Ian Stewart. Depending on who happens to be around when you mention Ian’s name, you might hear the story of an amazing performer who lights up the stage at the local club or an outdoor show on a Festival Day. You might hear a story about a guitar teacher that has passed his knowledge on to a new generation of eager players. You might even hear a story told about a good friend. Whatever story you happen to hear, it is without question that Ian Stewart has had an important and significant impact on the music scene in and around Central Alberta over the past decade. All the while, Stewart has been busy playing music all over the rest of Canada with numerous other accomplished musicians. It has been a long road to Central Alberta since the Welsh-born Canadian first picked up the guitar on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Wales has a diverse and influential music history. John Peel, the legendary British disc jockey once remarked that “the Welsh never had a rock ‘n’ roll revival because it never died there.” Joe Strummer drew much of his early rockabilly style from the experience of living in Wales; he also gained an appreciation for reggae there from the Afro-Caribbean community. Strummer wasn’t the only young guitar player to be influenced by the unique Welsh scene. In his hometown of Swansea, Ian Stewart started playing the guitar seriously around 1977. As soon as that happened, Ian’s pals started calling him “the Hermit,” because instead of hanging out with them, he would be alone in his room playing the guitar.
As Ian was learning to play, punk rock was causing anarchy in the U.K. While Stewart enjoyed bands like The Sex Pistols (and still has the LPs to prove it), Ian’s passion for music really came out when he got the blues. Listening to a couple of old Eric Clapton blues anthologies and the album “Indianola Mississippi Seeds” by B.B. King set him on his way. Then Roy Buchanan stepped into his life along with Freddie King, Rory Gallagher, Albert Lee, Mick Taylor from the Stones, and that was that.This strong blues foundation was then greatly influenced by Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits.
Just as Ian had a passion for the blues, he had talent with the football. There came the time when he was at the crossroads, and had to decide what to focus on. The guitar pick or the soccer ball. Luckily for anyone with ears, Stewart decided on the former. Ian performed with bands like the Dark Arch Band, Slash Fender and the Barracudas and Souled Out, touring throughout Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom performing rhythm and blues and soul. When he got a night off from gigging himself, Ian would hang out at the L.A. and the Dark Arch. These Clubs hosted the local jam sessions where he listened to and shared the stage with a rich abundance of great local players like Dave Edmunds sideman Mickey Gee, Brian Breeze, and Frankie the "Atomic thumb" Hughes. Not forgetting to mention Ian's favorite local hero Ray Taff Williams. Two great drummers from Swansea - Terry Williams from Dire Straits and Mickey Gibbons from Badfinger would also attend the jams periodically.
In 1986 Stewart came across the pond and settled in the hometown of Neil Young, Lenny Breau, and The Guess Who. Winnipeg proved to be the ideal place for Ian to “learn from some great players” and soak up an incredible music scene from Broadway’s to the Blue Note Café and all the famous clubs in between. Although already an accomplished musician, Stewart had to “get stuck in and learn fast.” After three years he came of age musically thanks to the influence of the legendary Winnipeg scene and his own hard work. Before he left the gateway to the prairies, Ian had shared the stage with the likes of his good friend Big Dave MacLean, Brent Parkin and Colin James.
The same year the Berlin wall came tumbling down, Ian returned to Europe from Winnipeg. Getting back together with Souled Out and the Dark Arch Band, Stewart made another mark on Wales. By the middle of the 1990s, Stewart relocated to Central Alberta. Aside from putting him straight into a bustling local music scene, the move also put him right in between Edmonton and Calgary, two large and musically rich cities. Ian joined up with the Water’s Edge Band, while also forming Ian Stewart and Cold Shot. The latter band played at the opening and closing ceremonies of the Alberta Winter Games. Shortly after, in 1997, he played a Canadian Tour with Susan Graham and the great country legend Don Williams. Stewart, sticking to his blues path, has continued to play shows since the late ‘90s opening and playing with many great North American blues artists such as Jeff Healey, Colin Linden, Mark Hummel, Robbie Laws, Roy Hytower, Rita Chiarelle…and the beat goes on and on.
As the world was preparing for the horrific onslaught of the Y2K bug, Stewart formed the group Ian Stewart and the Untouchables, creating a swinging blues-rock sound. The eight-piece band then released an album and developed a loyal following. In more recent years Ian has put together a five-piece line up, Ian Stewart and the Swanjacks, the group has played shows with Randy Bachman, Nazareth, Kim Mitchell, Jerry Doucette and backed Bo Diddley for his Red Deer show in April 2006, and luckily, the band members all managed to survive (ha-ha. Private joke). The Swanjacks are all extremely talented players that leave audiences all over Alberta with jaws dropped and wanting more. They have already tested their mettle around Western Canada and in the studio.
A performance with the Vancouver based Powder Blues Band in November 2005 connected Ian with Tom Lavin (guitar player and songwriter for the Powder Blues Band). This led to the recording of the Swanjacks debut album, "Spreading the Blues". It was recorded at Blue Wave Studio’s in Vancouver and engineered by Shawn Cole. The recording was released in December of 2007 and secured the band a performance at the Calgary International Blues Festival in Aug 2008 playing on the same line up as The Fabulous thunderbirds, Canned Heat, Clifton Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Preceeding the Blues Festival that week, Ian accepted an invitation to play a show with Johny Lang at the Jack singer Concert Hall in Calgary. Later that same year, Ian joined English R&B soul artist, James Hunter, for two exciting performances in Edmonton and Calgary.
When asked about the inspiration behind the new material, Stewart says, “real life experiences help fuel these songs. To me that is what the blues is all about, expressing and releasing feelings in my songs. Whether it be through my voice or my guitar. Musically, it ain’t complicated – just real." Stewart may exhibit a modest and straightforward style when asked about his musical inspiration and ability, but others see him as something great. Music writer and historian Dr. James W. Martens explains that “there is nothing truly more tedious than a clinical sounding Blues guitarist……Ian plays with a passion, grace and skill that I cannot get enough of. I look forward to seeing him live with the same anticipation that a teenage boy has for going on a date that he knows will be sure thing.”
While not on stage, Stewart spends his time teaching a large contingent of students. Former students concur that Ian goes the extra mile for his students. “First off,” they say, “ Ian’s influence doesn’t even cover it! Inspiration is more like the word. Someone who is able to be like your brother and your teacher is the biggest motivation a musician could have. The difference is experience and passion – seeing a man with that much soul and baring it out on stage for everyone to see.”
Student and local musician Joe Miller relates that “even when the lessons are done you don't stop learning from the man, and he's not reluctant to keep teaching,” If you ask Ian about his influence on people, he’ll modestly reply, “.I don’t know about an impact on people, I just love to give what knowledge I have to others so they can take the ball and run with it in whatever direction they want to go. It is a great feeling to share laughs and see former young students mature into players performing all around the city and province. With musical experience the world over and dues paId by playing the blues, a town like Red Deer is lucky to have a performer like Ian Stewart call it home. Players like Stewart are one in a million – separated from the masses by the mystic connection they have with their music and their uncanny ability to share that connection with a grateful audience. So of course you could ask somebody that knows Ian for a story about him, and maybe you’ll hear about a great musician, an able teacher, or a kind friend. Perhaps, however, it might be better to go and see him play for yourself, and then have your own story to tell.
As of June 2010, Ian moved south of the Canadian border to Motown and has settled in Michigan, USA where he is currently reforming the band with new players out of the Motor City and surrounding area's. He continues to write new material and enjoys playing solo acoustic shows throughout Michigan.