A bluesy slide guitar snarls as a Z-car negotiates a winding coast highway. A blues band plays while co-eds in ridiculously tight, body-sock dresses bounce around and make a bubbly show of drinking low-cal brew. A bunch of bluesmen on break sits around and talks about how baaaad a new kind of fried chicken is.
The blues done made it to Madison Avenue.
But television commercials are just the fin breaking the surface. The blues is flush with another revival. Blues festivals like the ones in Phoenix and Tucson are drawing record crowds. Breweries like Miller and Anheuser-Busch now have extensive rosters of blues and roots acts that they publicize and support. Agents and managers report that bookings for blues bands are up.
Even blues records, which are notoriously slow sellers, are moving. Small blues-only labels like Alligator, Blind Pig, and Blacktop had record years in 1990 and are expecting bigger and better things this year. Last year also saw the launching of two new all-blues labels, Rounder's Bullseye and Charisma's Point Blank. Most telling of all is that even the majors are now waking up to the blues. Dipping into the vaults of the world's largest record catalogue, Columbia Records has an unlikely hit with its reissue of the complete works of Delta bluesman Robert Johnson. Released last August, this much-heralded boxed set spent 31 weeks on Billboard's Top Pop Albums chart and has sold over 400,000 copies, an astonishing figure for a man who's been dead since 1938.
What's causing this latest surge of interest in the blues? Certainly the records and live shows of blues crossover artists like Robert Cray, Jeff Healey, John Lee Hooker, and Stevie Ray Vaughan have had something to do with it. And there's always unrest about the pap that passes for radio.
Here in the Valley, the blues boom has shown up in several ways. The number of clubs that have switched from rock, Top 40 or some other format to the blues has increased dramatically in the past year. One distinguished blues player, Big Pete Pearson, was convinced enough to open his own bar. And because the clubs are now paying for it, there are a lot more blues players around than there used to be. Sometimes forgotten in the melee of the new blues infusion is the handful of local blues bands that have been laboring here long before the blues began selling beer.
THEY'VE BEEN TOGETHER more than a decade. They have every excuse to be burned out, and yet there they are, spending their break working out a new tune for the second set.
It's a typical weeknight at Warsaw Wally's, the kind of neighborhood bar that exists in most American cities. An unflappable bartender named Arlene keeps up a steady pace, gliding back and forth in her flowered muumuu and frosted hair. A lot of the patrons know her by name. Posted on the wall behind the cash register, the bar's menu includes an array of frozen-to-microwave bar-food wonders. Waiting silently on a shelf are beef jerky and those nasty lab-specimen sausages in a jar.
In the back, people play pool and drink pitchers. Out front people talk and listen to the band. Ensconced in a corner, behind a waist-high, wrought-iron fence, are the Rocket 88s. Once the group's leader, Bill Tarsha, touches his lips to the harmonica and the familiar three-chord blues riffs begin to replace the taped music heard during break, the place fills in. The regulars lay claim to all the tables near the front. A group of loud, out-of-town conventioneers inquires loudly who that great band is.
Afterward at Bill and Susie Tarsha's home and blues shrine, I ask them about the current scene. Although they welcome any attention paid to their music, these godparents of the scene aren't getting too excited. They've seen other blues fads come and go.
"A blues explosion? Mayall, Butterfield, Creedence--that was a blues explosion," says Bill Tarsha. An internationally recognized harmonica player who has an opinion about most things, the trim, blond-haired Tarsha is no fair-weather blues player. He dresses like a Fifties hepcat. He and Susie live near Warsaw Wally's, in the area of 24th Street and Indian School, in a duplex that's plastered with blues posters and photos. Having wailed on a harp for more than twenty years, Bill Tarsha understands the blues.
"It's true, there definitely is more interest in blues these days," he says. "But what I'm seeing is blues players who were wearing cowboy hats and chaps last year are now up there in a beret and sharkskin suit. Some of them can do it. But a lot of them don't have any feel for the music. And they're willing to work so cheap that it's making it tough for the rest of us."