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While his drummer and bassist vamp solos halfway through his band's first set, guitarist John McVey walks to his amp, takes a long swig of Lone Star, fishes a cigarette from his pocket, lights it, takes a grateful puff, removes his sunglasses and wipes the sweat off his face with a bandanna. It's going to be a long night.
Houston, TX 77005
Region: Kirby-West U
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Houston Blues Society Blues Jam
8 p.m. Thursday, May 26, at The Big Easy Social & Pleasure Club, 5731 Kirby Dr., 713-523-9999 or www.thebigeasyblues.com.
This is McVey's every-other-Tuesday gig at Brittmoore Ice House — "A Real Texas Joint" — in far West Houston. A small crowd of mechanics, truck drivers and small businessmen sip Miller Lite or Lone Star longnecks. It's not the kind of place where you're likely to be offered a microbrew.
Men outnumber women five to one. The main fashion decision seems to be golf shirt or biker T-shirt. On the TV over the bar, Ted Nugent is talking excitedly about a ten-point buck he just killed with a bow and arrow.
McVey ends the song and an enthusiastic drunk at the bar hollers out "Mexican Blackbird." McVey obliges, to howling cheers when he ends the ZZ Top song.
Like many of Houston's blues players, McVey is finding himself busier than ever these days.
"After I quit touring, I tried Austin and played all the blues places over there — Antone's, the Continental, you name it," the cowboy-hatted guitarist explains. "But I kept getting better pay traveling over here to play, so I moved to Houston about five years ago. Guarantees are better here, and I think the audience is more appreciative.
"Anyway, I'm here to stay."
The Society is really active," says McVey. "And they've been especially vigorous since Boyd took office. They push hard promoting jams and gigs. And they do a lot of stuff to make it a genuine community for players and fans."
McVey goes on to point out that Houston seems to have a low musical self-esteem versus Austin.
That's completely uncalled for," says McVey, who was a journeyman sideman for 20 years before going on his own. "What really impressed me when I moved over here was how many strong players there are in the Houston blues scene. Believe me, I've lived it, and the Live Music Capital of the World has nothing on Houston when it comes to blues."
"It's like anything with historical value is being cast aside," says the guitar-slinger, who moonlights as an attorney by day. "The whole attitude at the Grammys seems to be follow the big money rather than cherish and promote something that's of true cultural significance."
Although the Grammys may be thinking of deleting the blues, Lee points out that the oft-neglected genre is alive and well in Houston. He reels off a list of long-running blues jams — Dan Electro's Guitar Bar, the Big Easy, The Hideaway on Dunvale — that are seeing bigger crowds than ever.
And these are not old-school Third and Fifth Ward events, but happening in affluent neighborhoods Upper Kirby, the Galleria area and the Heights. Like McVey, Lee is also quick to credit the Blues Society and Bluestein for the current healthy situation.
"The jams are drawing some serious crowds, and good crowds just cause more of the top musicians to come out and participate" Lee says. "Part of that momentum is coming from the regular Blues Society e-blasts about blues events, which helps overcome that short-term thinking we all seem to operate on nowadays.
"The Blues Society is definitely pushing hard to drum up support for artists and to make the blues more visible to the general public, and those are all positives for our scene."
Boyd Bluestein is a medical sales rep by day, and he notes that his stewardship of the Blues Society is truly a labor of love.
"I honestly just do it because I respect the music and the tradition, and I love the people," says Bluestein, whose current term expires in June. "We've got an excellent board of directors, and the other officers contribute significant amounts of time and energy, not just promoting our events but showing up and paying the cover charge and truly supporting the artists and the music.
"And when you look at our mission statement, that's what it's all about," he adds. "We have a very motivated group of officers right now."
The Society officially hosts a jam the last Thursday of every month at Big Easy Social Club, and Bluestein says the crowds have grown significantly on average the past year. Last month's jam brought out many of the city's best players and resulted in some exciting onstage combinations. "Yes, April was certainly special," Bluestein acknowledges. "Nights like that when so many top players come out, we sometimes can't get everyone up."
Bluestein says he tries to get across that "it's a jam, not an open-mike night." "We want to encourage everyone, but sometimes you have to make some decisions," he explains. "The better the players, the better the crowds."
I lived in Austin for 26 years and can say that McVey is spot on: Austin has nothing on Houston when it comes to the Blues. It has some great great players (wish they'd move here!) but not the sheer number nor history nor sense of community. I doubt that any city can boast the number and quality of the jams here, either. I also agree with McVey's observation about how we see ourselves and add that Houston either doesn't realize what it has or doesn't know the importance of letting everyone ELSE know. The addition of the newly-christened non-profit Houston Blues Museum should help on that front!
Former HBS President Linda Kirschbaum was at the helm creating the lean mean volunteer machine that is the Houston Blues Society. And Miss Sandy Hickey before her. Boyd and the dedicated, talented and below-the-radar Board of Directors continued on, injecting a huge boost to the membership and phenomenal publicity of HBS' efforts and purpose. Former Vice President and IBC Producer Lisa Del Grosso also swept in as a very active Board Member, who brought the broader vision for what HBS could be through her experience with the IBC and a Blues Society outside of Texas (sorry, slips my mind). There are so many amazing cogs in this wheel - we're all just so thankful that everyone has been able to build on each other's successes, without which we wouldn't have the fabulous HBS we have today! Thanks to ALL!!!
I too am in agreement with everything in the article about the blues scene in Houston and the contribution of the eighth president of HBS, Boyd Bluestein. Boyd was one of only five Lifetime members of the organization when he came on as a Director year-before-last when I was President. He certainly has given visibility and a platform for the mission statement of our little non-profit. Personally, I have never felt that Houston stands in the shadow of Austin when it comes to live music and particularly The Blues.
Bring back The Blues! : www.GrammyWatch.org - Restore and Respect Musical Diversity in the Grammy Awards
I could not have wrote abetter article myself,Ive known that h-town had a better Blues scene than Austin because I've been involved as a musician for many years,: I hope it just continues to florish and not get exploited and over commercialized like many other cities,because the music is what it's all about!!!
Can I hear a big Amen to that?! Since the mid 20th century, few cities in the world can match Houston as a source for blues talent to this day. That's why promoters from all over — Europe, Japan, Asia, South and Central America — come to Houston to hang out in our bars and sign on the best blues artists on the planet to play their festivals. We have people in our own back yard who have followings in Japan and Sweden whom most scenesters haven't even heard of! We ARE the cool that chills the hot wheels of the world and makes it an easier place to chill and enjoy life. H-Town has always had a voice in the music that cool people and kindred spirits from all over use to make their days something to look forward to. Boyd Bluestein and the HBS are greasin' the wheels every day. And look for the newly established Houston Blues Museum to make the chemical formula richer.
Excellent article. Boyd and the rest of the HBS team have done a stellar job. The Houston blues scene truly is healthier than ever, and we're all gonna keep it that way!
Nice to see credit given where it's due. And guess what, none of these jams (which consistently feature world class players) have a cover charge. Long live the Houston blues scene and the Houston Blues Society. Dues are cheap, the HBS does good work and it's a blast!Dr Rick
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