Alive and Well and Living in Worcester County
December 2005 - More so than other popular music forms, The Blues has the ability to send audiences into a magical journey through time, place, and emotion. Its fans are loyal, passionate, and true believers in preserving and paying tribute to the soul of their music. If a young guitarist or singer can prove an appreciation of the history that dates back to the post-Civil War North Mississippi Delta Region, that went through periods of reinvention and transformation in Chicago and Kansas City, and was updated in the time of Swinging London, they're only half the way there. They've also got to find a way to sound new and fresh in giving their audience a feeling they're sharing in something pure and unique while still experiencing a little bit of the old masters. It's not enough to have studied Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, and B.B. King, you've got to have channeled and seanced with their souls. Any musician tackling The Blues has to give up a little bit of his or her soul to it, leave a little bit of blood, sweat and tears and the portal to the genre’s vaunted past. Lucky for us, Central MA is rich with performers and venues devoted to keeping The Blues alive...now and forever.
It wasn't too long after Vincent's opened in 1997 that word began to spread about this great young blues band that was ripping it up every Thursday night at the Suffolk Street room. Night Train's currently guided by Jeff Berg, who's moved over to play guitar in a seat initially held by Troy Gonyea (who went onto play with the Fabulous Thunderbirds and currently rocks hard alongside Berg in The Howl) and drummer Tim Brown. They're joined by a revolving lineup of many of the region's top musicians, including bassist Brad Hallen (when he's not on the road with Roomful of Blues). Night Train's lineup sometimes features Jason James, who, though best known around town as a rockabilly king, counts as his most fanatical fans the ones who've seen him playing the blues. Whether you like 'em Delta, Texas, or Chicago style, James never fails to leave people talking when he makes an appearance at Vincent's, backing up Lisa Marie, or taking part in a blues jam.
Working under the moniker "Have Blues Will Travel," Jon Short's been working hard to make a name for himself over the past couple years, playing as far south as Mississippi and even releasing a CD. When he's not on the road, he can usually be found at Vincent's on Sunday night from 5 to 8 p.m., playing swampy twang and southern vocal styles reminiscent of those heard on recordings from the 20s and 30s.
If you want to set the stage for a seductive first date, Union Blues, located on the second floor of Union Station, is the place for you. The trains pulling into and out of the station are the perfect backdrop for the sultry sounds offered up by the bands. Just like any club tagged with a blues label, you'll get a mix of jazz and R & B (only natural, since the two are cousins), sometimes on the same evening. This month's big shows include the sensational Bellevue Cadillac on December 9, Prima Vera! on December 15, and the Chicken Slacks on December 17. Local favorites Shakey Steve & the Bluecats rip it up on December 2 and The Red Riders take the stage on December 23. And true fans take note, owner Lee Beaudoin promises a New Year's Eve package to remember.
Some of the best blues players in MetroWest come with a side of barbecue wings and sweet potato cajun fries at the Chicken Bone Saloon, 358 Waverly Street (Route 135), Framingham. They present the blues from Wednesday to Saturday evenings ~ and their famous open blues jam takes place Sundays from 7 to 11 p.m. The Paramounts, Beale Street, Chris Fitch Band, and Lisa Marie & All Shook perform there regularly and the resident cook even has his own song - "Hey Jay!" - compliments of Erica Rodney of Fatwall Jack. Check out the club's schedule at www.thechickenbone.com.
Some of the Gilrein's regulars - both fans and musicians - have settled into spending late Sunday afternoons at Frank's on Route 9 in East Brookfield. Guitarists Jim Perry and Dan Hunt alternate as the anchor for a gathering that starts with the blues then musically heads out in a variety of directions. If you want strictly blues jams, SPQR an italian caffe at 82 Winter Street in Worcester’s Canal District recently began a Wednesday night blues jam and Mill Street Blues in the ADC Performance Center in Southbridge continues hosts a blues jam every Thursday night.
Whatever area blues club you frequent, there's a pretty good chance you'll come across Lisa Marie, who's been tirelessly working the blues circuit for the past three years with her band All Shook Up, a revolving lineup composed of New England's best musicians. She books the gigs, then finds out who's available. Thus, no Lisa Marie performance is ever the same. The only thing you can count on is dancing till the bartender throws the lights on. LM also performs, though less frequently, with her second band The Ripchords, and you can also catch her providing vocals ~ killer vocals ~ for local R & B legends Wilbur & the Dukes.
Keep your eye out for a series of local appearances after the Lydia Warren Band releases their new live CD at the end of this month. The 21-year old guitarist from Ashland already has three releases under her belt, was featured on NBC's Today Show, toured internationally, and snagged a Boston Music Awards nomination. Her 2005 release "Through With Love" earned her national airplay and her future is one ride local fans will enjoy for years to come.
If you prefer to enjoy your blues at home, tune in every Monday night between 7 and 11 when Norm Rosen hosts "Blue Monday" on WICN (90.5 FM). While the majority of his show covers blues from the 1940s through 1960s, he also features an hour of new and contemporary blues recordings at 8 p.m. It’s interesting to note that during the station's recent fundraiser, many of those who pledged support to the program were women. "The blues audience is an overtly fanatical audience," Rosen says. "They're very loyal and they don't deviate a bit." While the majority tend to be older, there's a surprising number of young music fans who dig the blues as well, like the 19 year old who regularly calls Rosen from his shift at a suburban Honey Farms to request Albert King.
WCUW (91.3 FM) kicks off the weekend with "Friday Night Blues" from 5 to 8 p.m. while "Thing Called The Blues,” airs Saturdays from 6 to 9 p.m. For many years, it was a Worcester tradition to listen to WCUW's blues programming while prepping for a night out at Gilrein's, 802 Main Street in Worcester. The legendary blues room, which has been closed for almost four years, was recently purchased by Mohan Prashad and ~ if all goes as planned ~ it'll once again become “Home of the Blues,” the destination for blues fans from far and wide.
There is something indescribably moving about The Blues. It’s tough and it’s tender, it’s velvet and it’s steel, it’s attitude and it’s honesty, and it speaks to people of all ages, all backgrounds, all experiences ~ and maybe that’s why it has such a die-hard following. You can’t just like The Blues, you have to love The Blues. You can’t just listen, you have to feel. So whether you’re a lifelong fan or you’re just starting to hear it call your name, there’s a local club, performer, or band that will make sure that when you want The Blues, you don’t have to go far.