Roy Forbes is celebrating 50 years in the music business right now, because back in 1971—18 years old and fresh out of Dawson Creek—he showed up in Vancouver to launch his career as a singer-songwriter, guitarist, and producer.
Back then, though, he was better known as Bim.
"It was one of my childhood nicknames," says Forbes on the phone from his North Van home, "and you know in the early '70s it seemed like a good idea to be Bim. Later on there was Valdy, Ferron...and Raffi of course. Now you've got Feist, Lights. So it worked, but as life meandered on into the mid-to-late-'80s, I kept putting 'Bim, aka Roy Forbes' on my posters, and finally one day I just switched it around."
Forbes started recorded under his real name with the 1987 album Love Turns to Ice, and by that time he was already a fixture on the Canadian folk music scene, known for his high, keening voice and his acoustic blues and traditional country stylings. Last year he released his first studio recording in 14 years, Edge of Blue, which he'll showcase songs from at a string of shows that include a two-night fundraiser for First Impressions Theatre next weekend (October 22 and 23).
When he looks back on his half-century in the music biz to try and pick out the most memorable moments, he doesn't even have to go that far back.
"I had one recently with Steve Dawson and his band," notes Forbes of a 2019 gig at West Van's Kay Meek Arts Centre. "Steve likes to reimagine these albums, and we were doing the Tom Petty Full Moon Fever album, and I mean his band is shit hot—it's really a good buncha people he's got together. But anyway we were doing 'Here Comes My Girl', which is a song I've always loved, and it was as if we all levitated doin' that tune.
"Another highlight was in the fall of '71, when suddenly I found myself on stage at the Queen E. Theatre opening for Rita Coolidge. That was pretty amazing, and especially considering that ten months earlier I had had my mind blown witnessing Neil Young's solo tour on that same stage. That's still pretty precious to me—and I got some good reviews, too."
Other musical moments Forbes looks back fondly on are his Rio Theatre performance with Amos Garrett at a 2013 benefit to support Garrett after his house in High River, Alberta, got flooded, and his numerous gigs at folk festivals doing workshops with artists like Memphis Slim, Lydia Mendoza, and guitar legend Richard Thompson.
"There was one with Richard Thompson where I was playing in an open tuning," he recalls, "and he nodded to me to take a solo. I had to do some quick thinking, so that was fun. Normally when you take a solo you're in standard tuning, right."
It's not so much the past as the present that's on Forbes's mind these days, though. He's chomping at the bit to get out and perform tunes from Edge of Blue, which was recorded and mixed by Jim Woodyard—except for the keyboard tracks, which were recorded by Chris Gestrin. Forbes first met Gestrin—who plays Hammond organ and Wurlitzer electric piano on the disc—at the aforementioned Tom Petty tribute.
"With Chris Gestrin, you don't have to say anything," raves Forbes. "You just kinda give him the odd hint, and away he goes."
Gestrin is just one of several familiar Vancouver names that catch the eye on Edge of Blue's credits. Another is local legend Claire Lawrence, who plays sax on the closing track, "Rumble Strip".
"That is the Claire Lawrence from the Collectors," confirms Forbes, "who produced my first couple of albums. He also produced—along with Shari [Ulrich] and Bill [Henderson] and I—the UHF albums. I mean I bow down to Claire, my early mentor. I respect him so much."
Another ace player on the album is John Reischman, who handles mandolin on "The Beating of Your Very Own Heart."
"We go back to the early '90s," says Forbes. "I used to hire him on various records that I produced, and, again, most respect. You're not gonna tell John Reischman what to play. You're just gonna listen and be amazed at what he comes up with, and pick your favourite of two or three tracks that he might have laid down."
One local music-scene luminary mentioned on Edge of Blue—though not for any instrumental contribution—is artist manager Gary Cristall, who gets a shout-out "for his way with words".
"He's written my bios for the past couple of albums," explains Forbes, "and he's such a great guy. He booked the [Vancouver] folk festival for years, and I've done umpteen festivals in my life—headlined them all, whatever—and when I would read the program the Vancouver ones were always the favourite, because he's such a good writer."
Forbes penned all 10 tracks on Edge of Blue himself, and he calls it the most cohesive album that he's ever done. But it's not like he has anything against cover material.
"It just felt right to use all of these songs," he says, "but I do love to interpret. I'd love to do a soul album, you know, where I interpret tunes by Sam Cooke, Little Willie John, Hank Ballard, all of that. If I had an unlimited budget you'd have a hard time gettin' hold of me right now. I'd be in the studio recording all these dream albums."
For Edge of Blue Forbes was joined in the studio by rhythm sections that included acoustic bassist Miles Hill, electric bassist Brian Newcombe, and drummers Chris Nordquist and Phil Robertson. But for his upcoming shows it'll just be his voice and the Gurian guitar he bought new at Kitsilano's Bill Lewis Music in January of '72.
"I will be celebrating the repertoire from the past 50 years," he says, "but the big concentration will be on Edge of Blue, because that's still the new album, even though it's over a year old now. But I'll also go back to things like 'Can't Catch Me', which I made up about 50 years ago almost to the day, and it was the kickoff track on Kid Full of Dreams, the first album. So I do a few of the old ones and lots of the new ones."
Forbes, who's always suffered from "crummy sight", lost his dwindling vision entirely after an accident in 2015, and he says that writing songs like Edge of Blue's "Don't Let Go" and 'Heart Have Mercy" was part of his recovery process. But the sightlessness hasn't effected his guitar playing much--or put a damper on his sense of humour.
"Not really," he claims. "I practice more now, and I've made myself work up and down the neck, right from the start. Occasionally I'll be down in the lower area and go up to grab let's say a high-E note or something, and more often than not, I get there. And if I don't, call it jazz. A-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha."
Roy Forbes plays the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre in North Van on October 22 and 23; the Duncan Showroom in Duncan, B.C. on November 5; the Charlie White Theatre in Sidney, B.C., on November 6; and Blue Frog Studios in White Rock on November 13.