Up on the stage, the lead guitarist snaps off a down and dirty blues riff on a Les Paul, his nimble fingers dancing up and down the fretboard. A drummer and bassist pound out a steady rhythm that supports two more smoking guitars and a screeching harmonica.
"Go on! Play some blues now!" a member of the audience shouts before turning to his friend. "Look at 'em, they fixin' to get at it now!" Others have already stood up and are clapping to the beat or dancing energetically in the aisles. The song finishes with a crash and enthusiastic whistles and applause. It could be any blues band playing in Houston, but it's not. And that's readily apparent as the singer goes back to the mike.
"He is the way -- the truth and the life but we have to listen to that voice or we're lost," Ron Hathaway intones to a chorus of "Amen!" and "Praise Jesus!" "All you have to do is tune in -- and he's there for you!"
For information on Gonna Live for Him and a schedule of upcoming appearances, visit www.blues2joy.com.
With that, Randy Lord, who's chewing gum and sporting a grin that the secular world might call "shit-eatin'," fires up his electric guitar, and the band launches into "Jesus Is the Only Way." The fact that the backing music could pass for a lost Allman Brothers Band track is probably not lost on the audience assembled here at the chapel of Open Door Mission, an inner-city homeless shelter and rehab center.
"I've seen them many times before. When the word of God is put to music like these men do, it excites me more," says fan Mark Vorhees. Another, who gives his name as Frank, adds, "They come with an honest heart to minister, and I love them. Their lyrics go through my heart and make me think."
Blues 2 Joy is unlike any other in Houston, easily mixing the sacred with the profane. The band features six Christian men of varying ages who perform original blues and Southern rock tunes with positive, faith-based lyrics; their self-released debut CD, Gonna Live for Him, is enough of a listening pleasure to make even a hardboiled atheist play it again and again. The extremely catchy collection of songs also incorporates doo-wop, ballads, R&B and even a Jimmy Buffett-style number.
"We try to communicate with music in a way that it doesn't sound like what you normally hear in church," Hathaway explains at a nearby Taco Cabana, where the group often gathers after their Open Door gigs. "We want to put music out there for people that maybe have never set foot in a church, or maybe they just like hearing the nostalgic sounds long enough to stop and hear something that may change their lives."
"We take sounds that people are familiar with and combine them to get our message across," guitarist and vocalist Jim Massey adds. "We write almost everything we do, and we're all grounded in the word, but we also have life experiences."
To Massey, Hathaway (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Lord (lead guitar, vocals) and the rest of Blues 2 Joy -- Dave Sartin (drums, vocals), Ron Richter (background vocals, harmonica) and new bassist Wes Möeller -- those life experiences have included hours of playing secular music. In their B.C. lives, as Lord calls it, Massey was the guitarist for onetime Houston country rocker B.J. Thomas, while Lord played with the Jacksonville, Florida-based Zeus, the rivals of another group of local boys known collectively as Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lord claims that Skynyrd's eventual manager was looking to launch both bands, "but they were willing to sign away their songs for three years. We weren't."
When the question of musical influences comes up, it's hardly a listing of saints: Albert King and Albert Collins, Duane Allman, the Doobie Brothers, Rush, Bad Company, Elton John. Hell, even Ted Nugent.
Though Blues 2 Joy formed just last year, the band traces its roots to the late '80s when it began slowly evolving through various names and styles until its present state. Hathaway and Massey first played together in 1988 while both attended the Woodforest Baptist Church. With a third friend, they played at local churches and YMCAs. That evolved into the Good News Band, which specialized in folkier acoustic sounds. It is the current incarnation (with original bassist Mike Pierce) that became Blues 2 Joy and recorded Gonna Live for Him.
The CD would appear to have two contradictory messages: Put your faith in Christ's hands and your feet on the dance floor. Richter thinks too many people see fun and belief as mutually exclusive concepts. "There is this huge misconception that Christians can't have fun. Being a Christian doesn't mean you sit on that church pew and you can't enjoy yourself or play the type of music you want," he says. In fact, one of the band's main goals over the next year is to perform in secular clubs -- even if it means criticism from the modern Pharisees.
"There would have to be a certain amount of notice about who we are before we play a [secular venue] and not do a sneak attack on people," Hathaway says. "We don't want them to feel that they've been secretly pulled into a church service."
Massey is steadfast when asked what the band might think of playing a club that serves booze -- and the possible negative reaction from patrons at the first mention of the Lord. "Playing clubs would force us to challenge ourselves a bit and take things a step higher than our normal venues. It may even try our faith a little bit!"
Hathaway is the main singer and songwriter, but the others contribute in many ways during practice. An informal jam named "Dirty Rice" evolved into the song "He Proved It." "Wisdom of God" might have a Sartin break-it-down solo inserted during performances; the Lord-sung (that's Randy, not Jehovah) "Follow the Light" sounds just as toe-tapping without the record's steel drums; and "Love Me Forever," with a melody cribbed from the Sam Cooke standard "Bring It On Home," has an extra doo to the doo-wop on the Open Door stage.
Over the next six months, the group hopes that Gonna Live for Him not only sells well (although the guys say they'll end up giving away a lot of copies) but also cracks the Houston Christian radio market or even KPFT (are you reading this, Mr. and Mrs. V?).
"It's completely up to the Lord what he wants us to do with our music But we're going to keep our day jobs," Lord laughs. Sartin, on the other hand, grabs the reporter's cassette player for a little David Lee Roth-like riff about the band's future.
"We're going to have screaming fans, and I'll be making a million dollars!" he bellows to his bandmates' laughter. "I'll be driving a Ferrari and grow my hair down my back and and wear spandex! But until then, I'll keep playing at the homeless shelter and be happy about that."
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At the band's current rate, however, the Ferrari is a long way off. Blues 2 Joy regularly plays for "love offerings," and given the venues, the musicians don't expect much more than the widow's mite their fans have to give. A small basket of crumpled dollar bills is their take for the hour-plus set at the Open Door, hardly enough to pay for their gas, much less their equipment, press kits or CD pressings.
It's just another aspect that, stripped of any religious meaning, puts Blues 2 Joy in the same situation as scores of Houston bands struggling to "get to the next level" -- except that this band has a different plateau in mind than selling out The Woodlands. But even Blues 2 Joy has women pursuing them after gigs.
"I'm his groupie!" laughs the fiftysomething woman with glasses and short brown hair sitting next to Lord over a plate of food. "I follow him all over!"
"She's my wife," Lord deadpans with that grin. "So she's my only groupie."