Well, I wasn't intending this review to be another blues club obituary (See the one I painfully wrote about the Blue Moon in Kasota a year ago at: www.mnblues.com/bluemoonclosing.html. Notably, the Blue Moon is about to reopen under new ownership.), but it does appear that the venerable Blues Saloon is on the ropes.
Being aware of (and occasionally having witnessed) the gradual decline of the Blues Saloon the last few years, it was with a somewhat ominous feeling that I attended the Saturday installment of the Blues Saloon's Fourteenth Anniversary party (for some reason overlooking the seven previous years the place was a blues saloon known as Wilebski's). The venue had been closed (or at least had not presented entertainment other than perhaps an occasional blues jam) for several weeks previously. It had been publicized that the current owners want "out" and were trying to sell the place (not because they were making a bundle at it, I surmised). The frequency as well as quality of national blues acts appearing there had been steadily declining. The always-modest furnishings were becoming overly worn. It even seemed like the place was becoming more and more cluttered and dingy each time I visited (which I confess hadn't been all that frequently). Plenty of telltale signs. I feared that this visit might wind up being my last.
Nonetheless--or maybe even because of the tenuous situation--I expected a large crowd. At past anniversary parties there had sometimes been long lines of people waiting to get in and turn-away crowds. Plus, it was advertised that there was music and a pig roast starting early Saturday afternoon. Thus, I decided to get there a good deal before the 8:30 P.M. advertised start of James Harman's show. I arrived a little after 7:00 to find only a handful of people hanging around and the pig's bare carcass spread across a few tables. I recognized a couple musicians, but it was apparent they were not intending to play anymore. I left, thinking that if I got back by 9:00 James might actually be taking the stage--reasonable given the projected 8:30 starting time.
I returned a little before 9:00, surprised to see a (still) sparse crowd. One larger group seemed to be friends and/or relatives of the owner. Only a couple of other familiar faces. At one point in time in the past, I think I recognized most people that frequented the Blues Saloon. The guy that seems to have no function other than to announce the band and endanger other dancers with his erratic, floor--consuming, others--be--damned aberration of a dance style (I say this good--naturedly!!), has almost always been there when I have showed up. A table of what appeared to be teenage friends of the owner arrived and gradually became more and more obnoxious as they imbibed. I had too much time to dwell on this. I noticed the blues musicians' portraits that had been hanging across from the bar had been replaced with some excellent ones by Tom Asp--and shortly thereafter noticed Tom himself on the scene. For some reason, a streamer of Minnesota Vikings pennants had been strung throughout the main room. How fitting for a blues club, given the Vikings faltering (start?) this year, I thought.
Finally, a little after 10:00 the band took the stage. The place was still only about half full (or half empty would perhaps be more fitting nomenclature for a blues newsletter). James soon took the stage himself. James is the consummate professional and always puts on a great show. His recordings mirror his live performances. What you hear on his records is what you hear at his live gigs--that particular smooth Los Angeles area sort of part jump, sort of part swing harmonica driven sound James has pioneered (along with people like George Smith, William Clarke, Rod Piazza, Harmonica Fats, etc.). A niche all its own, in my opinion.
Unlike many artist, James does not do a "greatest hits" live show. He is constantly working in new material. I've even heard him tell a crown his then current band didn't know the tunes from an album just a couple years old, as they had moved beyond that. Thus while I did recognize a few cuts from James' current Cannonball release "Taking Chances," I confess I did not recognize most of the excellent songs that were played (I gave up taking notes as to song titles early on--I go to these things to have fun--and in any event can barely read the few notes I did scribble).
James usually does relatively long sets--leaving the stage from time to time to change shirts--I think he must change half a dozen times each evening. This band included four other musicians in addition to James (who plays harmonica and does most lead vocals): Mark Stevens on piano; Al West on drums; and Troy Gonyea and Nathan James on guitar (one of these guys--can't remember which--sometimes plays bass, but other times plays a second guitar resulting in a little "softer" overall sound for the band).
A bit before 11:30 the band took a break. James travels with more merchandise than anyone I've seen. He opened a boutique at the side of the stage. After the customers thinned out, I said hello and talked with him a bit. He spoke about Rivera records. James (and William Clarke, among others) recorded on that label several years ago. James said (Bob?) Rivera--the label's namesake--is something of an audiophile blues fan who made excellent records--but lacked the interest to really distribute them well. Some of that stuff is starting to see distribution (it is from this material the "Extra Napkins" material on Cannonball is culled--Volume Two is due out soon). I asked James about his tours and was told he's on the road at least 250 days a year--mostly away from the west coast. Maybe that explains the frequent changes of band personnel.
After this, I sat around until about 12:15. When it was apparent the second set would be going VERY late, I decided to take my old bones home. The crowd had already thinned out (having peaked to about a two-thirds level sometime during the evening). I presume that there was a second set and that it too was excellent. Only a few select people know for sure. I have seen a post stating Harman did not get fully paid for this appearance (just a rumor, perhaps), but that would just add to the bittersweet aura of the anniversary.
Reportedly, the last weekend show at the Blues Saloon was Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans on October 15 & 16. The Saloon will continue to have the Womens' Blues Jam on the first Saturday of the month. If the attendance figures for the Monday Blues Jam are sufficient, that may continue also.
I think that the Blues Saloon could ultimately (and ironically) be a victim of the current popularity of blues. When there are up to twenty clubs--including suburban sports bars and steak houses--presenting blues entertainment each weekend and at least a couple "national" acts in town every weekend, blues fans don't have to show up at an out-of-the-way place in a less-than-fashionable neighborhood. When the Blues Saloon was the premier blues club in the Twin Cities--often the only club with "national" blues act--people endured.
I "discovered" the place when it was Wilebski's, not too long after it had opened. I went to the "Turkey Blues Festival" on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving in 1978. Can't remember who played that night, but I do remember turkey pizza was served. This was when it was a "Polish polka hall & pizza joint" turned blues club. The Polish flags were still hanging next to the stage. No air conditioning and spotty heating. Run by the often garishly-dressed Ted Wilebski. Run on a shoestring most of the time. Towards the end of the "Wilebski era" tax problems sometimes would result in the bar's license being abruptly suspended. You'd show up at the place for a show, only to find a note on the door directing you to another location that had a liquor license (usually a fraternal organization)--and the show would go on!! Sort of a guerrilla blues club! During this time--save the perpetual small blues enclave on the West Bank--this bar was the only club in the Twin Cities presenting blues on a regular basis. The best acts of that era appeared there.
It has had a good run as the "Blues Saloon." It was remodeled to a large degree. Inventory improved. It became a regular stop -- usually THE Twin Cities stop -- for national blues acts. A change of the long term management several years ago saw some change of booking practice. Less emphasis on blues. But the place was still largely a blues club. What changed? I've ventured my opinion. Who really knows.
I'll not write an epitaph at this time. I will reflect upon what a monumental impact the Blues Saloon/Wilebski's has had upon the Twin Cities blues scene. Perhaps deserving of enshrinement ala the Chess recording studio.....
[Editors Note: The Friday night James Harman show at the Blues Saloon was almost a sellout, with standing room only, and saw Harman delivering one of his best live performances. The banner outside the club mis-read: James Harmond—just another example of the little things that have led to the club’s demise. As of this printing there is no more live blues at the Blues Saloon except for the All Woman’s blues jam the first weekend of each month and the Monday night blues jam hosted by Moses Oakland. The Blues Saloon is for sale so the future of this blues institution is up in the air. You can still show your support by attending the Monday night blues jams.]
This review is copyright © 1999 by Mark Halverson, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.