Drawing their name from director John Sturges’ bandit-besieged Western classic, The Magnificent Sevens (or, Mag 7s for short) are Winnipeg, Manitoba’s answer to the eternal question: “O Brother, where art thou?” Road-hardened and battle-proven thanks to four years spent performing on stages from Gimli to Gastown (cutting a 7” with schlock rocker BA Johnston along the way), the DIY five-piece takes a certain pride in knowing they’re introducing a whole new generation to the earthy wiles of bluegrass music.
“It’s not that I’m a big Luddite!” says TJ Blair, guitarist/banjoist for the Mag 7s. “But we live in a disposable world and, for that reason, just being in an acoustic band statement is making a statement against the digital revolution. Let’s just say that when the apocalypse hits and there’s no electricity, we’ll be the most popular band around and will still be ramblin’ right along.”
High plains drifter Dirty Roads, released in 2008, was the Mag 7s’ first attempt at corralling the essence of their alt-country jams. Wanted for covering everyone from anar-punk pundits (and fellow Manitoba-ites) Propagandhi to Kentucky crooner Bill Monroe, TJ Blair and accomplices, including banjo/Dobro player David Nishikawa, vocalist/guitarist Matt Magura, fiddler Andy Bart and requisite high-heeled hottie/second fiddle Ida Sawabe, revel in treating today’s chart toppers like precious heirloom antiques.
“We’re into good art whether it be film, painting, music or some other form of artistic expression,” says Blair. “I could rant about avoiding commercialism and creating music for the right reasons, but when it comes right down to the nitty gritty, our aim is to produce songs that are well thought-out and that is what makes them beautiful.”
As unexpectedly satisfying as a Slurpee in December (Winnipeg sells more of those slushy drinks than any city in the world), the understated sophistication and chilly regard conveyed by the ensemble’s freshly-hatched 2012 release All Kinds of Mean brazenly interposes old school values and modern sensibilities.
“The new album captures our most recent collection of songs,” Blair confirms. “About 90 per cent of it was live off floor in Winnipeg. It’s about giving the recording that sense of a live thrill. We know what works for us by now and that method seems to be the ideal way to maintain the energy that you’d experience if you saw us at a festival.
“I’ve gotta admit it’s nice to play festivals with all that fresh air and those appreciative audiences,” he continues. “We get a lot out of performing alongside other folk acts, but the reality is that those types of festivals are literally dying out. And, as much as the bluegrass purists may protest, they don’t get a lot of younger musicians. So, they need bands like us — whether they agree with the direction we’re taking things in or not!”
Even with a generous dash of punk rock gusto throw into their rootsy brew, the Mag 7s display a remarkable degree of respect for the history behind their time-honoured, albeit ever-so-humble, genre. Able to attract and hold the attention of a wide range of music lovers including those Blair describes as “Suburban baby boomers and college crust punks,” the hollow-bodied quintet has found plenty of room to roam within the confines of their unplugged Appalachian asylum.
“Come September we’ll be heading down to a big bluegrass fest in Nashville,” Blair enthuses. “Canadians don’t pay much attention to bluegrass music but, in America, there’s a real musical snobbery to preserving the art form. Down there, we might not even be considered part of the movement at all.”
Shying away from laser light shows and pyrotechnic embellishments (apparently the vapour exuded by smoke machines wreaks havoc on the string slingers’ instruments), the Mag 7s hold true to the precept that just because you’re an acoustic outfit doesn’t mean you’re incapable of playing hard and fast with the Baptist big boys.
“We can definitely pull that stuff off, but at the same time I’m a little worried that they might think we’re bastardizing bluegrass by presenting our own take on the traditional. Fortunately, in my experience, the fans don’t discriminate. They just appreciate good music and that has kept us going. We’re still writing new songs and exploring new territory. At this point, it’s safe to say that we use country/bluegrass as a foundation but that we’re always searching, as artists on front lines, for possible new directions to take that music in and shine some new light.”
Catch the Magnificent Sevens at the Black Dog (Edmonton) on July 16. Calgary date TBD.
By Christine Leonard