The blues is a language Jack Semple is fluent in.
The Regina-based guitar virtuoso has played country, jazz, folk and rock ’n’ roll over the years. But the blues keeps beckoning him back.
“It’s the ultimate guitar music because it’s simple and basic, but contains this whole range of emotions and great passion,” said Semple, who headlines at the 12th annual Jazz at the Lake Festival in Sylvan Lake on Saturday, Aug. 16.
His favourite guitarist is American bluesman B.B. King, because “you can listen to him play and he might as well be talking to you. I can hear everything he’s saying.”
Semple is no slouch on the six-string himself, having won the MuchMusic Guitar Wars contest in 1992 and a Juno Award for best roots recording in 1991.
He has also been twice nominated, in 1999 and 2000, for a Gemini Award for his soundtrack work on the television series Incredible Story Studio. And Semple has two Western Canadian music awards for his acoustic instrumental album Qu’Appelle and his most recent blues release, In the Blue Light, which takes blues riffs beyond the traditional three-chord structure into more original songwriting terrain.
Semple, who grew up on a farm north of Regina, picked up the guitar at age 10 when his brothers taught him the basics. As soon as he began taking formal instruction at the local music store, he was hooked. “I ate up the lessons and practised all the time. I took to it like a duck to water.”
He got so good that staff at the same music store called him up three years later and asked him to start teaching guitar there. He was 15 years old.
It wasn’t long before Semple had joined his first band and guitar playing became his life’s work.
He was playing with The Luxury Blues Band when the local group was asked to open for The Lincolns, a popular Toronto-based funk, rhythm and blues band that was touring through the province.
“The Lincolns were my favourite band. They were my heroes,” recalled Semple, who approached the group’s musicians as a fan after the concert.
He was astonished when they turned the tables and began praising him for his performing skills. “They said, ‘Who are you? You sing like Daryl Hall from Hall & Oates and play guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughn.’ ”
It so happened that the lead guitarist for The Lincolns was planning to leave and Semple was asked to take his place. “I couldn’t believe my luck,” said Semple.
He moved to Toronto during the mid-to-late 1980s, The Lincolns’ heyday, and Semple had a good run playing festivals and touring with the band. But in 1989, he decided for the sake of his wife and growing family to return to less costly Regina to be closer to their parents.
He quit the group and began a solo career, which has so far involved 10 acclaimed albums and contributions to television and music scores. Semple also appeared in the title role of Guitarman, a 1994 Canadian TV movie.
Living away from the musical hot-spots of Toronto or Los Angeles has only gotten easier with the Internet, said the 57-year-old guitarist, who regularly emails in his recorded tracks for other people’s albums, commercials or soundtracks.
Occasionally he finds himself in odd situations — such as sending the vocals he recorded for a commercial jingle for a Regina restaurant to the Vancouver-based jingle company that hired him for the job. “The restaurant’s just a couple of blocks away from me and they could have hired me directly, but they hired this company out of Vancouver,” said Semple, with a chuckle.
Requests come from all over Canada for his guitar or vocal contributions. Between putting out solo albums, touring and occasionally flying to Toronto and other places to play with musicians he’s met along the road, Semple also enjoys performing in a family band called The Gene Pool.
“All of us are musicians,” said the guitarist, whose 14-year-old daughter Zenaya is the group’s lead singer, son Keiran is the drummer and other daughter, Kaitlyn, plays banjo and mandolin.
As Jethro Tull covers are part of the repertoire, Semple’s wife, Tara, a flutist for the Regina Symphony, also joins the band for some numbers. “It’s a very fun thing,” said Semple.
When he plays in Sylvan Lake this month, his music will be more bluesy than jazzy, but he noted that blues is actually the root of all contemporary musical genres, including jazz, country, rock and pop. “It’s the fundamental element.”
Tickets for his 8 p.m. performance at the Alliance Church in Sylvan Lake are $35 from the Sylvan Lake Aquatic Centre, 403-887-2199.
For scheduled events, performers and more information about the festival that runs from Aug. 14 to 17 at various venues, visit www.jazzatthelake.com.