Back when hair metal was all the rage, Witchazel drove the highways of Western Canada as one of the hardest working club bands around.
For a half-dozen years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, the quartet pumped out a head-banging mix of originals and covers at venues from Vancouver Island to Ontario, sometimes six nights a week.
Sherman Friesen, a North Delta resident who sang and played guitar in the band (as “Sherman Von Riesen”), remembers the good times before the Grunge explosion got in the way of Witchazel making it out of the nightclub scene and onto a major record label.
Those halcyon days of hard rock are echoed on “The Lost Hazel Tapes,” a new CD of music that features songs recorded by Witchazel at bars in Calgary, Edmonton and Coquitlam back in the day.
With Friesen as frontman, a 2018 version of the band has been formed to play once again, with a pair of concerts planned at Donegal’s Rock & Irish House in Surrey (on Thursday, Aug. 30) and Edmonton.
The gig in Surrey serves as a “Cancer Killer Rock Party” inspired, in part, by former band member Doug Draper’s five-year battle with the disease.
The new CD, which is dedicated to Draper, was assembled from DAT and reel-to-reel recordings discovered in the basement of a house in Edmonton, the city where Friesen grew up and formed Witchazel in 1985.
“We were surprised to find the tapes, but didn’t know if we could extract the information from them,” Friesen said. “There were three or four songs that were unusable, just bad quality, but when we listened to some of the tracks, especially the Coquitlam stuff (from 1989), we were thrilled. It was the stuff we shopped for record companies back in ‘89 and ‘90, and there was some interest. We had a lot of interest from multiple labels at the time.”
The CD was produced with the help of Ray Harvey, the Kick Axe guitar player, who also worked with Witchazel the first go-around.
Harvey, a member of the note-perfect Eagles Eyes tribute band these days, operates a studio in Lake Cowichan now, and Friesen and the others went there multiple times over the last several months to finish the project.
“We call him ‘Razor Ray,’ because when you hear the album, those guitars will slice you right through the forehead,” Friesen said. “All this stuff was recorded 30 years ago and it has that vibe and sound, and we remastered it to bring that back to life. It’s kind of a neat story that way, because some people say they’re going to do that, but never do.”
This year, Friesen worked to assemble a modern edition of Witchazel with bass player David Desjarlais, who played with the original band for a time, and old pals Ian Mulcaster (guitar) and Rick Smook (drums).
At Donegal’s (12054 96th Ave.) on Aug. 30, they’ll rock “Bad is Better” “Cinderalla Girl” and other old favourites — and some newer ones, too — at the $15-a-ticket cancer-fundraiser concert, along with Ghettovators and guest musicians Harvey, Layla Vaugeois and others. The event, presented by Freakrock Entertainment, serves as a local launch for the CD.
More than anything, Witchazel was reformed this year to play Tushfest, an annual concert that features reunited rock bands, at Edmonton’s Century Casino on Sept. 8. The event raises money for a charity program at a cancer institute in the Alberta capital. Last year’s concert raised more than $10,000.
As for Witchazel’s new CD, 50 per cent of profits from sales of the initial 500 limited-edition discs will be donated to help in the fight against cancer.
One song on the CD is “Now Look at This,” originally written in 1991.
“We took it and turned it inside out, and now it sounds like Tom Petty and Brad Paisley having tea over at Kid Rock’s house — or maybe a beer,” Friesen said with a laugh.
Some former members of Witchazel will be in the crowd when the band plays Donegal’s, but not Draper, who lives in Calgary and has promised to attend Tushfest in Edmonton.
“He’s an inspiration for this, and he’s in the midst of his second round of chemo,” Friesen explained. “We’re really hoping he can be on stage and play a song or two with us (in Edmonton), but he’s said he’ll be there in the building. A couple of the other original members, and there were a lot of them over the years, including some who played music on this CD, will be at Donegal’s. It’ll be fun.”