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TURNING BLUE : It Took a While, but Even Orange County Was Bound to Get the Blues Someday

August 13, 1992|FRANK MESSINA | Frank Messina is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

"The blues was born when God told Adam and Eve they had to leave. God had the blues then, and we've had the blues ever since trying to get back in. That's why everybody gets the blues."

--JOHN LEE HOOKER

For about a century, blues music has been the voice of black urban America--thick with pain, hope and emotional release.

But as much as it strikes a common chord, it was less than 40 years ago that Elvis Presley and other white musicians were criticized for performing "black music."

Only over the last decade has the blues fully arrived in the country in which it was born. Blues festivals have become wildly popular, and clubs that feature blues have been springing up like notes from B.B. King's guitar. The blues has even won the ultimate sign of widespread acceptance--inclusion in television commercials for wine coolers and beer.

But in Orange County, with its reputation as a homogenized haven for the white upper-middle class, the blues hasn't had much of an impact--until very recently.

Over the past two years, owners of bars, restaurants and coffeehouses in the county have discovered that blues musicians work dirt cheap, and the music draws customers. Once, less than a handful of Orange County venues featured blues acts. Now, at least 20 regularly schedule them (see accompanying list, this page). Local blues acts aren't getting rich, but they also don't have as much trouble finding gigs.

"There's a real hunger for blues music out there. I think it's been sort of a myth that Orange County isn't into the blues," said Dan Jacobson, a blues promoter who also publishes Southland Blues, a monthly newsletter based in Long Beach. "We have subscribers in every city in Orange County, and there are more clubs than ever trying the blues."

Many club owners hold occasional "blues nights" to pump up business on the slow days. The policy has paid off for several.

You wind up seeing the blues in the strangest places--like the Renaissance Cafe, a chain of trendy coffeehouses. Or Champions, a sports pub in Santa Ana. Even Taka-o, a sushi bar in San Clemente. And, for the well-heeled, there's Cafe Lido in Newport Beach.

One of the best of the new Orange County blues spots is the Heritage Brewing Co. in Dana Point, a self-proclaimed "brews and blues" bar.

Sales have increased since owner John Stoner began regularly scheduling blues and other alternative music about two years ago. The pub features blues on Tuesday and Saturday. Stoner said that in September, he will feature it on Thursday as well.

"Blues just fits our atmosphere so well," he said. "I think it's perfect here because blues is meant to be seen up close. It's not a stadium kind of thing."

Saturday nights is when the place really smokes. Those evenings are reserved for what Stoner likes to call "undervalued" blues performers--talented local acts such as the Paladins, James Harman and Luke and Locomotives who have small-label recording contracts, tour nationally, if not internationally, and are inches away from widespread popularity.

Admission is $5, and the crowd on a recent Saturday was elbow to elbow by 8 p.m. to see a performance by the Paladins. The music is loud and raucous--pretty typical for the Paladins, who play full-bore, take-no-prisoners rock 'n' blues. The Heritage lacks the grime and grit of a good Chicago blues club, but as the band plays to 2 a.m. and the crowd still howls for more, it gets tough to see the difference.

There is a difference, though.

To be a blues musician in Orange County, you must love the blues more than you do most worldly possessions.

Nobody has ever gotten rich playing the blues here, which the musicians fully realize. Some Orange County bluesmen are encouraged by the upswing in gig opportunities. But others are bone-tired of trying to survive, and they either quit or move on down the road to other parts of the country, such as Chicago or Texas, where blues music seems to thrive.

Robert Lucas is 30 and one of the few Orange County bluesmen who, along with his group, Luke and Locomotives, has a chance to break into the national blues scene. He returned last week from a nationwide tour that won rave reviews and put about 8,000 miles on his van.

But the coffeehouse and sushi bar circuit of the Southland has worn Lucas down more than the dust from the road. He's tired of waiting for Orange County to develop a vital blues scene and doubts that it ever will.

"I was born and raised here, and this has never been an area that has supported the blues," he said. "Since I can remember, I never wanted to do anything but play Delta blues because it's so raw and honest. The blues is real music, and (Southern California) is a plastic society. For a lot of people, blues is just a trendy thing.

"I don't think you could ever earn a decent living in Orange County" playing the blues, Lucas added. "That's why guys like (well-known Huntington Beach blues harpist) James Harman are on the road all the time."

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