When you hear New Brunswick fretmaster Matt Andersen wailing away on “Better Days”—a track off Piggyback, the 2009 album he made with Canadian harmonica ace Mike Stevens—the word dextrous comes to mind, because he's tearing off enough rapid-fire acoustic licks to challenge Eddie Van Halen on “Eruption”.
What you might not picture is a 400-pound bear of a man crouched over his prized Lakewood guitar, deftly picking out wild flurries of notes with his plus-sized fingers. As Andersen explains on the line from his home in Cape Breton, having meaty digits—his Web site is www.stubbyfingers.ca/—hasn't really slowed him down. It never bothered Warren Haynes much either.
“When I first started playing I kinda had to make up my own ways of playin' chords 'cause I couldn't do it the way they showed in the chord books,” says the 29-year-old bluesman. “My fingers kinda mashed up together, so I'd cover two or three strings with a finger instead of just one.”
The size of Andersen's hefty mitts didn't cost him any points with the judges at the 2010 International Blues Challenge, though. Sponsored by Fredericton's Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival, Andersen headed down to Memphis in January and competed with players from 12 countries, taking first place in the solo/duo category.
“I didn't really concentrate on the whole winning thing so much,” he recalls, “I just went and had fun and played. There's some really fantastic musicians down there, so I never once thought I had it in the bag.”
The IBC prize package includes bookings at festivals in Italy and France and a slot on the Legendary Rhythm and Blues Cruise, where hard-core blues hounds can get up close and personal with their idols during a week-long Caribbean cruise. Andersen has no problem being on the water, but he doesn't plan on spending too much time soaking up the sun. “I'm not a huge heat person,” he relates, “but that'll be all right.”
While Andersen has won awards for his fancy fretwork, his passionate vocals—inspired by the likes of Ray Charles, Van Morrison, and Taj Mahal—have also drawn praise. He handles all the singing and guitar on Piggyback, while Stevens blows harp and contributes spoken-word passages, as he does on the poignant “Going Home”, which was inspired by the ceremonial return of Canadian soldiers to New Brunswick.
Stevens's inspired harmonica licks won't be spicing up Andersen's music on his current tour, though; those stubby fingers and that booming voice will be on their own. But having acclaimed Calgary singer-songwriter Wil on the bill helps keep things interesting.
“He does the solo thing too,” notes Andersen, “but we're different enough that it's not just one of those guy-with-a-guitar nights. He puts out a lot of energy and soul, and people have been feeding off of it pretty well.”
Matt Andersen plays St. James Hall tonight (April 15) and the ACT Theatre in Maple Ridge on Saturday (April 17).