Toney Springer, of Wild T & The Spirit, is often compared to Jimi Hendrix. But he feels he actually learned more from David Bowie.
The Canadian guitarist grew up in Trinidad and Tobago playing “funky jazz” guitar, without knowing too much about rock or blues.
“We never heard of the blues. We had the ocean, beaches and sunshine… Why would we need the blues?” said Springer, who plays with Wild T & The Spirit on Sunday, May 1, at Fratters Speakeasy in Red Deer.
When a friend lent him a Hendrix cassette he wasn’t overly impressed at first. “I held onto (the recording) because there was some Otis Redding on the other side, and at the time, I was O.D.-ing on Redding!”
Springer gained greater appreciation of Hendrix’s music after coming to Toronto in the early ’80s and being recruited to a Jimi Hendrix tribute band. “I learned Jimi Hendrix’s music because it was a job. They were offering me money,” he recalled.
But after listening carefully to guitarist’s grooves, Springer found himself a convert to the cult of Jimi. “I thought, holy, s—t man, this guy’s amazing!”
Despite his admiration for Hendrix’s music, he believes it didn’t teach him more than different variations of what he’d already been playing in Trinidad.
Bowie, on the other hand, proved to be a revelation.
Springer, who played with Toronto band Rough Trade before starting Wild T & The Spirit in 1990, was asked to play on Bowie’s 1993 Black Tie White Noise album. He figures it was because the English superstar was always interested in musical experimentation, and his own guitar sound originates from the loose jamming style of Caribbean music.
In the studio, Springer asked to hear a loop of Bowie’s music for the tune I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday, for which he would play lead guitar. The Toronto-based musician listened to Bowie’s melody a few times, then did some “doodling” on his guitar to figure out how he would approach it.
By the time Springer said he was ready to record his part, some 15 minutes later, he was told, “It’s OK, we’ve already got it. You can go home now!”
It turned out Bowie had been recording his improvisational grooves while he was practising. “He told me, ‘I wanted to get you fresh, and not in your comfort zone,’” Springer recalled.
He figures this “sweet, small-boned Englishman who liked to tell stories,” was always looking to straddle new musical ground. “He liked my playing because there was no (formula)… I was always making something out of nothing,” said Springer, who went on to perform with Bowie on several talk shows and for the DVD for Black Tie White Noise.
“I learned a lot from him,” recalled the guitarist, who studied Bowie’s unique vocal techniques and his on- and off-stage demeanor.
He remembers the thin, blond artist was “the calmest man I’ve ever seen” while waiting in the wings to perform on Jay Leno and Arsenio Hall’s late-night talk shows. “There was not a bit of anxiety. But as soon as the lights went on, he was on fire!
“I thought, this is the real deal. There is no space for ‘fair.’ (Bowie) knows how to turn it into this positive force,” said Springer, who was saddened to hear of his death in January. “We kept in touch for quite a while after I played with him,” and Bowie recommended filmmakers when Springer was looking to make a music video.
Drawing on a similar zen spirit of musical looseness, Wild T & The Spirit have recorded a live album.
It includes a couple totally new songs written by Springer: No No No and Hooked. It also features a ZZ Top-style arrangement of the Wild T tune I’m a River, a slower version of Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower and a cover of James Brown’s Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.
Springer explained, “I’m a funky cat, man. I come from funk, and James Brown is the King of Funk for me… I had to pay tribute.”
He promises his trio, recently back from a European tour, will show Red Deer fans a good time. “The mood we set for people is so musical, it allows us to go anywhere and everywhere” — from Bob Marley’s reggae influences to the soul of Sly and the Family Stone.
There’s a $10 cover for the 8 p.m. show.