"The blues is dying out here," my friend Dale Baich told me recently when we were bullshitting about music. I was taken aback by his statement, but when I thought about it, I hadn't hit up a blues show in quite some time -- like many people of my generation and younger. I had also noticed that the shows themselves were much fewer and farther between than a few years ago. Still, I was shocked to hear someone as versed in the blues as Dale make such a wistful declaration.
Dale, a soft-spoken intellectual and federal public defender who represents death-row inmates, produced a record by local blues legend Big Pete Pearson, and is a blues aficionado like few people I know. He even traveled to interview the late R.L. Burnside at his Mississippi home a few years back. So when he says the blues scene is fading here, I'm inclined to believe him.
The blues has always had a strong presence here in the 'Nix -- largely because of the Rhythm Room and its proprietor Bob Corritore, who's also a producer and harmonica player. But if you look at the Rhythm Room's schedule of late, you'll see it populated by bands like Nashville Pussy, Neva Dinova, and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. A few years back, it was blues nearly every night.
Blues in Phoenix
Lately, even Big Pete Pearson himself is worried about the blues scene dying off. He used to play out five or six nights a week; now it's two, maybe three if he's lucky. He's had to branch out to special events like business conventions and private parties just to keep financially afloat. "I don't know where the crowds have gone," he said to me recently.
The dwindling number of venues hosting blues shows is a major factor. "Look at the number of clubs that have closed down," Baich told me. "You could go to Nita's Hideaway to hear blues before [going to] the Brass Rail, Warsaw Wally's -- all these other places are all gone or they don't cater to the blues anymore. Bob [Corritore] used to have blues almost seven nights a week."
He's absolutely right, but it's a compromise that Corritore's had to make to ensure that his venue, the Rhythm Room, doesn't go the way of so many others. Corritore told me it's working for him, though, and the Rhythm Room remains the premier blues spot in town, especially to see touring national acts like Louisiana Red and Pinetop Perkins.
"I have a lot of outside promoters bringing in their tastes in music during the week," Corritore told me. "But I've been able to keep the Rhythm Room as a stronghold for blues on the weekends, which is when the blues crowd at this point gets out the most. The blues in and of itself, the people that were involved in the scene 10 years ago, have gotten 10 years older.
"People don't go out as much. You add to that stricter drinking [and driving] laws, and what used to be a lifestyle of going to blues bars and hanging out is not as realistic as it used to be. We're not a town that's set up like Chicago with a bunch of cabs, or like Las Vegas, which encourages a party scene. All that being said, there's still a huge amount of energy going on in the blues; it's just not being able to find a home as easily as it used to."
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Despite Corritore's having to scale back the amount of blues shows at the Rhythm Room, he sees a positive side to it. "The great thing about bringing in these different shows is that I'm seeing a number of younger people that I have never seen before coming in regularly to the weekends at the Rhythm Room because they've seen the club and enjoyed the vibe and wanted to check out the blues at the club," he told me.
Encouragingly, there is new blood in the scene that can hopefully be a player in the blues arena. The String Chemistry Café, which opened in late September in Mesa, is regularly hosting blues artists like the Rocket 88's, Cold Shott and the Hurricane Horns, and Big Pete Pearson, as well as local jazz acts. It's a classy, well-designed club with a brown grand piano to the side of its wide stage, and an impressive sound system. When I was there recently and saw part of Rick Jones' set, the attendance was sparse, but the venue showed incredible potential.
My advice to Chris Devlin, the owner of String Chemistry, would be to take advantage of his spacious new club and start bringing national acts to perform. For east-siders like myself, it's not tough to get over to his location at Guadalupe and the 101, but for Phoenicians and west-siders, it's going to take more than the locals to get them out there initially to appreciate what they've got going on at String Chemistry. After all, Char's in central Phoenix hosts a number of local blues acts as well, including Carvin Jones.
Touring acts aside, though, the talents we've got in this town -- whether it's Big Pete Pearson, Chico Chism, Sistah Blue, or newer outfits like Soulful Horizons and Fire in the Sky -- remain strong, despite there being fewer nights when you can find them out playing. Thanks to them, the blues is still alive and kicking in the 'Nix, but it just takes some effort to find it. And it definitely needs a new generation of fans to get it thriving again. With the arrival of String Chemistry on the east side of town, I, for one, don't have an excuse to overlook the blues any longer.