Where Are The Blues?

Back in the mid-1990s, I was a total blues freak, and a bunch of my friends were too. To some extent, I still am. I suppose it’s characteristic of my generation; big business picked up on this, so this era is also around the time the House of Blues chain was being created and promoted. Blues was everywhere; it was sort of the “in” music at the time. There were a couple of national blues publications back then.  We went to a lot of blues festivals back in those days: several in Mississippi, the King Biscuit in Arkansas, and others. Blues was really proliferating. I remember that even Tabasco event put together a “blues cookbook” to hop on the blues bandwagon.

But nationwide, the blues trend is nowhere near what it used to be, I suppose because the baby boomers don’t go out as much as they used to. Now, before you get your feathers ruffled, I’m not saying that blues is less popular, I’m just saying that blues is not as top-of-mind musically as it used to be in the mainstream consciousness. We had a similar trend on jazz in the late 1990s, when Ken Burns created the PBS series on jazz. These things are cyclical. The fans will always be the fans. It’s creating new fans from a younger generation that’s always the most difficult. But that’s cyclical too. They’ll both come back around.

Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the late Marva Wright. (Photo: Zack Smith)

Back in 1995, we created a blues society (New Orleans didn’t have one at the time), and currently, there’s the Voodoo Blues Krewe that carries the torch. There’s a blues festival of sorts (it’s really more like a concert) this weekend at the UNO Lakefront Arena (the Big Easy Blues Festival), and of course, there’s the Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival that’s organized by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in October. There are still obviously a lot of folks who want to experience the blues.

We have so much music in New Orleans, but there’s no club in town that specializes in blues. At OffBeat, visitors ask us all the time on where the blues clubs are, and we have to shrug our shoulders and refer the inquirer to a club locally who’s hosting a blues act but frankly, blues is not always easy to find here. The House of Blues is no more a blues club than the Howlin’ Wolf (named after a famous blues musician). While they occasionally feature blues acts, blues certainly isn’t a mainstay.

Baton Rouge is more oriented towards blues than New Orleans, and blues lover and promoter Johnny Palazzotto created Baton Rouge Blues Week; he also presents the Slim Harpo Awards to honor bluesmen and women, and anyone associated with the blues. This year the event takes place on May 1 at the Manship Theater in Baton Rouge. The Slim Harpo Music Awards ceremony is named for James Moore, known as Slim Harpo, an internationally-known Baton Rouge musician who became a significant influence on many musicians worldwide, including the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Van Morrison, and others.

It seems to me that there’s a space in the New Orleans market for a venue that regularly and prominently features blues. God knows there are enough of them in this town and nearby to provide regular quality blues music to a market that’s looking for blues. There seems to be a disconnect between what the market wants, and what we’re offering. What do you think? Take our poll


  • Cleophus

    This might be a chicken/egg thing, but there are a lot fewer blues bands in New Orleans than what one might expect (or a least than what I expected when I first visited ~17 yrs ago). So there might not be enough acts/bands to keep a ‘blues-only’ club going?

    • Jan

      I think there are plenty of bands/musicians that play blues or a close variation of same, but the phantom club could also book touring bands. There’s just no place in town that anyone could ever call a real blues club.

  • SwampKing

    I don’t know if the Voodoo Krewe still exists. I bought a few shirts from them a few years ago, but their web site looks dated.
    Years ago you could count on Bryan Lee to be holding court at the Old Absinthe House, but the last place I saw him play on Bourbon St. has become part of the new Hard Rock Cafe. Another place on Bourbon I saw him appear at is now a dacquiri shop, because THAT’S necessary….
    Outside of Big Al Carson, I don’t know of any tried and true blues acts featured around town on a regular schedule. One would think that someone would want to tap into the New Orleans/Blues connection and make some money while the boomers are spending it. The blues tent at Jazz Fest is always packed, maybe someone would open a joint to feature John Mooney et al on a monthly rotation.

  • Shutterbug

    I learned long ago that waiting for the blues masters and their disciples to show up where I was living (a major west coast town known for grunge) was an exercise in futility. Oh sure, you’d have the one-nighters on the occasional tour, and a few local bands trying to keep the blues alive. In the summer we’d get routing gigs from artists on their way to other places. But until you’ve been to major blues festivals like Chicago, King Biscuit and PA Blues Fest (nee Pocono), or the smaller but indelibly authentic gatherings in Clarksdale and Rolling Fork to see the originators who will NEVER travel outside their immediate areas, you’re only scraping the surface.

    BR Blues Week has set a fine precedent, but can’t seem to pick a date that doesn’t conflict with either Jazz Fest, Festival International, FQF or Juke Joint Festival. BR has a solid blues scene with outstanding musicians, but only Phil Brady’s offers blues on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the nearby club that should be ragingly successful, Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, continues to struggle. For the record, Teddy’s is the last real juke joint on Highway 61. Also for the record, one of the best nights of blues in my life occurred in Teddy’s, a 2011 MLK Day gig with Larry Garner, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, Sam Joyner and Noel Neal.

    Ground Zero in Clarksdale is a good club, but it’s hardly a “blues” club. Last time I was in there I heard punk rock. OTOH, Red’s juke joint two blocks away is about as old-school as it gets. Neither of those club owners are likely to open a blues joint in N.O..

    But I sure wish somebody would.