The Blues Saloon
A Club Review

Survivors - The Blues Today, was the title of a documentary filmed at the Blues Saloon in 1984 featuring living blues legends such as John Lee Hooker. Survivors is also another name for this St. Paul blues club with a national reputation for bringing some of the best blues performers to the Twin Cities.

The club started featuring the blues in the early 80's when former owner Ted Wilebski turned his pizza parlor and music club into a blues club. The building itself is a 100 year old Polish meeting hall with a bar located on the lower level and the blues club located upstairs in a moderate sized ballroom. The sound system has been updated in recent years, there is a large stage located in the corner and the audience has unobstructed views of the performers where ever they sit. There is even a small balcony located at the rear...accessed by some very narrow stairs. The seating is Spartan...long bingo hall style tables. The dance floor is ample on the old hardwood floor located right in front of the stage. The decor leaves a lot to be desired...pretty much what you would expect from a blues club...a club that has paid its dues like the many famous blues performers who have graced its stage over the last decade and a half.

The artists who have played here reads like a who's who of modern day blues -- John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Rodgers, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, Herbert Sumlin, Robert Clay, Etta James, Jimmy Dawkins, Albert Collins, Albert King, Willie Dixon, William Clark, James Carr, Johnny Copeland, Earl King, ...and the list just goes on...

When current owner Areanna Coale purchased the club in 1985 she discovered a backlog of unpaid (and undisclosed) debts and a building in need of some major repairs. Coale laughs now when she recalled that "everything needed to be replaced...I used to be fearful in the old days that someone might be electrocuted while performing on the stage." There was one winter the club went without a central heating system...everyone had to wear their winter coats and they passed the bucket for donations for a new heating system.

"This place is really the original, the one and only, blues club in the Twin Cities...I mean nobody lives the blues like the blues saloon, we've done it all," remarked Coale. "We came along and we established in the Twin Cities what rhythm and blues was about and consistently brought in national acts. We just live a life of poverty though. Even when we are busy we still just have bills...rhythm and blues has become so popular and it's being offered in so many clubs now."

The more recent widespread popularity of the blues has spawned other blues clubs and existing bars are booking more blues acts that have had an impact on the Blues Saloon. "Most clubs and bars just have local talent, but still they take a piece of the [blues going] pie and keep dividing it up and when they occasionally bring in a national act it creates more competition for the limited audience that is out there." The competition from the many festivals during the summer has also cut into their audience. "When the Taste of Minnesota brings in a well know national act it's hard to compete with that free performance."

"Our location also makes it difficult, we are in a residential neighborhood, an area not conducive to a nightclub. We're not in a big commercial center like Hennepin Avenue, so we are not in a place where people naturally are going to dress up and go look for things to do. When you come to the Blues Saloon you're coming specifically to this club to hear a particular performer." When asked about safety Areanna said, "We actually have fewer incidents in this club than almost any bar that you have, but there is a perception about this neighborhood that you might not be safe in this club...we have almost no police reports that come out of this bar." I would have to agree, having visited this club for the past several years I have never felt uncomfortable.

"We also experiment and bring in a lot of fresh talent too." Scarlet Runner for example, from Iowa, played in December. The Blues Saloon was their first Twin Cities appearance and they will be back here on February 7th. You will want to catch this show...with one of the most talented 17 year old guitar players and singers you will find on the blues scene today...this kid is a remarkable guitar player!

"One of the things that we find is that we will bring blues performers in and once they are successful the other clubs steel them off...but most of the other clubs don't develop talent following...we've got a great room, its nice for people to be able to see easily and be so close to the performers and we have a very large dance floor where fans can be right there with the entertainers." Some performers also get too big or cost more than the Blues Saloon can support with their commitment to keeping the cover charge at a reasonable price.

The Blues Saloon has experienced its share of unfortunate incidents over the years. Louisiana blues singer James "Thunderbird" Davis suffered a heart attack while performing and died on stage in 1992. Dalton Reed was found dead of a heart attack in his hotel room prior to his appearance. But the club, just like the music has continued to survive and even though the roof may still leak in the performers dressing room on those cold rainy nights, this is all part of the life of the blues and a blues club.

There is a bar upstairs in the back room where you will find photographs of many of the famous artists who have performed here. You will also soon find Tuck's famous BBQ chicken and ribs available on a regular basis to the delight of the local patrons. Harold Tucker and Coale are incorporating a business under the name of Tucks Gourmet Sauces and will be producing these sauces on site. They will be starting with BBQ sauces and be expanding the line from there with the support of the local community including the Frogtown Action Alliance.. They hope to have a full commercial kitchen up and running in the near future. If you were at the recent anniversary party you had the pleasure of sampling Tuck's award winning BBQ sauces. In fact his BBQ sauce was voted the best BBQ in Minnesota this summer at the Rib 'N' Blues Festival in down town St. Paul.

The Blues Saloon has a very loyal following and on any given weekend you will see many of the same faces...enjoying and dancing to the music they love. You might even be able to catch Charles, the Blues Saloon's "unofficial" master of ceremonies and a loyal fan, introducing the current act in his spirited style... MTV and all! You will also occasionally find the famous celebrity dropping by. When Sue Foley was here in August, Dan Akroid was in attendance...calling The Blues Saloon one of the best blues clubs in the Twin Cities.

Coale's commitment to keeping the blues alive is the reason the Blues Saloon has survived and continues to be the area's premier blues Mecca. The club celebrated its 11th anniversary this past fall as The Blues Saloon. You can find it located at 601 N. Western Ave.,(the corner of Thomas and Western in St. Paul, just a few blocks north of University Avenue and just a mile west of the State Capital). The entrance to the upstairs club is located on a side door facing Thomas Ave. You can find on street parking in any direction. Stop by any weekend and enjoy some of the best national blues acts touring today.

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Copyright © 1997 by Ray M. Stiles
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