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Sideshow Bob - Bob Egan is the most Promise-ing musician of 2002

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  • Source: Vue Weekly
  • Author: Dan Rubinstein
  • Date: 05-2-2002
Call him naive. Or romantic. He won't be offended. Those are his words. Because after top-of-the-world tours of duty with Freakwater and Wilco, slide guitar and lap steel gunslinger Bob Egan honesty figured he could retreat to Mississippi, write and record some songs-and then a major label would track him down and make him a star.

Two years of hard work and poverty later, a broke and hungry Egan was ready to call it quits. To drop out of music. To get a day job. Again. Then a friend named Susie phoned. She told Egan that listening to his first solo album made her feel better than she'd felt in a month (even though he could only afford to manufacture the self-titled debut when Oh Susanna asked him to play on her Johnstown record and paid for 1,000 copies as his fee). Susie the friend asked when she'd hear a second album. Egan told her he was getting out and she went off on him. She told him that he had a gift. That she would not take no for an answer. "That call just so moved me," recalls Egan. "I hung up the phone and said, 'Alright, dammit, I'll get back on the horse one more time.'" Egan sold one of his last guitars to finance a tour he knew he'd lose money on. But he'd made Susie a promise. He drove 18 hours straight to Toronto in a car that leaked oil and had no radio, no air conditioner and no muffler, playing a solo show that night for an audience of eight. Then he drove to Ottawa to open for Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy. Cuddy invited Egan into the tour bus and informed him that Blue Rodeo's steel man was leaving the band and that they weren't holding any auditions-because Egan's name was the only one that came up. "You'll probably want to move to Toronto," Cuddy said, "because we have a pretty busy year ahead of us."

The Keelor inside me

The Promise, Egan's second solo record, scheduled for release on May 28, is a nod to Susie's encouragement. But the album, recorded a year ago at the farmhouse studio of Blue Rodeo's Greg Keelor and co-produced by Keelor, is much more than a private communique. With songs co-written by Blue Rodeo's Bazil Donovan, featuring players like Baz, Travis Good (the Sadies), Richard Bell (The Band, Janis Joplin), Cam Giroux (Luther Wright and the Wrongs) and Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo), as well as backup from the Be Good Tanyas and Lisa MacIssac, The Promise is a stirring tapestry of personal, timeless, haunting and deeply layered country, folk and rock. Its narratives, some tender, others ragged, tend to start slow and build both emotionally and sonically, the instruments saying as much as the vocals. The songs come from three places, says Egan. Some reflect his years in Mississippi. Others were written while on the road with Blue Rodeo. And some come from a couple of weeks spent "tropical camping" in an oceanside national forest in Australia with his Australian girlfriend. They'd spend a couple of hours body surfing in the morning, head back to the site for some lunch around the campfire and fend off the mockingbirds and kangaroos. "Those are the love songs," says Egan. "It was paradise." (Within 12 hours of paradise, however, he was in a freeway-side park in Toronto watching the sun set over the frozen ground, shivering and shooting a video for Blue Rodeo's "Sad Nights"-"It was a rude awakening. I'm not a real fan of Canadian winter, just of Canada.") Aside from the Aussie influence, The Promise reflects a real north-south feeling, a unique marriage between the wide-open skies of Canadian country rock and the heavy, down-home, hemmed-in history of the south. It's like music Robbie Robertson and The Band would have made if they were born in the U.S. and came north, which is the route Minnesota- and Illinois-raised Egan followed. "It's the juxtaposition of the two," he says about the north-south sound, further evoked by Richard Bell's work on piano and Hammond organ. "It draws on both of those influences hugely."

Beward of Greeks opening restaurants

Sitting in the front room of his home in the Danforth area of Toronto, fresh off a week-long tour of the U.K. and Paris with Richard Buckner and a morning of noodling away on lap steel, Egan seems like a man comfortable in many worlds. He'll talk about neighbourhood politics (local yuppies don't like the new Wendy's/Tim Horton's on the corner, but the building's owners couldn't make money on their authentic Greek restaurant because of the, oh, 200 other authentic Greek restaurants in the hood). He'll talk about Blue Rodeo, who are in the studio now putting together a new record. "I'm not the official spokesman," says Egan, "but I believe it'll be out in the fall." He'll talk about touring with his "dear friend" Buckner and how the "Americana" sound is happening everywhere now-even Paris. "People like it because it's the real thing," says Egan, noting the long continuum of ex-pat artists who went to Paris to find an audience for their jazz, their poetry, their paintings. The one thing Egan won't do, however, is complain about being too busy. "I don't see it that way," he says, despite starting this last couple of chaotic months with a frenetic trip to the South By Southwest festival in Austin. "I really look at it as how much is left to do as opposed to how much I've
done." He remembers living in Mississippi and thinking that he hadn't been doing much to move his career forward at the time. Then he flipped back through his month-by-month day planner and saw how much he'd actually accomplished. "At the time you're doing it, it doesn't feel like you've been busy," he says. "But yes, they've been good years lately."

Sweetheart of the Rodeo

In 2001 alone, Egan did 100 shows with Blue Rodeo, 14 of his own, half a dozen opening sets, played on eight other artists' records-and still found time for three weeks in Keelor's farmhouse to record his own album. Egan and several of the players, most of them good friends he hung around with already, moved in for a week. "It was like boy's camp," he says. "It was one of the finest recording experiences I've ever had." They'd get up around noon, eat a big breakfast, stoke the woodstove, then play all day without the usual pressures of clocked studio time, often staying up until the sky would start turning pink (or at least grey). "They're such a good group of musicians, I trusted their instincts," says Egan. "We were having fun, and in the meantime we made a record." Keelor was in the producer mode, according to Egan, and though he sings some backup vocals, he made most of his contributions behind the scenes. "He was the vibe master in a lot of ways," Egan says. "He had lots of great ideas. I was unsure about a lot of my vocal performances, so he would coach me and let me know when I'd got it. It was his dedication.... He made this happen in so many ways-and it was his house." For Egan, the creative process has to be organic; he has to play with people he likes, people whose music he understands. "I wouldn't do stuff I wasn't comfortable with," he says. "If Mariah Carey called-and I love her-I'd really have to think about it." Heck, Egan even had to think hard about joining Wilco when Jeff Tweedy wanted to recruit him.

Quitters sometimes prosper

Although he'd always played guitar while growing up and played in country bands to make money while going to school, Egan spent 10 years in college and was ensconced in the business world. He was an industrial/organization psychologist. Big corporations would call him up and tell him they were having a problem with employee commitment. He'd come in, conduct focus groups, do interviews, design surveys. He really loved the job-"I was basically an advocate for employees"-and was making tons of money. "My job," he says, "was essentially to get paid a lot of money to tell men twice my age what they were doing wrong." But after a few years at the top of his game, at the top of his field, Egan started to realize that he'd achieved his goals. "It gradually dawned on me that I'd done all this before," he says. "I wasn't growing or learning. Just making a lot of money. And that wasn't enough." So he quit. He took a year off. Went to a lot of Cubs games, went sailing on Lake Michigan, wrote poetry-and spent all of his retirement savings. Egan didn't plan on getting into music full-time. But while playing with Freakwater, he'd opened for Wilco once and became friends with the band. He did some recording with them, then a solo show with Jeff Tweedy in Chicago. Tweedy asked Egan to join. Egan said no but agreed to do one show-with Johnny Cash in New York City-and his life changed. "It happened on the side of the stage," he recounts. "I was watching Johnny
Cash and was just going to do that one show. In the middle of the set, I looked over at Jeff. We were both pretty teary, pretty emotional watching Johnny. He asked me, 'Are you going to join our fucking band yet. Because this is what it's all about.' I said 'Yep' and he gave me a big hug." After experiences like that, after his contribution to the Mermaid Avenue Woody Guthrie tribute projects with Billy Bragg and globetrotter touring, it's easy to understand why Egan thought he was all set for a stellar solo career after departing Wilco. And considering the hole he sank into before getting solvent again, it's easy to see where his humility and work ethic come from.
It doesn't take an industrial/organization psychologist to see that it's all about the music.

Boy on the side

Egan says he doesn't care if he's playing sideman in somebody's band or front and centre performing his own material. If he's brought into the studio to play a few licks on slide guitar or singing songs that come from his own heart and dreams. If he's playing in a stadium in front of a couple of thousand people or a house party in somebody's living room-and he does about 20 such gigs a year. "I have to laugh," Egan says about his response whenever he gets asked about playing second fiddle, a predictable question since he spends about 90 per cent of his time on slide guitar and pedal steel. "That's what I get the call for. That's what I'm know for. But I get just as much enjoyment out of playing steel guitar as I do writing and singing." As for the house parties, they're every bit as much fun as the other shows, he says. "It's not the thrill of playing in a stadium full of people, but you can have just as rewarding an experience in a house with 40 people. It can be very powerful." In Sheryl Crow's song "Maybe That's Something," there's a line that goes "Making miracles is hard work/Most people give up before they happen." Egan likes the quote. "It basically means that there are no such thing as miracles," he says. "All you do is work and work and make sure things happen. Which is why I never think I've worked hard enough."

Bob Egan
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