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Kim Mitchell, welcome to the neighbourhood

Canadian Rock legend, who’s helping kick off Rock The Kootenays in Cranbrook, talks about his Rock and Roll Duty, and the guitar
Kim Mitchell headlines Friday, Aug. 11, at Rocking the Kootenays Festival in Cranbrook. (Al Pettman photo)

For Kim Mitchell, Canada is a small, familiar place. And the rock legend is on the road, heading west to rock the neighbourhood

Mitchell is taking the stage with the band in Cranbrook on Friday, Aug. 11, kicking off the inaugural Rock the Kootenays Classic Rock Festival at Western Financial Place. Opening up on Friday are Helix and the Headpins. Lee Aaron, Harlequin, Prism,Tom Cochrane, Teaze, Streetheart, Honeymoon Suite and April Wine are all on the bill for the weekend.

We reached Mitchell by phone at his home in Toronto, the day before he was to depart for points west, Penticton’s Peachfest, then Cranbrook. After some talk of the weather, Mitchell talked about his love of playing live, his stellar career in music, and his guitar.

Mitchell has been a defining force in Canadian Rock music, with his band Max Webster in the ’70s and a hit-making solo career in subsequent years. His songs, (occasionally written with others like poet Pye Dubois) can seem to come out of left field, yet spoke to a generation and soundtracked their lives. His guitar sound — from roaring, crunchy chords, fluid, melodic, modal solos, and daemonic rhythms, can rock hard or segue into balladeering.

But it’s all about the show —playing live is his “rock and roll duty,” as he’s put it in song — and concerts that have made Canada such a familiar, friendly place for Mitchell.

“I like to word it as ‘It’s a really big neigbourhood I live in.’ That’s how I see it. Whether I’m going to Cranbrook or Penticton or Saskatoon or Moncton — sure, you say, going to the Maritimes, or going west, but it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like one big neighbourhood to me.”

It’s a neighbourhood full of music loving friends, waiting to welcome him wherever he goes. Mitchell still gets that buzz from the synergy between audience and musician.

“If I didn’t get that, what’s the point of leaving the house, really, as a musician. I encourage all musicians to get together and play with other musicians, and transmit that musical energy out towards an audience. That’s really what our job is. It doesn’t matter what you believe politically, religiously, or what side of the room you’re on; we get on stage and we spread good vibes. That’s what we try to do.

“It’s as simple as that. When I look back and reflect on what I did for a living, I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to rock out like that.

“Back in the day, when I moved to Toronto at age 17, quit school, I thought maybe I’d do this til I was 30, maybe 40. But it’s just kept going on and going.”

Launching a career as a professional musician as a teenager, you got to go where the music is playing loudest, so to speak. In the late ’60s, Toronto was one of the musical hotspots in the continent (still is). A Mecca for a young man with a guitar.

“When I moved here at 17 it was amazing. Lots of places to play, saw tons of bands. There was a really thriving local scene here. It was great, a real creative hotbed. On one hand it was inspiring, on the other hand it kind of kicks your ass, you know? You got to get serious about your fun.”

Eventually, Mitchell formed Max Webster, a hard rock band with a unique sound, with Mitchell and Pye Dubois writing songs for albums like “Mutiny Up My Sleeve,” “High Class In Borrowed Shoes,” “A Million Vacations,” that saw chart and radio success in Canada. Mitchell went solo in the early ’80s, and songs like “Go For Soda,” Patio Lanterns,” or “Easy To Tame” made him a household name.

His most recent album, 2020’s “The Big Fantasize,” has won praise for its music and lyrics. But, with this body of work and legendary songbook behind him, Mitchell isn’t looking too far ahead, saying that he hasn’t been writing lately.

“ I’m kind of in the headspace that I might be done with that part,” he said. “Never say never, but I used to have this drive when I’d be home, and have this time to myself, I’d not just play the guitar, I’d be searching around, uncovering stuff. I don’t do that anymore. Now I just play the guitar for enjoyment. I’m not heading anywhere. Before, I’d be heading towards ‘maybe there’s a song here.’ I’ve stopped looking in that direction as I play guitar.”

That said, the voice Mitchell projects through his guitar playing is as strong and vital as ever, and as important to him as its always been. And it still has secrets to show him.

“That [the guitar] and my dog have probably been my best pals,” he said. “It’s a frustrating instrument though — it’s not an easy instrument. The more you dig into it, the more you realize you don’t know.

“The whole idea about playing guitar is you can’t get caught up in thinking, ‘oh I gotta get really good.’ You just have to find your music, and whatever strengths you have are going to come out.”

And, he added, quantity is more important than quality.

“People will argue up and down that it’s about quality practice — no, it’s about quantity. You spend time with that thing, you’re naturally going develop your thing. But it is time.”

Mitchell’s guitar remains a source of inspiration, and a source of comfort, he said.

“When I’ve had really challenging times, or emotional times, that’s the thing that I go to. In the middle of the night it leans against the wall beside my bed. If I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, I just reach over, prop myself up with a couple of pillows, and my dog goes, ‘oh God, not this again!’”

Mitchell’s Rock and Roll Duty continues, Friday, Aug. 11, at Rock The Kootenays at Western Financial Place.

“I’m really looking forward to it. The band’s playing really well, the audiences are digging it, and we’re all having a great time.”

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998.
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