt Spring Island, and in Rolla, B.C., near his hometown of Dawson Creek, between 2011-2012, a period during which Forbes celebrated 40 years in music.
“I wish we could’ve just put that whole (Rolla) show out,” he said. “It was a hell of a show. Very emotional. The house I spent my first six years in was just kitty-corner from the hall. So you get that feeling for sure.”
Forbes explained the impetus for putting the album together — his first recorded document since 2006’s Some Tunes For That Mother Of Mine — was that he had never recorded a version of his song Love Turns To Ice that he was satisfied with.
It’s here on Strikin’ Matches, that you finally hear Forbes’ favourite take on the tune, one he had to pluck from an older concert that took place at Deep Cove’s Shaw Theatre, this one dating back to 2011.
It’s live, raw and in the moment. Perfect in its imperfection. But then again Forbes sides more with John Lennon than with today’s Auto-Tuned pop apologists. (Forbes’ favourite studio recording medium is tape rather than computers.)
“Gimme some truth!” he exclaimed. “If I had the means to spend all that time in a studio, it would be very easy to go down (the Auto-Tune) road.”
Forbes already has a fairly clear idea of what his next studio album will sound like.
“I hear it in my head,” he said. “I haven’t written the songs yet, but I hear it. I venture into blues and soul and I love to sing like that. I love Hank Ballard and Little Willie John and Sam Cooke and Al Green. If I had a good budget right now ...”
In the meantime, Forbes is happy revisiting his own classics and sharing them with his fans, something he gets to do once again Jan. 24 at St. James Hall.
And while many of the songs have a specific significance for his fans, some tunes continue to grow and age along with Forbes.
“Days Turn To Night — I wrote that song between Kid Full Of Dreams and Rainchecks And Misery, in ’76 maybe? The funny thing about a song like that is that it probably speaks more to me now than it did then.
“It’s a song about looking back over your life,” Forbes said with a heartfelt laugh. “I did that in ’76 at the ripe old age of 22 or 23. I must’ve been writing it for me now.”
Nothing can get between a singer and his guitar, at least not in the case of Roy Forbes.
"It chose me and I just lucked onto it one day. I've tried others, I've had guitar makers make guitars for me, but this one, it's my buddy," says Forbes. "It's just sort of a part of me - its like a relationship, right, not all roses, but it just, it's got the sound."
Even his cat is a fan, curling up for a nap in the open guitar case while he's rehearsing. The singer has been using his trusty Gurian-made guitar since 1972 and has no intentions of stopping now.
"I've played it forever," he says. "It's just the two of us and we've done this many, many, many times."
Forbes will be returning to the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre Sept. 12 and 13 to perform his latest album, Strikin' Matches Live! The theatre is not only a spot Forbes has played before, but also holds a place on the album itself.
"In a way, it's a home for this album because most of it was recorded there," he says. "And they are a great bunch, Michael and Eileen (Smith)."
In his latest album, Forbes brings together live renditions of his songs from a variety of shows. He says he had been toying with the idea of doing a retrospective for a long time.
"I wanted to pull versions of songs from different sources including live recordings or maybe a radio show I had done or whatever," says Forbes. "Plus I wanted to include bits from all the soundtrack stuff I've done and maybe some unreleased."
Forbes started recording his shows with a handheld Zoom recorder, with guitar on one track, vocal on another and the audience through the microphone.
"I've worked in the studio all my career and you get a little fussy and it just wasn't quite what I wanted," he says. "So in 2011, I went to the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre and was doing a series of shows celebrating 40 years in the biz."
It was September and Forbes decided to hire record producer Dave Meszaros to come to the theatre and record his two shows.
"I was much happier with the sound and got a version of 'Love Turns Right' that I liked," he says. "Then I started listening to the other stuff and I thought 'Hey wait a minute, maybe I should switch tracks here.'" Forbes recorded more shows that fall, figuring out which songs met his standards and which ones he thought he could do better.
The album, once complete, included songs from a show on Salt Spring Island, Evergreen Cultural Centre in Coquitlam and a show in Northern B.C., he says. Then Forbes returned to the Shaw Theatre in September 2013.
"The Saturday night last September was one of those nights and thank god we were recording, everything was just going great," says Forbes. "I was singing in tune and the sound was good and so that's actually where we got the majority of the album was from mostly the second set."
By that time Forbes says he had listened to so many live shows he had to step away from it for a while.
"I started looking at it again in April of this year and it just started to fall together," he says. In July, Forbes and Meszaros started mixing.
"I feel like, with this, that I've got a good representation of what I do," says Forbes. "It really covers a lot of musical territory and it's just me and my guitar and a bit of foot."
The album covers Forbes' material from the mid '80s up to now, from the country fuelled 'Days Turn to Nights,' to the lively 'Lifting my Heart.'
"These songs just kind of happen to flock together into one little herd, tomorrow it could be a different batch," he says. "I'm happy with it and I think that my fans will be happy, they've been bugging me about this for years, 'we want to hear you just like we heard you tonight.' So now they can do that."
Though Forbes has thought about songs that did not make the album, he says he doesn't think he would do another live one.
"I think now it's time to write a batch of new stuff," he says.
Forbes says his biggest challenge when writing is his internal editor.
"I have an over-active editor," he says. "I need to and just relax with it and just let the stuff come out. I've got many, many, many unfinished tunes."
Forbes often refers to one of Irving Berlin's rules of writing.
"The song must be perfectly simple," says Forbes. "When you take the song and play it, people can't hear the sweat, they don't want to know about that, they don't even want to think about it. They want to be moved."
Forbes says the process is like any song or piece of art, "it doesn't just happen."
"Sometimes it does, once in a while, when you've really got the muscle and shape, sometimes it will happen but generally you'll get a good idea and you need to let that idea come out and form itself without any fiddling about from the dreaded editor," he says. "But then you go in and you just work it.
"Songs, they're like worker bees, once you write it and you put it out there, then they go out there and they become a part of people's lives," says Forbes. "That's the payoff for me is when I get feedback on how that's happened with my songs, that's better than any Juno award, or any of that other stuff which has meaning in one way but not in the other."
Forbes has been playing music since before he left his Dawson Creek high school in 1971. He had a rock band called Crystal Ship, covering garage band songs like "Psychotic Reaction" by the Count Five and tunes by Paul Revere and the Raiders. Forbes was also writing too, arranging the drum builds and bass parts. Crystal Ship broke up in 1970, but Forbes says he kept that band mindset with his solo work when he moved down to Vancouver.
"I remember when I was first down here playing and one of the local producers, a guy who was in Chilliwack, said 'Oh we could orchestrate your guitar parts,'" says Forbes. "What he was saying was that there was so much there that you could really take, split it up and write arrangements based on the guitar parts."
He grew up in a "country and western household," listening to the likes of Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Wilf Carter and Ernest Tubb.
"Then I was for years the youngest in the family, I had four older sisters and they were bringing home Elvis and Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and the Everly Brothers," says Forbes. "The Everly Brothers - big, big deal." As Forbes began to have more control over his musical experience, he says, it turned to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.
"Dylan was a real big one when I was 14," he says, and of course the garage bands that his own band would cover.
Forbes' early career would take him on the road with the likes of Santana, Supertramp and famed blues artist John Lee Hooker.
"I was 18, just out of high school in Dawson Creek and I came down here and I ended up on a tour with John Lee, we were travelling in the same station wagon," says Forbes. "I was kind of familiar with him and I knew that Bob Dylan had gotten a break opening for him in the (Greenwich) Village back in 1961, so I knew he played in Bob Dylan's mythology and here he was becoming a part of my mythology as well, I liked that idea."
Forbes says music, for him, is 24/7 and there's always a soundtrack going in his head.
"To me it's just a way of being and its always been that way," he says. "What drives it? I guess it's a passion, I think it's a love of music. It's all I've done since I left school, this has been my job."