(by Keith Wyatt)
The Blasters’ year began in late January with successful runs through Texas and Southern California but as Phil became more occupied by doing shows with his brother Dave in support of Common Ground, an album of Big Bill Broonzy songs, the next opportunity for a Blasters tour didn’t come until May, with the itinerary covering the Midwest from Salt Lake City to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Given various scheduling conflicts, there was no time to rehearse in advance of the tour, but after this many years the arrangements are so familiar that rehearsing is more of a luxury than a requirement. In any case, the hardest part of playing a Blaster show after a long layoff is not remembering parts, but regaining the strength and energy that are needed to make it all the way to the end, and rehearsals just can’t duplicate the intensity of being on stage in front of an audience.
A couple of days before the first show we loaded the gear into Phil’s van and Bill and our roadie Jaime set out on the drive to SLC while the rest of us (Phil, Johnny and me) waited to fly in on the day of the show. The first venue was Burt’s Tiki Lounge, a small but vibe-heavy bar that shows signs of hard use. Being a Sunday in a religious town, SLC was extremely quiet with most stores and restaurants closed and the streets nearly deserted, but by show time an enthusiastic crowd had assembled and they quickly helped us get back on our feet.
The next day was spent making the long (500+) mile drive from SLC to Denver. May is still late winter in the Rockies so we had a close eye on the weather, but fortunately Interstate 80 across southern Wyoming was clear and dry and the endless miles of snow fences along the highway held just the melting remnants of drifts (a few days later, another blizzard closed the same road). We arrived in Denver in good shape and checked into the hotel on Colfax Avenue. The area has changed considerably since our last visit there several years ago; Colfax, which runs through the heart of downtown, still attracts its share of tweakers and panhandlers but also features an increasing number of bars, coffeehouses and restaurants, with nearby Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods signaling an upscale demographic shift. Like LA, Denver first emerged as a major city in the early 1900s, but unlike LA’s unfortunate tradition of tearing down older structures, Denver still has many brick and stone buildings from that era, often nicely restored, that lend the downtown neighborhoods a feeling of solidity and tradition.
The Denver shows were at the Lion’s Lair, a small but long-established and locally legendary venue that features national names like John Doe and Jonathan Richman among the regular schedule of indie artists. Despite being on Tuesday and Wednesday, both shows were packed and many who attended the first night returned for the second. Coming on the heels of our SLC warm-up show, the band was focused and the crowd response was strong. In the past we have played larger venues in Denver such as the Bluebird and Gothic theaters, but the intimate size and classic bar vibe of the Lions Lair seemed to concentrate the crowd’s energy and the shows were rewarding on every level.
Thursday was another travel day, with an even longer (600+ miles) drive straight across the plains from Denver to Kansas City, but despite reports of tornados in all directions the weather cooperated again. The venue in KC was Knucklehead’s, a unique indoor/outdoor club located literally feet from an active rail yard with freight trains rumbling past day and night. With the weather on hold it was a perfect evening to spend outdoors and the turnout was strong. KC is the historic home of many legendary musicians including Pete Johnson and Count Basie as well as Phil’s mentor, Big Joe Turner, so that night we encored with a very fast Big Joe medley. Coming at the end of a long set it took every remaining iota of energy to get through it, but the crowd gave it all right back.
Our next destination was Rock Island, Illinois, just across the Mississippi river from Davenport, Iowa. The venue, Rock Island Brewing, has been around for long enough that fans reminisced about seeing Muddy Waters perform there many years ago. Rock Island is what booking agents call a “routing gig,” meaning the town isn’t big enough to be a destination in its own right but is just right to fill an empty date en route between larger cities. If there was ever a contest to identify the heart of the Heartland, Rock Island/Davenport would be in the running; it’s surrounded by miles of farmland with the mighty Mississippi running through the center and neighborhoods that looked unchanged since the ‘30s. In LA, you drive ten minutes and you’re barely out of your own neighborhood; in Rock Island, ten minutes takes you clear out of town. The people we met were extremely friendly without the ironic, blasé attitude that is so typical in LA; there are plenty of problems facing that part of the country too, but a shortage of graciousness is not one of them.
Sunday took us back down the river to St. Louis. We got into town by mid-afternoon and went straight to a local radio station for a live performance/interview that was enjoyable but also mercifully brief since fatigue was already starting to set in after a couple of thousand miles of driving. St. Louis has been hard-hit by economic change and still seems to be caught between its industrial past and an uncertain future, but as in many similar cities people are converting some of the older, visually appealing and centrally-located neighborhoods into arts districts including the one where the club, Off Broadway, is located. The combination of Mother’s Day and Sunday night seemed to dampen the turnout (many old-school Blaster fans are now on the receiving end of Mother’s Day, after all), but those who were there didn’t hold back.
Monday meant another hefty drive up to Milwaukee, but with two days off we could afford a more leisurely pace. In a matter of hours, the weather went from muggy Midwest heat to lake-effect chill and after arriving in Milwaukee, extreme weather alarms started going off as violent pockets of rain, hail, and wind moved through. Fortunately, no major harm was done and with conditions stabilizing we spent the next afternoon buying new tires for the van; it’s not the most relaxing or enjoyable way to spend a day off, but the last thing any band can afford is to risk missing a show by blowing off preventive maintenance.
Wednesday night we played at the Potowatomi Casino, a new venue just south of downtown Milwaukee that has emerged as one of the best music rooms in the city. It is well-equipped and very professional, with a classic casino showroom layout almost identical to the Nugget in Reno, but we did miss some of the informality and local vibe of our usual Milwaukee venue, Shank Hall. However, there’s also a lot to be said for high-end audio, lighting, and comfortable seating, and the turnout and response were both very good.
On Thursday we headed for Minneapolis to play at another venerable local institution, Lee’s Liquor Lounge. Before the show, I met up with a friend from Musicians Institute in LA who is now the Dean at McNally-Smith, a contemporary music college in St. Paul. He took me out to see his spacious house south of town situated on a big plot of land surrounded by trees and adjacent to a lake – the postcard “land of a thousand lakes” image of Minnesota. However, he also pointed out how high the snow drifts had been just a few weeks earlier. Beauty comes at a price.
When we arrived at Lee’s for the show the place was packed with rock & roll fans of every description from 60-something originals to young hipsters. The long gap since the Blasters last appeared in Minneapolis apparently created pent-up demand and the crowd was going strong from the first note. The room was cool, the band played well, and the audience was great – all around, one of the better nights of the tour.
Friday included a long drive back to Chicago that culminated in an excruciating LA-style bumper-to-bumper crawl from the suburbs all the way downtown. For years, our exclusive Chicago venue has been Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn, a renowned American Music mecca, but this time it was Reggie’s on State Street, a well-established but more rock-oriented downtown club. The change in location probably deterred some of the regulars, but one of the goals on this tour was to branch out into different venues to reach new audiences, and the mix of ages and styles in the crowd seemed to reflect that.
Among the many attractions of Chicago is the food, and the next day we came across Bobak’s, the “Home of Sausageology” near our hotel (they take cured meats very seriously in the upper Midwest). It is a Polish superstore – even the sodas and magazines at the checkout stand are flown in from Poland – and among a cornucopia of meats, sausages, and prepared foods you can get two Chicago hotdogs (pick your style of frank) for $3.00; Pink’s in LA also serves a good dog, but that’s hard to beat.
That day’s drive was thankfully just a few miles up to Evanston on Chicago’s affluent North Shore. Normally two shows in such close proximity compete for the same audience and are therefore considered taboo, but in Chicago there seems to be little crossover between the suburban and downtown crowds. The venue, Space, includes an upscale pizza restaurant, a sit-down music venue holding a couple hundred people, and a recording studio/small performance space, all very comfortably equipped and with an extremely helpful staff. One of the club’s managers, well-known Chicago blues guitarist Dave Specter, played us tracks from his new solo record on Delmark featuring strong vocals from Otis Clay, including a standout version of the Falcons/Wilson Pickett classic “I Found a Love,” a favorite of Phil’s that the Blasters have also experimented with on occasion. Dave is working hard to keep the Chicago blues scene alive – an ironic statement if there ever was one – and his apparent success with Space is a hopeful sign.
A Blasters set is intense by definition – as Phil says, “There are no easy Blaster songs” – and while we have learned over the years to adapt to a wide variety of venues from outdoor festivals to small clubs, properly managing the energy for a close-up, seated audience can be tricky. Fortunately, some rooms are set up so that they make a show feel more like an event and Space is one of them –when we took the stage to an immediate and enthusiastic response from a packed house all concerns were laid to rest. Afterward, Dave said “We put on 300 shows a year and that was in the top three.” Audience appreciation is great, but nothing beats acknowledgement by your peers and the house staff who hear bands every night; when they like you enough to actually say so, it’s something special.
We spent Sunday, our last day off, driving northeast to Grand Rapids, Michigan, another first-time visit to a city off the beaten track. Cruising around town we came across Frank’s, a classic neighborhood Polish meat market that, like Bobak’s, is a reminder of the early waves of European immigration that shaped the culture of the Midwest. A young lady behind the counter proudly described the market’s 80-year history while a steady stream of locals came in to pick up brats and other specialties. With towns all across the country increasingly transforming into endless rows of identical franchise restaurants and retailers, it’s refreshing to find establishments–usually in older, downtown areas that have seen some ups and downs–that provide a unique sense of place along with people who are proud of where they live, who they are, and what they do.
The Tip Top Lounge, our venue in Grand Rapids, was another one of those places– a small, unremarkable-looking neighborhood bar that has hosted other LA-based artists including Big Sandy, Rosie Flores, Los Straitjackets, and Dave Alvin. A Monday night in a small bar in an unfamiliar town can be a lonely place, but we were very happy to find it packed with a diverse mix of people who also proved to be the most enthusiastic crowd of the tour. Some told us that they drove hours and stayed overnight to see the show, a humbling reminder that no matter how tiring the road may be at times, everyone who comes to see us has invested their own time and money and deserves the best we can offer. The Tip Top turned out to be a great finish to a very rewarding tour.
Tuesday morning brought the hard reality of over 2000 miles of highway back to LA. Phil and I had opted to fly, so Johnny, Bill and Jaime dropped us off in at Midway Airport in Chicago and continued west on I-80, swapping driving chores until they arrived back in LA around midnight on Wednesday – a non-stop 36-hour haul. With no time to decompress, Bill jumped into Deke Dickerson’s van early Friday morning for a run to Northern California while Phil also headed north for shows with Dave preliminary to their lengthy summer tour that will include stops in most of the same cities we just played.
The next Blasters run will commence at the end of August in Atlanta and continue up the East coast as far as Buffalo before turning south to wind up in Washington DC, hitting a mix of familiar and new venues and also giving us a chance to see old friends and – we hope – plenty of new faces.