Victoria guitarist, singer and songwriter, Mark ‘West Coast’ Comerford came by his love of music early. He grew up in Victoria in the 60s with older musician brothers and hardly a day went by in which he didn’t hear blues, folk music or rock being played live in the house or on vinyl 45s, 78s and LPs.
He did other things kids do while growing up, he water-skied, played little league baseball, kept homing pigeons and he even broke an arm falling out of a tree. But it was music that took center stage throughout his childhood.
He started on guitar and banjo but guitar was his main instrument. After high-school he and drummer Marcus Hondro joined up with experienced bass player John Fisher. They played blues by Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Paul Butterfield and began writing their own material. Comerford did most of the singing.
Their first gig? At William Head prison where most inmates were more interested in slyly making out with visiting girlfriends than paying attention to the band. No matter, Comerford loved it and was hooked on being a musician.
Over 40 years later and he still is.
At that time he and Hondro took trips to Chicago to soak in the authentic blues scene and meet artists whose music influenced them. A highlight was the night drummer Clifton James, who played with Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor, took the 2 young Canadians on a tour of South Side Chicago bars, including the famous Teresa’s Lounge (since shuttered in 1983) and Buddy Guy’s Checkerboard Lounge.
In the late 70s Comerford moved from Victoria across country to Toronto where he and his drummer hooked up with bassist Mike Bowser, formerly of Downchild Blues Band. They added a harmonica player and as the Blue Devils played T.O. and towns and cities across Ontario. Two years and countless gigs later the duo headed back home to the west coast.
Looking to form a new band, Comerford and Hondro placed an ad in the classifieds of the then-Victoria Colonist and hit the jackpot. Answering was Hank Leonhardt, a singer from Alberta who’d played in Hot Cottage and other bands and who’d just moved to the city. Leonhardt brought Norm Piercy, a veteran Victoria bass player onboard and Piercy brought along saxophone player Brent Hutchinson. Uncle Wiggly’s Hot Shoes Blues Band was born.
Adding saxophonist Dave Rouse, for 5 years they played almost every venue Victoria had to offer, including Harpo’s and The Royal Theatre, where they opened for George Thorogood. They played up and down the island, on the mainland and did some touring of western Canada. Vancouver clubs included The Savoy, The Town Pump and the legendary Commodore Ballroom, where they played twice, once opening for Joe Cocker, once for the great Muddy Waters.
Two albums on RCA Canada, many songs written by Comerford, sold well but, along with his drummer, Comerford wanted to stick with solid blues, the rest had other ideas and the band split. Comerford and Hondro joined with guitarist Ray Luxemburg and bassist Henning Kanstrup to form The Rockin’ Devils.
Among many successes, twice they brought Chicago blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin to the west coast for tours and at Vancouver’s Blue Wave Studios cut an album with the man who’d been Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist for 26 years. Sumlin’s style was a huge influence on Comerford and while in Victoria he was a guest in Comerford’s home and the two spent entire days playing together.
Hondro left The Rockin’ Devils to pursue acting and Comerford found other quality drummers and kept going, playing all over Vancouver Island for years. He was doing most of the singing now and that suited the bluesman fine.
Eventually it was time to take a break from fronting a band. But he didn’t stop playing. He wrote and played vintage style R&B songs for several years with Soul Station, a band fronted by singer Joyce Allensen.
He became part of an Uncle Wiggly’s Hot Shoes Blues Band revival, the band playing prominent blues clubs and music festivals in western Canada. In 2015 they won the right to compete as BC’s entry The International Blues Challenge, which takes place yearly in Memphis. Comerford soaked up the music in the Memphis and Delta area. As a duo, he and Leonhardt returned the next year and the year after.
In 2018, Uncle Wiggly’s Hot Shows Blues Band retired with a bang with a sold-out 40th Anniversary night in Victoria. That night saw Comerford and Hondro perform together again for the first time in many years. Wiggly’s last hoorah was an electrifying set at the Calgary Blues Festival.
Comerford, who now also plays harmonica, is still performing regularly. He plays a variety of blues styles with a host of musicians in different musical settings, solo, duo, with full bands. He continues to learn new songs from his collection of nearly 500 blues albums and remains a prolific blues songwriter in his own right.
Mark Comerford hasn’t slowed down and his love of music, born when a kid in the 60s listening to his big brothers play, is just as strong now as it was then.