Blues Jam Sojourn
Prakash Spex journeyed across the Eastern Seaboard, from Austin to Montreal and back again. He shares his story with us both to amuse and inform.
It had been over 100 degrees for more than 2 months already in Austin, I like it warm but not that warm and not in the city…Time for a vacation, get out of town and do what? The idea was quickly realized that I could drive north, find blues jams along the way, looking for greener pastures, see something new and play more music.
Having done a similar “tattoo guest spot tour“ in my trusty Dodge minivan years before that had me explore the coast from Texas and Florida, all the way up the east coast to Virginia, I knew it could be done.
Not the most comfortable way to go about it, but manageable and certainly the most affordable way. With certain adjustments and improvements on the car and its interior, having learned from the past at least in this regard, I took off with the first jam to be scheduled in Little Rock AR at the White Water Tavern.
Focused on live music for decades, it is easy to see once you muster up the courage to go inside, considering the location and the looks on the outside. Live music almost every night, old posters of gigs long gone, memorabilia, crooked wooden floors included, it just asked for the blues. As so often the case, the dingier the place looks, the better the music, musicians and of course the cheaper the drinks.
Timing is everything as I am often being reminded of, the jams often happen to be on Sun, Mon, Tues, rarely Wed and almost never Thurs, never mind the weekend.
So, from Little Rock, with some time in yet another State Park to regroup, shower and research where to go next, Nashville TN was the destination. Memphis was being kept for the grand finale on the way back was my reasoning. I had sat in with Vince Johnson at the Blues Hall Juke Joint on Beale Street 4-5 years prior. He graciously gave me 3 tunes while he took a break, being a harp player himself, it seemed even more generous of him to give me the time o’day.
I also wanted to go further North fast to get some cooler temperatures.
It became clear very quickly that it wasn’t as easy to find these jams as I hoped, still sitting at my desk and computer at home, but this is what it is now. Between the times without service on my phone, there was a constant search for destinations and blues jams. Plenty of “open mics” which is singer songwriter territory and usually painful to listen to, only karaoke is more painful..
Nashville then it is, Bourbon Street Bar seemed promising, never mind the name, but a day too late…
It was Carol Ann’s on Murfreesboro Pike, and across the street the supposedly “famous” Drake Motel, where the “Stars” stay. At least that’s what the photographs in the lobby suggested, never mind the missing autographs to give them any authenticity, but apparently an often-used location for movie shoots.
Carol Ann’s has been around for close to 20 years, soul food kitchen, assigned tables and seats, and the most well-dressed people I had seen in any of the bars I played in before and since, without being snooty.
Here people made an effort, because they don’t go out all the time and they are definitely not getting sloshed;
they are here for the food, the music and to see some old friends again, and I mean old. At 57 I might have been the youngest person there, the friendly waitress excluded.
Numerous patrons had been walked in by sometimes more than one helpful friend or relative, all the while smiling and nodding to people all around out of sheer happiness to be still alive and the expectation of a beautiful evening with great music, food and a mixed drink, maybe two.
By now I should know what to play when the guitarist shouts “C-minor” and I will work on it, I promise, but not that night. Trying not to look like a total idiot, I moved as far stage right against the wall as I could, more to not have to look at anybody looking at me. Squeamishly doing a bit of German foot dancing, I was finally absolved of my ignorance as a musician when the next song was in a familiar key so I would at least have a chance to redeem myself. It went over good, puuuuuh…
After the politically correct 3 tunes I took my leave, to get another beer, Coors light…why not?
Another gig under the belt without serious faux pas other than the first tune, I received encouraging nods once or twice and after some more beers went on home to the place where the Stars stay.
Good night, Drake Hotel, thank you Carol Ann’s.
I always liked the name Knoxville Tennessee; it just rolls of the tongue with the promise of pizzazz.
It evaded me, when I arrived at Open Chord in Knoxville the next day and I realized it was a music shop. Usually frequented by good or better musicians, there is no beer, the vibe generally doesn’t get off the ground. Maybe good to find out how strong your chops are, hence more sobering than a lot of fun, but not in this case…Adjacent to the shop is a perfectly outfitted stage with are, hence and a full bar….it’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna be alright.
Blues jams are in fact a lot like coming to a new school or kindergarten, you meet your future class-mates and the more you do it the more you find the same characters present.
The bully, usually the bar owner or the guy running the jam, the clown or friendly guy, the guy that doesn’t get out much and is happy to just talk to someone other than his wife or dog, the aloof guy that is actually really good, the over confident asshole and the guy that plays the same instrument as you and is wondering if you are better than him, or maybe that’s just me wondering.
It serves you well to be diplomatic to make nice and have people to play with. My cousin once told me the story when he went to a new school and was advised to knock out the first guy that tries to give him ANY grief.
It worked for him, instead I took note and acted accordingly by either smiling, responding or ignoring somebody altogether. The Jam went over pretty good, some nice tunes, even though the ‘Facilitator” let’s call him, squeezed himself in endlessly, while telling people on stage what to do during the song. I hear he is a guitar teacher as well….
My van parked outside in the parking lot, I was safe and sound for the night.
Fast forward to Pennsylvania 2 days later. Meeting up with an old friend after not seeing each other for more than 5 years is worth a long drive. Since he had some time off of work, we could hang out drink beer and reminisce about the last years.
Not expecting much of the area of Doylestown PA it soon turned out that there were indeed two jams coming up, the first at a restaurant called Villa Capris and the second one in the adjacent town of Hatboro PA at a bar called Crooked Eye Brewery.
Considering that I had done jams in every imaginable place from farmers markets, coffee shops to Mexican restaurants in the past I wasn’t too excited about Villa Capris, it sounded and looked more like a restaurant, but it turned out to be a very old, small location in a once probably private house and the bar area had a tiny stage, that was split by an open door that was leading to a second story patio.
As the members of the Little Red Rooster Band started piling in, I became more convinced that this was maybe a good choice.
The biggest challenge I found doing all the jams was to get your microphone set up. Loads of musicians don’t realize that as a harp player it is never advisable to play through one of the vocal mics already set up. As a blues harp player you don’t play like Bob Dylan or Neil Young with a harmonica holder. When you cup a vocal mic, they will be too loud and are then prone to feedback. The chosen harp bullet mics have a lower and slightly distorted sound, that were put on record by the likes of Little Walter and Snooky Pryor, Chicago harmonica sound at its best and what the ears are accustomed to hear. These were the cheap microphones of the day back then, readily available and often endured at fairground rides to workplace intercom speakers. Trying to make it as easy as possible to” jump up” there and play ,I resorted to playing through a DI pedal, to plug right into the PA. Made by Lone Wolf in Louisiana, called the Boogieman, especially for harmonica players, it enables you to create your own sound with a range of adjustments from distortion to delay. By far the easiest and fastest way to plug in and not annoy whoever deals with the PA, it still takes a moment that a lot of present musicians can’t be bothered with. Hence, I tend to show up early and get the set up out of the way.
That poses another danger…
Whoever shows up to set up the PA is not always willing or interested to hear your preferences on what you want to play through, they got stuck with, or volunteered to set up the PA, wanna get it out of the way so they can cuddle and coo their instrument for the gig ahead.
“Whaddya play? Yeah, we’ll get you up later…” which translates to: You’re one of those annoying harmonica players that is too loud through MY mic and doesn’t know how to play a real instrument like me, piss off.
Now the choice is yours, knock him out like my cousin did in his new school…probably not a good idea if you want to play here, be persistent in your presentation, which could lead to more piss off attitude, or chalk it up and look forward to a moment of desperate panic when it’s your turn to play and you have to set it up yourself while handing your XLR cable to the guy next to the PA with a begging expression on your face to get you plugged in and sound checked.
Neither one of these options present themselves as desirable and can cause shitty sounds and sweaty palms. Fame and fortune at the blues jam, if I only would have practiced my guitar; I too could be taken more seriously. Too late…
The house band usually plays a whole set, they are the only ones getting paid for their effort, which gives you more time to fret about how you are gonna make this as smooth as possible, fun times.
Little Red Rooster Band also had a harp player who brought his own amp, so the decision was made to play through that instead of setting up my own sound. When in Rome and such.
Another challenge was my name: PRAKASH, pronounced: pruhkaash, seems fairly straight forward when you see it spelled out, but it proved to be a never-ending source of confusion and tongue twisting efforts, even after numerous repetitions. Down the road at other jams, I just said: “Call me Pete !” Your name really doesn’t matter when you show up once at a jam, never to be seen again, or does it?
Great tunes from the band, nice people and again encouraging nodding and a fist bump or two on my back to the bar for another beer. My buddy recording the tunes on his phone was a nice byproduct which proved to be useless, because I wasn’t loud nounhood if I only could have set up my pedal.
The next day we’re off to Hatboro PA, really just the next town over. In this region of Pennsylvania, it’s one town bleeding into the next, sometimes separated by a corn field or two, if you don’t pay attention you might end up in New Jersey before you know it.
At the Crooked Eye Brewery on arrival it was clear that these people were serious about the music. Full on Stage with lights and solid PA, as a German native, beer drinking is part of your DNA and the brewery selection was speckled with IPA and hops heavy brews that I never enjoyed, but the choices were plentiful. No attitude here, even when the 6'4" already socially lubricated lighthouse of a guy shows up, to declare to me that he was a harmonica player as well. Well harp players gotta stick together, we are the red headed stepchildren of music.
Quick exchange about different harps and miscall the while I am confused about his harp case that consists more of cardboard and duct tape rather than anything that keeps his instruments from falling through the cracks. He is the local talisman of the place, everyone knows his name and smiling at his arrival. He gets first spot in the jam and does a mix of stand up and playing his harp, while spilling his balls all over the stage when he pulls down his pants a little and ping pong balls pour out of his shorts. Gotta love the east coast people!
Being a baby of the sixties and an avid connoisseur of the music that I might have heard in my mother’s womb while she was attending some hip party in Germany, the next destination was self-explanatory: WOODSTOCK NY.
Not a blues destination per se, but nevertheless a definite music destination. I was advised to bring an umbrella by numerous FB friends, never having owned an umbrella or ever planning on owning one, I considered this to be the same joke as the repeated comments about not to take the brown acid…still haven’t looked into what that was all about.
At the entrance to this by now historic town was a pristine golf course, which was to set the tone for the rest of the town. Having arrived 50 years after the fact I was somewhat prepared for what I was about to see. Really just a very nice and clean and friendly looking place with one major intersection, bedazzled with little shops of crystals, incense and day glow tie dye outfits, plus the nowadays obligatory yoga studios and coffee shops. Certainly nothing left of the naked mud caked hippies and their tree hugging friends, but then again, the actual location of the famous festival is not in town
A quick inquiry at the local music shop, confirmed: No blues jams, but one open mic (God help us) and the best location for anything like that, THE STATION.
Once an actual train station, it is nowadays transformed into an indoor/outdoor bar that has live music almost every day. For this evening entertainment pleasures: Crow Bones, maybe I get to sit in with those cats, maybe..
Most of the time I was reluctant to just walk up to bands at their gig and asked to sit in.
These guys don’t know me, they have a show more or less figured out and I usually get eyed as the typical harmonica player that is here to fuck up your set,
because I am a drunken fool that wants to be on stage for a little while and doesn’t know what he is doing.
Can’t blame them, I’ve seen it way too many times myself. So, I don’t.
This time is different though, cause I wanna be able to say I played in Woodstock, yes, not quite what it sounds like, but I am doing it, laugh all you want.
But Mr. Crow is open to the idea, friendly and almost more tattooed than me. The gig goes on, he remembers me after he plays Smoke Stack Lightning by good old Chester Burnet, aka Howling Wolf. That would have been nice to play but so it goes. I don’t recall what I eventually got to play, but let me just say: I played in Woodstock! (August 2022…I should have brought an umbrella after all!)
I am touring the north easter parts of the US so to speak, never mind that I am playing jams for my obligatory three songs and not making a dime. One of the first searches for gigs and jams brings me to different “blues societies” or “blues associations” of State XYZ mostly on Facebook. Eight out of ten times I often received no response at all. After having had a couple beers too many one night, “on the lonely, cold and scary road “, I felt inclined to eventually respond to my very own polite inquiry to one “State Blues Associations XYZ” and said: ”You were of no help whatsoever”.
Wouldn’t you know it, now I received a response:” There is no reason to be rude”.
Not sure about this, but when you call yourself the Blues Association of STATE XYZ I would assume that you maybe wanna be a bit more helpful to throw a fellow blues musician a little rope, but maybe not. As so often, do your own research, look for venues online, talk to other musicians, if all fails, go to a music store and see what they know.
After a menacing border crossing into Canada, to spend some time on the other side of the northern border, my phone wasn’t working in that part of the world and after finally having found probably the last map of Quebec in that entire state at Gas station #4, I remembered why we love GPS and google maps when they work.
After another failed attempt on day 3 to navigate with a map only to a promising Canadian State Park, there was the sign: Maine 5 miles to the right. Some decisions make themselves…
Back in the USSR, phone working and newly motivated to give it my all once again I headed towards Portland ME. After having spent this much time in my trusty van, the distances were of not much importance anymore. Driving was like breathing now and the bigger, more important questions were now what to eat and where to spend the night with maybe a shower, ooh yeah, a shower sounds nice.
Since I didn’t find anything in Portland proper, I did a detour and had a nice jam at the Tailgate Bar and Grill in Gray right outside Portland and was rewarded with an excellent jam outside. Later that day I am going down to the south end of Portland to catch the jam at Old Orchard Beach at the Scottish Pub and turns out it is more of an open jam, rather than blues.
Oh well, what can you do. I do get to park behind the building though and spent the night in a quiet and secure parking lot for free, since parking in this old beach town is sinfully expensive. I get to hang out at the beach till the evening and check out the crowded Pier with everything from a Caricature artist to fancy colored long drinks that look like a severe headache through a straw.
By the time the jam concludes I got a couple of tunes in, but by the time Hendrix is being played I excuse myself, even though Hendrix is nothing but blues, as I am being informed.
Funny, I never remembered Jimmy having a harp player in his band, but what do I know? Still hadn’t had a shower in 3 days, but the ocean and sweet water shower on the beach made up for it. I might just put on some clean clothes, patiently waiting in my suitcase from the last laundromat visit. Where was that? Don’t recall, the locations, distances and days of the week all blend together by now, life on the road….
By the time I have the next jam lined up I find myself in Bridgeport Connecticut. It is the Park City Music Hall and a hall it is indeed.
Great stage, a sound guy that actually hooks my stuff up before anything is happening, a little low on the audience numbers by the time it’s going, but great tunes and lovely peeps all around. It is a great reminder that you play music first of all because you love doing it, an audience is nice, especially if you can communicate with them, but almost secondary.
Again, I have the luxury to park behind the building in a quiet parking lot walking distance to the bar and toilet. The way to bed is short if I don’t stumble on the way home.
Being into this tour now for more than a month, it occurred to me that most of the good jams were in fact off the beaten path, while cities and towns with a reputation for the blues sometimes can be quite disappointing.
Did I mention that recreational pot is legal in most of the north eastern states? So, “Everybody Must Get Stoned” as Bobby Dylan once proclaimed. I almost forgot that I bought a pre rolled joint in Maine that I smoked on for about a week, highly potent for lightweight like me and all of that for 11$.
It made for an exquisite harbor sunset cruise that evening after 2 puffs.
Lesson number 4329: Put everything in the same place once you are in the van, nooks and crannies have a way of swallowing anything from car keys to phones, lighters and cigarettes, hastily written notes of future destinations and of course your credit card. By now I scold myself repeatedly for putting things quickly down inside the Van and a moment later frantically looking for what I just had in my hands 10 seconds ago. Already I had to resort to my hide key once, instead of stricken by panic, to pull and shake everything out to find my car keys. Where were they? Right where I put them down…A place for everything and everything in its place…. Pay attention, Geeeez.
I decide to get on a ferry to Long Island NY the next day, boat rides are great and a ferry even better. With my phone I manage to get a reservation for the ferry, along with one for a State park on the northern beach side. It seems just as tricky to find camping options in some of the State parks in some states, because there are a lot of them that only have day use and the ones with camping options are booked out even or especially at the end of the season. And whoever designed these websites should be locked in a dark cellar for at least a week, water and dry bread, no TV either.
Another fun story came about when I was told by a ranger at the gate of Acadia National Park adjacent to Bar Harbor, that there was no camping in the park and a day pass was 20$, surprised and confused I left for the nearest Walmart 45 minutes away to find a semi relaxing spot to spend the night. Later I find out that there are numerous camping places within the park. The palm size lobster roll for 27$ didn’t make up for it either, and then again who really wants to hang around a thousand or more tourists in town, off I went.
The next place to find a jam was in Bellmore on Long Island, an unassuming town, fairly well taken care of. Laying on the southwestern coast of Long Island, it felt kind of nondescript, but with a pace that immediately spoke to me, compared to most of the rest of Long Island. You get the uppity up towns of all the Hamptons, small centers of town that are feeding of the wealthy houses and their owners, hidden behind walls and hedges. Mostly coffee shops and probably expensive restaurants, real estate offices with the ever-present yoga studios and dentists.
Or busy cities that still have connection to a harbor and boat services for small to huge boats of all purposes.
Looking at the locked door of The Loft atop the Bellmore Playhouse, I was suspicious that this was another lost cause, until I met the guy that ran the jam. Very nice and inviting after I started a conversation while we were waiting for the gatekeeper, it started to become more promising to stay and give it a chance and put another location on my list.
The evening started slow and people were trickling in, 5$ donation for the gods of music or the bartender, I wasn’t sure, the place filled up fast, including a pretty lady that was carrying something that looked like a sax case. Turns out I was wrong. Ever seen a violin at a blues jam? I’ve seen a whole lot of instruments at a blues jams, but I can’t recall ever hearing a violin. This could be great or a miserable disaster, like the days when a band that I played in was joined by the bass player’s girlfriend on silver flute. Skilled as she was, nothing more vibe killing for the blues than a flute, along with the fact that we would be occupying the same musical space, gave me no other option than to leave the band. It prompted the music conservatory educated flute playing bass player girlfriend to annoy me even more by sending me explanatory emails about her musical credibility and the preposterous nerve I had to leave the band, cause I didn’t want to play with her. I was very relieved I didn’t have to play Mustang Sally with a silver flute in it anymore., it was a quick and confident call.
Back to the pretty lady and her violin…for the next 30 minutes I eavesdropped on the wishes, preferences and on demands bordering on the extreme, requests she had pouring out of her, all the while the facilitator of the jam had all the time and patience in the world to listen to her. Maybe he hadn’t had a pretty woman talking to him in a while, but I was impressed with his tolerance and patient ear until I figured out that he didn’t care one bit, because as it turned out at the end of the gig, that yet another great blues jam passed without any need for a violin.
Other characters that appeared during the evening was an almost one-armed harmonica player, that insisted we play a harmonica duet. Missing a hand, he didn’t have the luxury of being able to cup his harmonica for effects, but was so enthusiastic in his approach and his effort to include me, I finally gave in. Almost often annoying to me and probably the audience as well, he would not give up and so there was my first challenge to literally play along. As it turned out his microphone was turned down by the sound guy; being a regular at the jam he apparently never reached a level of appreciation by the regular audience, he was playing his heart out, not knowing that his passionate notes didn’t pour out of the pa. The world can be a cruel place…
After the first tune I immediately vacated the stage to make it clear this was the only harp co-production I would do for the evening, I bit my time and waited patiently for the next chance to play again. Chatting with some of the other players I was assured to get another chance after the Billy Joel and off-key Tracy Chapman covers were finished, there might have been some Deep Purple in there somewhere as well. Thank God for a great bar, cigarette smoking in front of the door and some funny people, the time flew by.
I finally got to play the last set of the evening with 2 great guitar players, bass and drums to remind me why I am putting myself through this ordeal not only in my hometown Austin, but now for more than a month on the open road. It was epic.
One of the Chicago blues landmarks here is of course Buddy Guy’s Legends
A who is who of guitarists haven, it has history, mojo and reputation for one, if not THE place to hear and play the blues. Every Wednesday night the place gets filled with hordes of people wanting to experience a slice of blues history during the weekly blues jam. Players get in free; audience members have to pay 15$ to be able to listen to musicians that dare to step on that stage and do their best 3 songs to garner the attention and approval of potential blues aficionados in the audience
After a first set by Jimmy Burns Band , another living legend himself, the jam takes off, but I fail to be impressed. I am listening to overly eager guitar players, desperately trying to show their skill that really had not much to do with the blues at all. Rarely any classic blues tunes to be heard, it seemed more about how many notes you can cramp into the lead and so it continues until it is my turn.
Slightly anxious about where I am and who I get paired up with, I am just wishing and hoping that I walk away with a big smile on my face after my 3 tunes of “potential fame and fortune”.
As far as I remember there never was a Fleetwood Mac song that featured harmonica, if there was, it certainly wasn’t the one the guitarist whipped out, singing in shorts and sandals…I try to make the best of it and play some pseudo horn rhythm parts to not look completely out of place. I make it through his set with other non-harmonica tunes. Thanx to the compassion from the jam host, I get to stay up for the next group of musicians that hopefully gonna play some fucking blues. No such luck, the drummer is so old that he can’t keep up, never mind holding a rhythm to save his life, we get a different drummer immediately after the first tune. The host is really giving me a chance, cause I still get to stay up and by now it is dawning on me that my facial expressions of displeasure again are getting the better of me and I am doing my best to put a pleasant face on. I am pretty sure I failed in that regard. Now I am faced with a wannabe Lynyrd Skynyrd Duo of two guitarists that also clearly are not here to jam, but are more interested to hastily pull off two more songs to show how great their moms think they are.
Such is the life of a blues jam contestant in the open range, you just never really know. After not having had the chance to really get my jive on, I retreat, I shrug my shoulders to the host and pack up my mic; at least I can tell myself I was up there for two sets, more than anybody else…
The bill arrives at the end of the night and to my astonishing eyes it is 80$, which couldn’t have been for more than 6 beers. I can’t even drink more than 6 beers as I have learned over the last decade. Defeated and tired, I don’t even argue, knowing that at least I saved on a hotel room by having parked in a 24h parking lot for 30$ and my bed is within walking distance.
Buddy Guy’s Legends…not tonight
The next day I spent time at Chicago Art Institute to kill some time and, very impressive collection that definitely was worth the 20$ ticket price. Insanely famous paintings in this huge museum, from Vincent Van Gogh to Edward Hopper, Gaugin to Raphael. World famous artists had at least a couple of their works on the walls. After 3 hours, sore feet and still only having seen a fraction of what is here, I make it back outside. The hunt is on for some lunch that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. I finally come across an Indian restaurant and I decided to expand my Chicken Tikka Masala research in the US and it is a total winner. The nicest waitress with the most beautiful smile and head wiggle, serves me one of the best tikkas I ever had and for the first time in a couple of days I didn’t feel ripped off.
I got some more time to kill till the jam tonight and if there is one place in this country that screams electric blues it is Chess Records here in Chicago.
Over the last eight decades, dozens of blues legends made their way to this Meccah to put the amplified electric blues on the map and records that we still enjoy today. Many a Mississippi delta musician took the track up the river banks with the hopes of making a decent living up here and connecting with other first-class guitarists, harp players, vocalists and bass players. Yes, drummers as well, I just don’t know any.
Chess records, still a functioning recording studio today, of course was one of THE major record labels responsible for permanently scratching the sounds of legends like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Willie Dixon, a young Buddy Guy and dozens of others, into the black vinyl. The cradle of the electrified BLUES as we know it.
I am lucky, a tour starts minutes after my arrival, another 20$ ticket but only 2 other visitors in the tour. Money well spent after a long and detailed tour that made us able to be as close to this historical site as humanly possible. Turns out that Muddy Waters was not painting the ceiling when the Rolling Stones came to visit Chess Records during their first US tour. Apparently, Keith Richards made up that story in his
probably ghostwritten biography, about their first encounter, in the tiny hallway that I was standing in.
Who knows what’s true, but I liked that story nevertheless and it wouldn’t have surprised me.
One surprise was still in the works though, while walking through the exhibit, I saw a bunch of plaster masks of famous musicians and before I knew it, I came across one with the name Thomas Blues.
Not sure how famous he is these days, but when I started out playing harmonica 300 years ago I had spent some time in Santa Fe NM and there was a band playing at the Cowgirl Hall Of Fame called The Rhubarbs, Jim Almond on guitar , Randy Clarke on mandolin and the one and only Thomas Blues on Harmonica. An excellent harmonica player on diatonic and chromatic harps, this man took the time to talk to me about harmonicas, amps and mics and surely was instrumental in my life to pursue playing harp. To see his mask on the wall and remembering our conversations back then surely gave me a little jolt through my spine.
Harlem Avenue Lounge is off the beaten path in Chicago, in Berwyn, a good distance from the center of town, the little dive bar looking place has no intentions of sugar coating anything. Neither the staff or owner are trying to make it anything other than what it anything. Neither honest raggedy place with tons of character and a solid history of live music in the neighborhood.
Supported by people for that same reason, a diverse audience without hipster hats, they come together here to drink and listen to some good tunes. They won’t be disappointed tonight, Miles a fairly quiet kinda guy until he is on stage, plays the first set and unleashes a
sort of psychedelic rendering of some of the classic with a twisting contorting body and vocal presentation.
Rowdy and dirty tunes, just the way I like it. I get a couple of sets and get invited back up for another tune or two. This is what the blues is about and definitely made up for the lack luster of the night before.
Again, the van is parked right outside within stumble distance of the bar, the bed already made in anticipation of the amount of beer being consumed. Next to me is a White Castle fast food joint and a construction site on the other side. No romantic sunset meadow here, or picturesque beach view; It’s the blues. It’s urban.it might be dirty. It also is comfort and hope. Thank you, Miles, for the invite.
After a good night on level ground, I give up on trying to squeeze more out of Chicago, big cities get stressful when you aren’t sure where to go. The internet helps of course, but I am getting weary to research, dig into links and looking at websites that either don’t load, or omit the info I am thirsty to find. Having been almost all over the world in my travels, it becomes clear once again, that the best way to experience ANY place, is with friends or locals that know where to go. Traveling alone with rarely any connections to most of the places I visited, life becomes a constant effort to find and participate in anything good for the soul. It can be easy to fall through the cracks in the urban areas without friends, all the more reason to find places to play and connect with the people around me. Again, I am being reminded that I am only an apartment in Austin away from being homeless, the van offering a sort of space capsule for the time being.
Grateful for the gig the night before I decide to head toward St. Louis and start heading back south, slowly, but persistently.
Martin’s Tunes and Eats in Wood River north of St. Louis, has a jam a couple days away on Sunday.
Just to have a destination elevates my mood, almost secondary becomes the desire to find another great group of musicians. It’s always hit and miss, or hope for the best kinda thing.
Somehow, I feel I am paying a tiny bit of dues to all who came before me playing the blues, taking the smaller county roads, I see many a Robert Johnson cross roads, even so Mississippi is hundreds of miles away. Being obviously more comfortable in my van and not as badly in need to play a gig so I could get a warm meal, never mind a bed and a shower, I count my blessings and appreciate the effort of these early blues musicians coming up the Mississippi river even more. Most of them with just a suitcase and their instrument, taking a bus, hitchhiking or even walking, risky business in those days, no doubt.
Cornfield after cornfield zooms by my window, small towns with grain silos, train tracks and water towers. Small businesses boarded up, who knows since when, standing in line of many Main Street areas, patiently waiting to be appreciated and resurrected again. Probably very affordable to rent or buy, I realize that I need a bit more life around me, I don’t think I have enough spark and energy to keep a light shining in places like this.
The jam goes great, people are nicer again here and more curious what this tattooed German guy living in Texas is doing in their small town. To me there is a direct correlation between the size of a town or city and how friendly people are. Moving from Santa Fe NM to Austin showed me a definite difference of people responding or actually not responding, because most of them are preoccupied with making it all work for themselves. Still, I am positive that human connection is an innate need for a decent life experience.
Entering St. Louis proper the same day, I am struck again with the looming poverty in some areas some of the more affluent neighborhoods. By now I tend to check out the venue beforehand, look for places to spend the night, bathrooms and food options. It all becomes very simple all of a sudden, manageable, and if at least some of these aspects are taken care of, it equals even a bit of comfort.
I go to the Arch of course and sit at the river banks of the Mississippi river, it is still early in the morning and hardly anyone around. I can imagine what these banks looked like back in the day, with less concrete pavement and maybe a riverboat hauling cargo and passengers.
Turns out that the National Blues Museum has its home close by, a perfect opportunity to make the time go by and maybe learn something?
An impressive museum, with fun bits and pieces, it also hosts a blues jam every Sunday, almost a week away, I’ll probably will be somewhere else by then.
Tonight The Blue Strawberry is what’s for dinner.
Actually an open mishit is not really what I want, but better than driving around aimlessly,I resign myself to the potential of listening to a bunch of singer songwriters playing acoustic guitar. I get to play the first set with the jam host, who’s delighted of what I can add to his Stones covers. Not bad at all.
I get called up here and there to play with different people again, some encounters almost painful, some out of tune, some actually fun. It is everything from standup comedy to an opera-esque coming out story by a skilled 60-year-old church choir virtuoso. Well done for sure. Outside the venue tables fill up with people playing guitars and getting stoned. One of the musicians having an uncanny Elvis voice playing and singing song after song on his acoustic, convincing skill and volume, he could cash in easily in Vegas or on a cruise ship.
What struck me the most though was, that most everyone was super stoned and I mean SUPER.
I still remember watching the bartender standing in the middle of the bar, obviously being deep in thought, staring at the spot on the floor in front of him for minutes without moving, while surrounded by people wanting to order another drink. Not sure what made him snap out of it, but he came back to and remembered what I was drinking. It works for some people; I decide not to drink the water…
At the Broadway Oyster Bar ,the venue was looking promising, the list of other musicians and bands equally so, the decision was an easy one to make. One more time the procedure of checking out the fine-looking where to park for the night etc.
After I talked to Pawpaw, the parking lot attendant, I forked over 10$ for a place to park my bed on wheels right next to the Bar, with “permission” to lay down my weary head at the end of the night. I show up early for these gigs these days to introduce myself to the host and tell my story in the hopes to be taken seriously, maybe even get a chance to get my mic set up.
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Now some musicians are very welcoming while others really can’t be bothered, especially when I tell them that I play harmonica.
Here the bass and guitar player are very nice, by the time the vocalist/trumpet player shows up, I receive an icy cold welcome.
Seen it all before and by the time I get called up, he continues by trying to direct me in my playing. Since we are playing basically the same lines, I try to keep it amicably, even though he plays flat.
By the time the guitar player takes over the vocals we have an immediate understanding it’s rolling along great, flat trumpet player finally sits down and leaves me to do my thing. AAAAAAAH…. THX
In a day or two I make it to Memphis, on the way down south I get a message that I might have been exposed to Covid in Chicago. I am feeling sick, but more of a cold, rather than the Covid symptoms.
I stuff myself with cold medicine and vitamin C, but I am not getting better. Not being able to play because of the congestion, I slowly admit to myself that there is no point to hang around Memphis any longer and turn back home towards Austin. At this point it had been almost 2 months,7000 miles, a new set of brakes, a new starter, a more comfortable mattress and who knows how much money in beer and cigarettes.
I didn’t make a dime, all for the blues…