Blue Christmas

Here we are at the end of the U.S. Congress-declared "Year of the Blues" (insert your own Executive Branch joke here), and it's actually been a good annum for the genre. The Martin Scorsese-produced PBS documentary series The Blues and a slew of CD and book releases have brought a lot of attention to the music and the artists, reminding us that Muddy Waters is more than the result of bad weather, and Howlin' Wolf isn't just a creature you'd find in a zoo.

Locally, KPFT/90.1 FM continues its popular weekend blues programs, including Joe's Roadhouse. But there's more than one way to tune in. Rather than just spinning discs, Joe Montes hosts a monthly live broadcast from the Rhythm Room featuring local, regional and national acts. It's a throwback to when big bands used to simulcast from hotel ballrooms, recalling radio shows like the King Biscuit Flower Hour and the Grand Ole Opry. Headlining the year-end concert is former Houstonian (now Austin resident) and guitar-slinging blues queen Carolyn Wonderland. Jeremiah Johnson and the Texas Alligators will open.

"I felt the best way for artists to become known by the listening audience was to put them on stage, let them play extended sets and broadcast it over the radio and the Internet," Montes says. "But it's not an easy thing to do. It involves the coordination of a lot of people and there are a lot of gremlins that can -- and do -- pop up from time to time. Those critters have included an occasional artist canceling at the last minute, a guitarist who broke his hand and the ubiquitous 'technical difficulties.' "

But these incidents have been few and the benefits many. "Live music has a joyful dynamic that's usually lost in the process of laying down tracks in the studio," Montes says. It's no coincidence that he picked Wonderland for this December concert. Montes says Wonderland's version of "Blue Lights" (written by Houston bluesman Little Screamin' Kenny) is probably his favorite Christmas-themed blues tune, chronicling the woe of a jilted lover who finds solace in Stoli instead of Santa during the holidays.

"Carolyn's amazing voice gives it a depth, a soulful longing, that gives the song its emotional impact," says Montes. "She owns this song," And he's not her only fan. Bob Dylan himself asked to meet with Wonderland and purportedly suggested she audition for his band (we're presuming she understood his wheezing request). There's also talk, according to Montes, of her collaborating with Bonnie Raitt. Wonderland's latest record is Bloodless Revolution.

Much of the music that Montes plays on the show is electric, Texas-shuffle blues with a soul edge to it, and much of it is by Houston artists. As for the "Year of the Blues" hype, Montes is glad for the immediate exposure but hopes this is just the beginning.

"What the blues needs is to find and get exposure to the college-age crowd," he says. "Those are the ones who go out and listen to music, drink and dance -- not the folks who sit at home and watch PBS specials."

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero