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Getting to the heart of David Rotundo

By Lisa McDonald

Live Music Head

April, 2011

(originally published in The Toronto Blues Society’s

Maple Blues Newsletter, April 2010)

Maple Blues acknowledged David Rotundo’s talent

by honouring him with the Harmonica Player of the Year award in 2007

and Best New Artist in 2002. 

David Rotundo also received the nomination for Best Blues Album in 2001

by the Canadian Independent Artist Association for his debut record, Blowin’ for Broke. 

Having performed numerous times with legendary harmonica virtuoso, Lee Oskar

as well as Jeff Healey, Madagascar Slim, Ronnie Hawkins,

members of the Downchild Blues Band, Edgar Winter,

Elvis Costello, and Muddy Waters' drummer Willie Big Eyes Smith,

Mr Rotundo has definitely been leaving his mark on the scene. 

This incredibly talented blues harpist says he owes it all to James Cotton

after being “hypnotized” by a performance at Toronto’s El Mocambo in 1991.

Rotundo went out and bought a harmonica the very next day

and has been obsessed with the blues ever since.

In 1995, David took a trip around the United States in search of the “real” blues

before he returned to Toronto and formed a band of his own. 

In 2000, in addition to touring with his band,

Rotundo played with Juno award-winning guitarist, Jack DeKeyzer. 

In 2003, a stint in the recording studio resulted in the critically acclaimed Blues Ignited cd

featuring international guitarist Enrico Crivellaro under the newly christened David Rotundo Band. 

Rotundo followed this in 2007 with a live recording at Roc and Docs and in March of 2009,

he released No Looking Back which sees the return of Mr Crivallero on guitar

in addition to Jeff Healey alumni, Dave Murphy on organ. 

This writer cannot say enough about the electrifying performances

she’s witnessed at The Rex when David Rotundo teamed up

with the charismatic Jerome Godboo and his belt of harps. 

Upcoming gigs have Rotundo blowing the blues all over Ontario,

with a pit stop at Hugh’s Room in Toronto on April 25,

taking the stage again with both Crivellaro and Oskar.

Being a fan for many years, it was a pleasure to sit down with David

to break through some of the mystery that surrounds him. 

And I found an intelligent being who would like to see us all

“get back to the heart of it”.


Where did you grow up David?

Jane and Lawrence.

So you’re a Toronto boy.


Were you a big fan of music growing up?  Were you like most of us who collected records and listened to the radio?

Growing up, I loved music.  I’m the youngest of four boys and my older brothers were heavily into the rock scene.  Fortunately, they had hundreds of albums for me to listen to.

Were you listening to blues records too?  Similar to the kind of blues you listen to now?

No.  It was all classic rock then; Hendrix, The Doors, Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Supertramp.

Are there other musicians in your family?

My older brothers played guitar in a garage band.

Were you the little brother who wanted to be like them?

Actually no, I was quite the antithesis! (laughs) I would mock them.  I was the little philosopher.  (laughs).  They’d say, “What’s the matter with you?  You should think we’re cool, being in a rock band.”  And I kept saying, “No man, you’re going nowhere with this stuff.  Nowhere!”  (laughs) I don’t know why I said what I said, I just did. But maybe it was because they had their rehearsal space in the back yard and from what I could tell, all they did was smoke.  And I thought, “If you’re going to do this, play some music!”  I was really young, like five or six and they were fifteen or sixteen. 

Were you artistic in any other ways?

I loved drawing. I would lock myself in my room for days and draw just about anything.  But I dropped it after an experience at the Ontario College of Art.  It wasn’t that I was rebellious, but I never liked the structure.  (laughs) Too many times after finishing something, I’d hear, “well that’s a good start, that’s great, but what are you going to do with it now?” Lately I’ve adopted the approach of Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti, who says “There is no teacher and there is no pupil.  Once there’s a teacher and once there’s a pupil, we’ve negated both because we’re all teachers and we’re all pupils.”  If I’m going to call myself the teacher and you’re the pupil, then where do we go from here?  I mean, am I just instilling my prejudices on you and you’re taking whatever I say as verbatim and that’s it?  With no teacher and no pupil, there is only seeking and awareness.

What about the wisdom and experience of our elders?  Do we not learn from them as our teachers?

That definitely exists.  But who learns more from a conversation between a fool and a wise man? You’d think the fool would learn more because he’s speaking with the wise man, but the fool is the fool because he doesn’t recognize the wise man.  And the wise man is wise because he recognizes he can learn from anyone.

So you’re interested in philosophy? And reading?

Yes, absolutely.

In 1997, you formed a band called the Blue Canadians. 

Much more important than 1997, was 1995, when I went backpacking through the United States.  That was pivotal.  I took a bunch of harmonicas on a one-way bus to New Orleans and for about three months went pretty much wherever the wind blew me.

And what did you find?  Were your expectations met?

Yes, every day.  A quick summation of the music I found would be... very commercial in New Orleans.   New Orleans has depth, but the music was just too commercialized.  Austin, Texas was a highlight.  The music there was great and in Memphis as well.  And in Chicago, I was able to see Sugar Blue, Willie Kent and the Gents, and Junior Wells.  I was blown away seeing all of them.

You must have been inspired to play your harmonicas.

Yea, I was playing in back alleys and wherever, but not on stage.  I didn’t feel ready to perform yet.

Had you ever performed on stage at this point?


When was the first time you performed on stage?

At a place called O’Toole’s when Gary Kendall was hosting a jam.  It’s a place in the Black Creek and Lawrence neighbourhood.  But that was after I returned from the States.  But when I was still in Chicago, I met Enrico Crivellaro.

Yes, tell me about your relationship with Mr. Crivallero.

The stars were aligned the night we met.  I was staying at an old 40-floor dormitory hostel and my room was big with three or four beds.  I’d fallen asleep but around three in the morning, I heard someone come in.  When I awoke the next day, the first thing I noticed was a guitar and it was Enrico Crivellaro sleeping in one of the other beds. It was as early as 10am when we started jamming. I quickly realized how prolific Enrico was and could tell instantaneously he was an accomplished player.  We hung out from then on.  I didn’t know anything about Chicago or who anyone was, so Enrico schooled me.  He wrote out a list of albums I needed to buy.   It was incredible finding him. 

So you returned home with a renewed sense of confidence maybe, or...

Up till then, the blues was a small universe to me. But being in Chicago, I found out the blues scene is way bigger than I thought. 

Travelling through the States like you say, obviously you were searching for authenticity.

Yea, I wanted to go to the horse’s mouth.

And did you find it?

Absolutely; I saw it and touched it.  After I came back from the States, I went around to jams and ended up putting a band together.

And is it safe to categorize this band as a Canadian Blues Band who drinks beer? (laughs)

Just to clarify, there was no commercial targeting whatsoever! (laughs) What happened was I singled out this guitar player I saw at one of the jams and hounded him because I loved the way he played. His name was Barry Van Dussen.  We hit four jams a night for about two months trying to find a rhythm section and one night at the Black Swan, a waitress yelled out “See you next week Blue and Canadian!” as we rushed off to the next jam in Kensington Market.  Barry drank Blue, and I drank Canadian.  And then after playing with Johnny Lovesin at the Baldwin Cafe, the owner, who’s now a good friend of mine, bought Barry and I a drink.  He told us, “I like what you do.  Would you like to play here regularly?” This was a Tuesday and Barry says, “Yea sure, how about Friday?”  I’m about to bite my tongue off thinking, what’s Barry doing? What can he be thinking?  We only know five songs and we don’t even have a band!  All I kept thinking was, I’m gonna beat Barry up when we get outside. 


But then Robert (the Cafe owner) said, “Okay, what’s the name of the band?” And Barry was like, “Uh, Blue...” And then I suddenly blurted out, “Canadian!”  Robert looks over at me and asks, “The Blue Canadian Blues Band?  Cool, I like it.  See ya on Friday!” We finished our beer and when we got outside I said, “Barry, what the fuck did you do? We only know five songs, not to mention we don’t have a band!”  All Barry said was, “don’t worry about it.”  (laughs).  He called up a local drummer that he knew and Shane Scott (the bass player who later joined the Rotundo band) and we spent the next two days and nights rehearsing. 


What did you do, play eight sets of the same five songs? (laughs)

I don’t remember how we got through it.  But we played, got paid and left.  The next day I went back to see Robert to apologize.  When I got there the Jim Heineman Quartet matinee was happening and the place was packed. But I went up to Robert and said, “can I speak to you about last night?’  “Sure," he says, “what’s up?”  I said, “I just wanted to let you know I’m not happy.”  Robert says, “Well, what’s wrong?  Didn’t I pay you enough?”  “No,” I said, “it’s not that.  I wasn’t happy with the music.  But I hope you’ll consider hiring us again in the future.”  Robert says, “what are you talking about?  I loved it.  I want you guys to play here every Friday!” (laughs) 

Obviously you did better than you thought.

I couldn’t believe it.  I thought we were a disaster.  I said, “Are you serious?”  Robert says, “Yes, you can play here anytime you want.”  So that was the beginning.  I went to the Baldwin Cafe regularly after that and cut my teeth there.  It’s also where I met Julian Fauth. 

You’ve also played with Lee Oskar who has his own line of harmonicas. Do you play his harmonicas and how did you come to know him?

Yes, I’ve been playing Lee Oskar Harmonicas since before I met him.  I met Lee back in 2001.  It was the same time Enrico Crivellaro came to town and we went to the Reservoir Lounge to hang out.  I spotted Michael Pickett there and the person with him was Lee Oskar.  So I met Lee that night and invited him and Pickett to my next gig at a place in Mississauga called Touchdowns.  After inviting them, I thought, what am I doing?  This was probably only my twentieth gig ever and I don’t know why they decided to show up, but they did. And when they did, we were playing ferociously to a total of three people.  (laughs) After the set, Oskar came up to me and said, “Man, I’m really happy I came by.  Keep doing what you’re doing.”  Lee even played with the band that night and it was the first time I really got to hear him.  Man, it was great. 

Were you aware of Lee Oskar’s history at that time?

I knew a little bit, but I didn’t know how heavy a cat he really is.  If there’s an essence to the 60s and 70s, Lee Oskar is as good as anyone to talk about it because he was right there, in the thick of it.

For the last few years, you’re toured across the country playing in numerous clubs as well as performed at festivals like the Beaches Jazz Festival and the Montreal Jazz Festival.  But occasionally, a scheduled Toronto gig would be skipped because you’d be holed up in Mexico.  Notably, two gigs were missed at the Rex when you were supposed to be joining Jerome Godboo.  Jerome told the audience, “No, David’s not in jail!” Besides the sun, surf and sand, what exactly is the attraction south of the border?

I started going to Mexico in 2001 with Jack (DeKeyzer).  Jack was getting calls from a fan in Mexico who wanted him to play at his bar.  I think this was going on for a few years, but Jack hadn’t taken him up on the offer.  Jack and I had already started playing together and when the call came again, the guy said, “come play at my bar and bring that harmonica player with you.”  When Jack asked if I would consider doing it, I immediately said, “let’s go!”  We went down and played three gigs at the guy’s bar in Puerto Escondido. 

And how was your music received there?

They loved it.  Julian (Fauth) and I played in Russia once and I thought if any place would be more removed, it would be there.  But music breaks barriers, especially when it’s done sincerely.  People don’t need to understand the language. 

Let’s talk about the Saturday matinees you do at the Rex with Jerome Godboo.  Without a doubt you are both great musicians individually.  But something magical happens when the two of you get together on stage at that venue.  Crowds start piling in at noon and by the time you hit the stage at 3, the only standing room left is out on the sidewalk.  How do you feel about these matinees and will they continue in the future?

The energy at that gig is magnified and combusts.  And yes, it will continue.

Jerome puts on a hell of a show but when folks get there expecting both of you, only to find one has skipped out to Mexico, it’s a big disappointment.

Out of 999 gigs, I fail to show up for one, and I can’t live it down! (laughs) I’ll never live that down.  I hear about it all the time.

There was more than one Rex gig skipped David.  There were two that I know of. When it comes to Saturday afternoons at the Rex, you have to be there and so does Jerome.  (laughs) But how did this gig get started anyway?

I approached Jerome because I dig what he does and thought it would be fun to do something together.  Jerome agreed.  And I thought of the Rex because it’s old and it’s a cool venue.  And Jerome had the concept of doing the gig four times a year on the equinox.

And playing the song Come in My Kitchen certainly heats up a room.  After hearing it at the Rex matinee, there was no doubt in my mind the entire audience went home to have sex immediately following the show.  And that’s another thing... not only do you always have to be at the gig, but you always must play that song! (laughs)

But I don’t play by a set list. (laughs) I may not even think of that song unless someone mentions it.

Oh, I’m sure someone would mention it.  (laughs)  Tell me more about your song writing method.  How do you go about writing a song?

I pick up a pen and hope. (laughs)  Most of the songs I don’t really remember writing.  They just write themselves.  It’s a pretty cliché thing to say, I know, but I’m not methodical.  I don’t sit down and say, “it’s time to write a song”.

You mean you don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song that will make everyone want to go home and have sex after the show?”

(laughs) No, that doesn’t happen.  If only it was that easy!

So is there a musician you haven’t played with yet that you’d like to?

If I said one person, it would be too limiting.  Because then it would become a goal.  I don’t like to project too vividly what may happen.  My goal is today.  But the future that I’d like to see, musically or artistically, would be for people to get back to the home, back to the heart and their real essence; of why we are here.  It’s a very detached world.  And whether we like it or not, it will implode.  It has no choice. I hate to talk out of turn for the rest of civilization, (laughs) but we don’t know what we’re missing.  Again I refer to J. Krishnamurti who says, “how profound is it to be well adjusted to a sick society?”  I think we’ll be forced to get back to the heart of it because we’re not here to just make money.  And when you hear the leader of a country say, “I’m the president and you guys are the nation.”  There’s a division right there.  How do you work with that as opposed to “we’re all in this together”?   It’s the difference between Alexander the Great leading the country and George Bush.  Alexander the Great was the first guy over the wall in battle.  And his army followed. 

That’s so romantic.

Alexander the Great wasn’t sitting at the back yelling, “charge!”  I’m not a fan of industries; whether it’s the music industry, the film industry or whatever.  I’m not interested in anyone trying to sell me something.  Without the industries, we can get back to art again and making real music.  John Lennon said many profound things and one of them was “the more real I become the more unreal everything around me becomes”, which is very J. Krishnamurti.  And about blues music, Lennon said, “the reason it’s so good is because it’s so unpretentious.  It’s a chair you sit on.  It doesn’t have to look good or be expensive.  You just sit on it and it holds you up.  That’s all that matters.  It’s the blues we grew up on.  No one tried to sell us the chair.” 

I hope that live music is around for some time to come.  But with the music business crashing and more and more artists and fans sharing music on line, what do you think the future will look like?

However it all unfolds, people will go with the flow until someone invents another flow. It doesn`t concern me.  Eventually people seek the artist out.  Because where did the music come from? Where did the song come from?  If you’re a band like Steely Dan who don’t want to go out on the road, who am I to judge? But for me, it’s comforting to be in a band, driving to the next gig. 

And hugging the side of the bed to keep from touching when you have to sleep with them?

Absolutely; “what’s the matter Enrico?  Move over!” (laughs)

You know you do have an aura of mystery about you David.  You’re not planning to go away to Mexico again, are you?

Yea, for like nine months!  (laughs)

David Rotundo’s official website

Hugh’s Room official website...

About Lisa McDonald: Otherwise known as Live Music Head, Ms McDonald has an enormous passion for music that keeps her tapping away at a keyboard.  A freelance music writer living in downtown Toronto, Lisa is currently in conversation with musicians and entertainers, publishing articles at web-based magazines.  She may be contacted at:

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