SAN DIEGO — Blues, though never enjoying huge success, does go through periodic waves of popularity.
One of those waves is breaking right now, and Elario's hopes to capitalize with a new weekly blues series that kicks off tonight with local groups Bad Piece of Business and Bob Eike.
Rob Hagey, the La Jolla jazz club's talent coordinator, has been searching for ways to expand his audience, and he thinks playing the blues on Monday and Tuesday off-nights is the answer.
"We experimented with different artists beginning in October, ranging from Bill Frisell (progressive jazz) to Hammersmith (blues) to Chubby Carrier (zydeco) and the Mighty Penguins (bluesy rock)," Hagey said. "I really feel like the best way to bring an alternative audience to the club is to be consistent with blues. We won't be booking Albert Collins or the big blues acts, but more traditional blues musicians, regional artists and newer blues artists on tour, like Joanna Conner, who we're looking into for March."
Hagey turned to Los Angeles blues promoter Dan Jacobson for help in lining up musicians. Jacobson believes the time is ripe for blues.
"I would say there's somewhat of a resurgence, with the popularity of artists like Robert Cray and the Fabulous Thunderbirds," said Jacobson, who publishes the monthly magazine Southland Blues and produces a variety of blues festivals and shows.
"The audience for blues, there's a crossover to both jazz and rock. Blues covers a wider spectrum than most people think. On one end it is very close to jazz, and a lot of acts can go either way, playing jazz or blues festivals, like the Cheathams, Jimmy Witherspoon or Papa John Creach. On the other end, you have John Mayall, Eric Clapton and others known primarily as rock 'n' rollers who can play the blues."
To open the series, Hagey has hired Bad Piece of Business, a new blues band fronted by singer and harmonica player Ken Schoppmeyer, for years the leader of the local King Biscuit Blues Band until it disbanded in 1983, and Billy Thompson, the singer, guitarist and front man for the Mighty Penguins.
Bad Piece of Business also includes Mel Wright, who wrings a searing blues sound from a Hammond B-3 organ, and the Penguins' Paul Kimbarow on drums and Kevin Hennessy on bass.
The new band doesn't spell the end of the Penguins, who are shopping a brand-new demo to the labels. Thompson simply wanted an outlet for his blues writing and guitar playing.
Schoppmeyer is handling the vocal chores, and he and Thompson plan to compose a slew of new material with the hope of landing a contract with a blues label such as Alligator.
"This group is kind of a fluke," Schoppmeyer said. "I was playing Croce's with Earl Thomas and the Blues Ambassadors, and the club wanted to hire me. So I slapped together this band and we played the next night."
Sharing the bill tonight with Bad Piece of Business is San Diegan Eike. He moved here from Denton, Tex., 18 months ago. He's a polished solo guitarist and singer who looks to Lightnin' Hopkins, Son House, Robert Johnson and John Hammond for inspiration. But, unlike many contemporary blues performers working in traditional styles, Eike, 38, writes all of his own material.
He sings in a deep, soulful voice with a Southern twang and plays guitar with a vengeance, driving the music with his aggressive finger-picking. On some songs, he swaps his wooden acoustic guitar for a National steel, the model with the big round resonator under the strings, playing slide in a style that takes you back to the seminal Mississippi Delta blues recordings Johnson made in the 1930s.
"I'm very limited in what I do," said the humble Eike, who fixes air conditioners and refrigerators for a living. "I do blues, and that's all I do. I never had a music lesson. I just get the guitar out and beat on it a little bit."
Eike dedicated himself to blues after hearing Hopkins in Houston in 1970, but he wasn't happy with his own playing for years.
"God, I was so bad, you wouldn't believe how bad I was, really, until the last three years. Before that, I'd write something, and I wouldn't know if it was good or bad until I got on stage. Now I can tell in the first 30 seconds if it's good."
The weekly dose of blues will continue with Texas-born guitarist Roy Gaines on Jan. 14, saxophonist Big Jay McNeely on Jan. 21 and 22, and Harmonica Fats & The Blues Players on Jan. 28 and 29. Canadian jazz pianist Oliver Jones will appear Jan. 15. Jones was scheduled before the blues series was booked, but, like most jazz players, he has solid roots in blues.
Gaines, like Eike, has been influenced by Hopkins, a fellow Texan, but he has broader musical experience, having recorded with the Jazz Crusaders, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight, and toured with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Big Joe Turner and the Everly Brothers.
You can also hear the influence of electric jazz and blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, who was Gaines' teacher. Walker remains Gaines' single most important influence.
McNeely's first acclaim came in 1949 when his song "Deacon's Hop" topped the national rhythm and blues chart for two weeks.
With his wild stage antics--lying down as he delivered honking, screaming sax licks in the early 1950s--McNeely helped pave the way for rock 'n' rollers such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, McNeely left his musical career for a variety of jobs, finally working as a mail carrier, but he began playing clubs again in 1983. His brand-new album, "Welcome to California," is an eclectic mix of rhythm and blues, early rock (Chantilly Lace), funk and even country, all driven by his squealing horn.
Harmonica Fats, a.k.a. Harvey Blackston, was born in McDade, La., but has been a West Coast blues figure for more than 30 years. He appears often at blues festivals, and has recorded on his own and with Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls, Bobby Darin, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and the Beatles.