Written by Tom Johnston...
“Man, this guy is a red hot slide player!”
“Perhaps only the Australian Dave Hole is comparable in the slide guitar stakes, as Canadian Paul Fenton plays some of the most mesmerising, warm toned slide guitar you have ever heard…A majestic player who at times seems to weave his guitar lines through the eyes of an imaginary needle….”
Pete Feenstra, www.getreadytorock.com, London England
Paul Fenton’s virtuoso slide guitar playing and improvisation has been prompting such comments for many years. His musical roots have always been in the blues, but Paul’s musical career first took off when he co-founded the seminal Canadian punk rock band The Action, alternately playing slide, rhythm and lead guitar. Since those early years, he has incorporated innovative use of open tunings and more sophisticated echo and distortion equipment to develop a signature otherworldly sound full of amazingly fluid riffs that some reviewers have dubbed “psychedelic blues.” His songwriting has evolved from the snarling sonic blasts of the punk years through increasingly more complex songs spanning multiple genres, often involving thoughtful themes that reflect on fundamental life issues. Paul remains committed to his slide and blues roots, however, and every album includes at least one cover of a classic song by one of the past blues or country players who were the architects of rock n’ roll.
Paul has opened for and/or played with Derek Trucks, Sonny Landreth, Wide Mouth Mason, Rory Gallagher, Jack Bruce, Johnny Winter, Mick Taylor, Walter Trout, John Mayall, Coco Montoya, Steppenwolf, The Strawbs, Nazareth, Bernard Allison, Mick Ronson, John Hiatt, Roy Buchanan, George Thorogood, Thirteen Engines, The Stranglers, Guy Davis, Tom Cochrane, and The Headstones. Members of the Guess Who, Goddo, The Blushing Brides, McKenna Mendelson Mainline, The Anger Brothers and Downchild have performed live with him. In private jams and conversations Paul has picked the brains of many of these and other stars, including (among others) Johnny Winter, Mick Taylor, Roy Buchannon, Mick Ronson, David Gilmour, Rory Gallagher and John Lee Hooker.
Paul utilizes multiple open tunings, including: D, E, D modal, a D minor ‘drone’ tuning (taught to him by bluesman Guy Davis when they played together at the Ottawa Folk Festival in 1999), C and more. He has been signed to Montreal’s Montreco Records, New York City’s Torrid Records (produced by legend Mick Ronson who also played guitar on the session), and The Netherlands’ Continental Records (Rounder-Universal), and was distributed by Germany’s In-Akustik.
Some of Paul’s favourite slide players are (in no particular order): Tampa Red, Blind Willie Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Rory Gallagher , Duane Allman , Johnny Winter, Elmore James, Brian Jones and David Gilmour from Pink Floyd.
The Early Years
Before Paul was old enough to be playing, two important musical “imprintings” came from the Ed Sullivan show, once when he saw the Beatles and once when he heard Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones play slide guitar on “Little Red Rooster.” Within a few years Paul began teaching himself the guitar, relying at first on several “how to play slide guitar” books from the local library. More inspirations followed, such as hearing Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “North Mississippi” version of the blues and slide work, hearing (and meeting) jump and electric blues pioneer T. Bone Walker at the Lehibou club, and hearing Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd.
In 1973, Paul was finally hooked for life on a career in music when he ventured down Highway 401 to see and hear the explosive blues rock of ‘the modern-day Robert Johnson,’ Irish guitar legend Rory Gallagher at the Colonial Tavern. After hearing Gallagher pour it all out in one of his classic live performances, Paul devoted his life to music.
At first, Paul became the ‘charge’ of older brother John, a serious rocker and excellent guitar player in his own right. John, the ‘Godfather’ of the Fenton musical clan (which also includes bassist and vocalist youngest brother Michael) began his own career with Ottawa heavies Avalon in the mid-70’s, recording at Montreal’s Tempo Studios the same time as Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. Around 1977, after hearing an English punk music collection LP via a friend of Ted Axe’s who worked at Treble Clef (a local record store), Paul, John and Ted formed the legendary band The Action, merging the sounds of the Stones, Gallagher and Status Quo with the nitro of the mid-70’s London punk rock movement. With Ted on vocals, and Paul, John and Ted writing lyrics and music, Paul began his professional odyssey.
The Action quickly became the darlings of the city’s lively punk-rock/hard rock scene. Leather, extreme volume, great original rock and roll guitar from John and Paul, and Ted’s wild stage antics and hilarious patter drew legions of fans. After several years, John eventually drifted away to other projects, and Ted became too much to handle, going extremely ‘Bowie-glam’ and was fired - but never replaced. The first EP (1977), recorded in Montreal, was a big hit in Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto and New York and remains a coveted collector’s item to this day. The Action reunited in 2009 and issued a compilation album from the studio EPs, titled “Complete Punk Recordings 1977-1978” in Canada and issued on vinyl and titled “Slashing White Hot” on the Rave Up record label in Italy.
Lightning Strikes (Literally)
At first terrifically emotional and exciting but somewhat rudimentary, Paul’s guitar playing progressed rapidly after a freak incident. In the liner notes to the album “Worldwide Slide,” Paul’s brother John tells the story of the night long ago when young Paul was literally ‘woodshedding’ in a metal garage during a storm on the shore of their home at Green Lake. John heard wild loud slide guitar then a terrible crash like an explosion and feedback. Lightning had hit the garage, knocking Paul unconscious and the ‘untended’ guitar screamed like Hendrix’s Strat at Monterey. John says Paul has never been the same since but says Paul’s playing almost immediately went “from good to gifted.”
Post-Action: The Early 1980s
After The Action came a band again featuring Paul: a bit spacier and more traditional in rock terms by the name of “Number One.” Local rocker Gordie “Uranus” Innes was in and out of the four or five piece outfit. Paul branched out musically, using echo, Leslie, chorus, and a stereo Rickenbacker 12 string electric for the first time, and some more Fenton magic was woven. Number One was recorded extensively live, but unfortunately only bootlegs and some unreleased studio recordings and demos remain of their excellent work, including a fine session at Connecticut’s Trod Nossel recording studios.
Paul also played with the self-described “World’s Most Dangerous Tribute to the Rolling Stones,” the excellent Stones tribute band “The Blushing Brides.” Paul toured the US and Canada extensively with the ‘Brides for over a year, but the muse called and he eventually returned to his first love -- writing and playing original music. The ‘Brides later recorded Paul’s popular song “Nasty Boy” on their RCA label debut “Unveiled.”
1984-1990: The Fenton Brothers
In 1984, The Fenton Brothers Band was born. Featuring Paul, the bass and vocals of brother Michael, Andre “Action” Gauthier (and many others) on drums, and first Fred Guignon and later Ronald Gilfillan on guitar, they ruled the Eastern Ontario and western Quebec bar circuit. Fans spoke of a combination of 4/4 roots rock and roll, hard electric blues and the nasty punk energy of The Action married with the ‘prettier’ and more experimental Number One period. Venue owners spoke of setting many beer-selling records when the Fentons played, which no doubt enhanced the band’s popularity with club owners and booking agents as well as audiences.
In 1985 came another inspirational event. In earlier years Paul’s bands had opened twice for Rory Gallagher, and Paul had gotten to know the man a bit. In 1985 Paul went to see Rory perform, they got together after the show, and it turned into an all-night guitar jam and discussion, with the reclusive Irish legend sharing some of his secrets. On impulse, Paul gave Gallagher a Supro Dualtone guitar (and a slide) as thank you gifts, and Rory used both in later concerts. (See the Pictures section of this site.)
While the Action had scored a couple of high-profile openers such as The Stranglers and The Diodes, The Fentons opened for a who’s who of great guitar players as the ‘house’ band at B-circuit 1920’s vaudeville - survivor club and rock palace Barrymore’s. Among others, they opened for Mick Taylor, Jack Bruce, George Thorogood, John Mayall, Thirteen Engines, John Hiatt, Edgar Winter, John Kay and Steppenwolf, and Roy Buchanan.
The group also opened for The Strawbs at the Diamond in Toronto after which bass player/vocalist Rod Dennick said “I almost sh*t my pants when I heard that slide!” Rod hauled the group off to a Queen Street club to jam with Paul. The Fentons opened for Rory Gallagher in Montreal (Le Spectrum), for Tom Cochrane in Toronto’s beautiful Diamond Club and for Johnny Winter three times, including at the prestigious National Arts Centre, during which the reclusive Texan ran from his dressing room in the midst of the Fentons’ set to watch Paul play and, tapping his cowboy boot vigorously, exclaimed “Man, this guy is a red hot slide player!” After his own set, Johnny summoned Paul to his dressing room for a rare private National guitar acoustic blues jam session witnessed by Workman John of CHEZ FM. The Fenton Brothers also got picked to open for Huey Lewis twice at 37,000-seat Lansdowne Park. Huey bumped them at the ‘rain date’ due to the threat of precipitation but graciously paid them in full anyway.
Many Fenton Brothers demo sessions followed, including a partial, unreleased album recorded at Nevessa studio in Woodstock, NY. The album was produced by legendary Mick Ronson, who also played on one of the songs. The session was engineered by Todd Rundgren and Utopia’s main man Chris Anderson. Sadly, the album’s release agreement with Torrid Records was never finalized and the master tape (and other Fenton Brothers master tapes on loan) apparently were lost during Torrid’s bankruptcy. At this point The Fenton Brothers stopped working regularly, but have been reformed in recent years with the addition of brother John on guitar, and Uncle Bob Cabana on drums. They toured in England in 2012 and played at the 2013 Ottawa BluesFest.
1992 – 1996: The Bleedin’ Hearts
After The Fenton Brothers hit Pause, Paul formed “The Bleedin’ Hearts,” named after the Elmore James song, and a very happy and successful period followed. Once again fronted by a controversial and energetic singer and featuring Paul’s mastery of rhythm and slide and his delicious writing, the band took off. Playing extensively in Eastern Canada, they garnered heavy local airplay and were signed to an International recording contract with the Netherlands’ “Continental Record Service,” a Rounder Records Europe company. Their first CD, “The Bleedin’ Hearts” featured 11 tracks written or co-written by Paul and three covers. Their second CD, “Seconds to Go” was released in Europe and the band was signed to do an eight-country European tour to support the release, opening for Walter Trout in venues across the continent. Virtually the day the second CD was released, however, the band broke up, disagreeing about the proposed tour and other issues. “Seconds to Go” sells to this day in Germany, England, Italy and the Netherlands.
1997 – Present: Solo Career
In 1997 Paul moved in a new direction with the release of his first solo album, “Binson’s Blues.” Paul took over the vocalist role and began making more extensive use of the Binson Echorec unit and other studio techniques to produce the incredibly fluid riffs that have become Paul’s signature sound. On six of the tracks, Paul teams with fellow songwriter James Cohen, who also co-wrote some of the Bleedin’ Hearts songs, but here the lyrical themes of some of the tracks have moved from sheer kick-ass rock n’ roll to more thoughtful pieces. Some tracks seem almost prescient, such as “Get Off of My Phone,” which bemoans (with a bit of humor) the continual distractions in our era of instant communication, and the ominous “House of Cards,” which speaks of imminent (economic?) collapse and the toll it will take.
This trend toward including more reflective songs continued in Paul’s next release, 1999’s “Vancouver Blue.” Paul had previously co-written many of the songs on the Bleedin’ Hearts albums and Binson’s Blues, often collaborating well with fellow Canadian rocker James Cohen, but on “Vancouver Blue” for the first time Paul wrote all the songs. Among other subjects, “T. Bone Walker Blues” muses on the pain of an aging bluesman whose audiences seem to only want to hear his greatest hit. “Time” reflects on the passage of time and how we deal with it (or don’t). Paul also covers “Mind Your Own Business” morphing the Hank Williams’ country classic into the rock mode, jacking up the tempo and replacing the short fiddle break with a slightly longer slide guitar break. The revised arrangement manages to make the song sound both timeless and new.
Paul’s next album was “Live! In Toronto,” released in 2002. The album was recorded during performances at the legendary Blues on Bellaire club in Toronto and shows Paul working his improvisional magic with a tight band featuring Peter Jermyn on organ and Rick Gunn on second lead guitar. The album consists of six original songs from previous albums and four covers, including a twelve-minute interpretation of a John Lee Hooker’s “I’m Goin’ Upstairs” that highlights Paul’s fretboard wizardry.
In 2006, Paul brought it all together with “Judgement Day.” At once a twelve-song classic ‘hero quest’ story, a statement of personal philosophy, and a feast of slide guitar work, this album demonstrates Paul’s mastery of multiple genres, including rock, Delta blues, ‘psychedelic blues,’ and even Indian music such as ragas. The underlying ‘hero quest’ story is discussed in detail in the Reviews section.
Paul’s next release represented a return to his blues roots. On “Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” (2008), he teams with veteran blues singer Peter Lazz. The album covers 13 classic blues songs such as the title track, “Little Red Rooster,” “Key to the Highway,” “It Hurts Me Too,” and “Queen of Spades.”
In 2009, in conjunction with the reunion tour of The Action, the band released the CD “Complete Punk Recordings 1977-1978,” which also was issued in vinyl in Italy as “Slashing White Hot” on the Rave Up label.
Albums and Where to Find Them:
Complete Punk Recordings 1977-1978 (2009) (available at http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Punk-Recordings-1977-1978/dp/B002IZGM3E)
Rattlesnakin’ Daddy (2008) (available at Compact Music (a.k.a. “Sir Helmitt”), 190 Bank St., Ottawa, CA K2P 1W8) http://www.ebay.com/itm/Paul-Fenton-blues-slide-gtr-legend-and-Peter-Lazz-Rattlesnakin-Daddy-CD-NEW-/310591878880?pt=Music_CDs&hash=item4850b7f6e0
Judgement Day (2006) (available at CD Baby Music Store: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/fenton06) (and at amazon.com)
Live! In Toronto (2002) (available at CD Baby Music Store: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/fenton02) (and at amazon.com)
Vancouver Blue (1999) (available at CD Baby Music Store: http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/fenton00) (and at amazon.com)
The Bleedin’ Hearts (1994) (available at available at Compact Music (a.k.a. “Sir Helmitt”), 190 Bank St., Ottawa, CA K2P 1W8) http://www.ebay.com/itm/The-Bleedin-Hearts-Paul-Fenton-Canadian-blues-rock-AMAZING-SLIDE-GUITAR-CD-/310177120100?pt=Music_CDs&hash=item4837ff3f64