The Bottoms Up Blues Gang learned its trade in the thriving St. Louis blues scene during the late 1990s from old masters like Bennie Smith, Henry Townsend and Oliver Sain. The band attempted to gain a foothold in New Orleans in 2002, but it wasn’t easy.
Guitarist Jeremy Segel-Moss and singer Kari Liston didn’t mind struggling in the Crescent City even though they were already well set up in St. Louis. Their love for New Orleans and the musical payoff was well worth the effort.
“Musically you can’t screw around in New Orleans,” Segel-Moss says. “The legacy requires you to play your best all the time.”
That challenge steeled the duo to sleep on the floor of the Blue Nile in between gigs and hustle for the 2 a.m. slot at Checkpoint Charlie’s for a chance to play their version of pre-electric blues. Their hard work paid off earlier this year when they were chosen to play at French Quarter Festival.
“New Orleans got into my soul,” says Liston, relaxing between road trips on a steamy afternoon in a St. Louis garden. “I knew I had to keep coming back.”
The band now plays about 250 gigs a year with a third of its shows in New Orleans, another third in St. Louis and the rest, around the country. Its acoustic sound melds the historic ties of the two cities. About 80 percent of the songs are rooted in St. Louis blues, with the rest evolving out of jazz standards. Throw in some Ani DiFranco and rootsy originals, and the sets flow on a steady current.
“We aim to entertain. I love playing in a place like the Apple Barrel, where the crowd is right in your lap,” Liston says.
“We went from being an out-of-town band playing a gig here and there to the French Quarter Festival — and that’s a testament to not just blowing in and out,” Segel-Moss says. “We got a tepid response from other performers at first, but now people know we’re here for the music.”
The band’s name &mdahs; the Bottoms Up Blues Gang — emphasizes the community spirit, as the duo often gigs with locals such as Aurora Nealand, Jason Ricci, Charlie Halloran and Rick Weston.
“We started in St. Louis, playing blues and drinking, not necessarily in that order, and by the time the night was out there would be five or six of us,” Liston says. “And that’s not a band—that’s a gang.”