Mark “Bluesboy” Kanter has been a fixture in the Maine blues scene for 40 years now, since moving to Bar Harbor from New York in 1973. During that time, he’s played a high-octane brand of blues all over the state — but with his new album, “The Drifter,” recorded with his friend John Kurgan, he’s taken a different direction. “The Drifter” is a blues opera, a song cycle about the title character, a man who’s seen some crazy things, heading down the road of life and encountering all sorts of interesting characters, before finally being redeemed at the end. Kanter talked to the BDN about the album, the people he recorded it with, and the fact that he’s pretty sure he’s recorded the first “blues opera.”
Why a blues opera?
One day I was looking at three songs that I had previously written: “The Flim Flam Man,” “Got The Power” and “Plea Bargain Blues.” It seemed to me that I could plug the songs into a storyline. As someone who grew up in the era of the rock opera, I thought that I would create a blues opera, a slice of life put to music. As in many classic stories, the theme of sin, punishment and redemption revealed themselves as the other songs in the story were composed. I proposed the project to John Kurgan, my producer, and told him I wanted to finish the writing as we recorded it. Most producers at this point, I believe, would have said ‘Come back when you have a complete project.’ John just said ‘Let’s do it!’
Who is the Drifter? Where does he come from?
I suppose, as in any written work, there is some autobiographical aspect to it. Not that I’m an unsavory character like the Drifter, but I have been in front of a judge, I have encountered a character such as the Flim Flam Man and of course, have shared some common life experiences with the Drifter. As the song writing progressed the character emerged more and more. Much of the time when I was writing the songs, I felt as if I was taking dictation rather than creating. I’ve learned from speaking with some writer friends that this feeling is fairly common. It’s as if you’re channeling and are more of a conduit.
I’ve written some short stories and keep saying I’d like to write a novel. I’ve never written anything quite like “The Drifter.” I suppose if you break it down, it’s a combination of written word and song. Many people have told me this is fairly unique, especially in the blues world. There have been several rock concept albums over the years, but I don’t believe there has ever been a blues record that does the same kind of thing.
Who did you work with on the recording of this album?
John Kurgan produced, engineered and mixed the record, in addition to writing some of the music and playing some of the instruments. John has a long musical resume, which includes a stint touring with Sting and touring with his own band, the Amazing Incredibles, and he’s the owner of Hungry Goat Studios in Bar Harbor. He has many recording projects under his belt. I have been playing music for almost fifty years and have been around musicians most of my life. John has the best ear I have ever encountered. I surrendered myself to his expertise in the studio… I’ve adopted John’s musical mantra: less is more. Working with him was a gift and has made me a better musician.
Who else helped make this album?
Mike Bennett is a world class drummer. My wife Jill was also an essential part of the project. Shane Ellis played sax on “The Jungle.” Phil Kell, known locally as ‘the Maestro,’ added his touch with some great piano work. I called my friend and former bandmate Josh Small and asked him if he would master the record. Brian Monahan of Monahan Designs did the graphic layout. I asked my friend Ivan Rasmussen if he would create original cover art. I really like what he came up with; it tied in really well with the story. By the way, that’s my hand on the cover; Ivan took a photo of my hand and then painted a watercolor.
“The Drifter” is available to purchase online at cdbaby.com and Amazon.com at at stores including the Village Emporium in Bar Harbor and Mainely Music in Ellsworth. Mark Kanter will perform at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Common Good Cafe in Southwest Harbor. Emily Burnham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out her blog at cultureshock.bangordailynews.com.