Enter the realm of Poppa Dawg and you find more than just one of the Okanagan’s best blues men.
Honest and outspoken about a life in music, Poppa Dawg — Rick Halisheff — has a long and colourful history in music, carving out a niche for himself playing the blues. From his childhood years discovering a special relationship to music, to today, as a blues musician you can find ripping up stages across the Okanagan on virtually every night of the week, Halisheff is the definition of a working musician.
Now he finds himself at a new chapter in life, tapping into personal issues and writing music more than ever, but also needing to change his lifestyle, in order to continue. “I’m 50-years-old and I found a new lease on life,” says Halisheff from his Lake Country home. “I’m stupid grateful for what I do. But it’s evolving. I had to make drastic changes. I quit smoking over a year ago. I have to lose weight to get back into fighting shape and be able to continue a career.”
Halisheff’s career seems fine, working regular gigs week nights plus weekends is enough to make it a career. But lifestyle affects everyone and a blues-man maybe more than most.
And Halisheff has put in his time. At 50, he’s been in a wide range of bands, played in front of Robert Plant, chewed up and spit out classic rock tunes before finding his true calling in the blues. “Rick is pure blues,” says Ryan Donn, who booked Poppa Dawg as a key act for his inaugural Winter Blues Fest, Jan. 28 at Creekside Theatre. “He pours himself into every note, strum or solo.”
It wasn’t always Poppa Dawg and the blues, but it was clear to Halisheff from an early age that he felt a connection to music. “My grandmother played double-keyed organs and you could put your fingers where the numbers were,” he recalls of childhood. “I would play a note, and another note. It made sense to me playing the notes together.”
When he thumbed through his parents’ record collection he found the likes of Elvis, Kenyan-born singer-songwriter George Whitaker, jazz pianist Thelonius Monk.
“Music has always been there for me,” he said. “My mom and step-dad had a weird record collection. Elvis was a huge influence on me when I was younger. They had stuff in their record collection that I would listen to. This jazz piano stuff that I didn’t understand but I sure dug it.”
By the time high school rolled around, Halisheff had arrived in the Okanagan and was playing the trumpet in jazz band. He was into the Powder Blues Band and its horn section. Then he found a guitar mag and decided to learn the guitar. Soon he was into Iron Maiden and the Scorpions, leading to early bands like Tower Bridge — an ’80s band that had a video on Much Music. Another venture — the Psychedelics — featured painted wigs and more costume changes than a Cher concert.
“One time we came out in a gig dressed as hippies and Robert Plant was there,” he recalls of playing in front of the Led Zepellin legend. “I’ll never forget that as long as I live because we launched into the worst version of Rock ‘N Roll ever. It was terrible.”
But once Halisheff found the blues, terrible was no longer in the equation. He spent years working the bar scene covering classic rock.
But a blues night at Kelowna’s Packinghouse lit a fire. He dedicated himself to the blues and formed a band called Dog Skin Suit.
He became Poppa Dawg. “All those years later, all these influences finally came forward and it was like ‘yeahhhhh’ I found where I belong,” he says.
A life in music comes with some warts. He had some dark times, times that he is not keen to revisit. But it was music that brought him back to where he felt right with himself.
“Music saved me. I was heading down an ugly path. I had to make some decisions,” he says noting the effect playing can have on you.
“It’s pure joy. There is no way you can mimic that feeling to be on stage and people are digging it and you look at your bandmates and think you can rule the world. It’s like you’re driving a powerful car and everything is working perfectly. It’s cathartic. When I step back from the mic and scream, I really mean it.”
Today you can find Poppa Dawg playing around the Okanagan most nights of the week.