San Francisco has always been a magnet for cultural renegades. It nurtured the Beat poets and jazzmen of the fifties and then the acid rockers and electric-blues players of the sixties. Now the Bay Area is celebrating a renaissance in the blues. The music bridges generation gaps with an emotional power that's older than that of jazz and has outlasted funk and punk. On any night of the week you'll find some of the country's best musicians—local stars like Tommy Castro, Chris Cobb, and Preacher Boy—performing at clubs in the city itself and in neighboring towns.
BISCUITS & BLUES
401 Mason St.
cover charge $6-$20
With red shutters on the walls and novena candles on the tables, Biscuits & Blues is a shrine to the blues. Scattered around are pictures of Blind Lemon Jefferson and Muddy Waters; the motto is "Dedicated to the Preservation of Hot Biscuits and Cool Blues." The owner, a Mississippi-born chef, combines her passion for food with her love of music.
On the night I stopped by, the performer was Charles Brown, a piano legend who racked up a string of hits in the forties. Dressed in a cape, patent leather shoes, tuxedo trousers, and a sequined cap, Brown has a stage manner reminiscent of Bobby Short's.
Brown is a musician's musician, a stylist once compared to Nat King Cole; a man who has influenced Ray Charles. He's lived in Berkeley for dozens of years, and, at 74, he's lost none of his fabled touch. Singer Maria Muldaur, who regularly appears in area clubs, is in the audience. "It's great to live in a town where you can hear a genius like Charles Brown," says Muldaur. At the next table a group of young women watch in awe as Brown steams through a rocking boogie-woogie number. "Can he really be in his seventies?" one of them wonders aloud.
ELI'S MILE HIGH CLUB
3629 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
cover charge $4-$8
A uniformed security guard patrols the parking lot in front of Eli's Mile High Club, in Oakland. A full-bearded, big-bellied doorman sits on a stool, rubber-stamping hands. Inside, the lighting is dim and the ceiling and walls are covered with photos of the blues greats. The jukebox is loaded with classics by Etta James and Ray Charles. The crowd, which includes many students from nearby UC Berkeley, comes to hear hot acts such as local favorites Tommy Castro and Ron Thompson & the Resistors.
The Resistors, who usually play Saturdays, are a high-impact trio led by Thompson, a short, stocky man in the bluesman's unofficial uniform of black jeans, T-shirt, and vest. He sings, plays searing electric guitar, and doubles on harmonica and keyboards. The hourlong set is jam-packed with songs. It's still early, but the dance floor is full. People don't seem to care how they look; they're here for the music. Thompson launches into an instrumental version of "Honky Tonk," and the crowd goes wild.
Fourth Ave. at University
cover charge $5
There's no ambience at Brennan's, a cavernous place with a seating capacity of 298. There are TV's everywhere. It reminds me of a college campus hangout, which makes sense because it's in Berkeley. But the deliberately unclublike decor is part of the Brennan's philosophy that good blues works in any setting.
Brennan's draws an older crowd than Eli's; the people who come here are hard-core blues lovers. The object of their obsession tonight is NiteCry, a six-man group knocking out tight, punchy arrangements and multipart harmonies.
"I go to all of NiteCry's gigs," says a slender, dark-haired woman from San Jose. "They're the best band in the Bay, and pretty soon somebody's going to smarten up and sign them to a record deal."
2125 Lombard St.
cover charge $5
Blues, in the heart of caffe latte territory, is a hangout for trendy young people right out of "Melrose Place." They're into acts like Johnny Maxwell, Joey Razor and the Blueblades, the Russell Brothers, and Bay Area bluesman Preacher Boy, a white 27-year-old who sings in a raspy Tom Waits voice. He's already signed to the local label Blind Pig Records and has a strong following. With his band, the Natural Blues, Preacher Boy takes the stage in dark glasses, playing slide guitar and grating his way through (of all things) "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," a song considered so corny that, in New Orleans, Dixieland players charge $20 to play it. I'm hoping it's a parody, especially since his sax player is doubling on kazoo.
LOU'S PIER 47
300 Jefferson St.
cover charge $4-$8.
"Is everybody having a good time?" asks singer Chris Cobb at the close of the Bill Doggett staple "Farther On down the Road." There are shouts and whistles. Two executive types drinking beer bark out words of approval. Everybody's drinking at Lou's, a mecca for tourists, with an impressive roster of artists (Tommy Castro, Maria Muldaur, E.C. Scott).
Cobb counts down a beat and digs into the up-tempo "Mystery Train" by Junior Parker. He teases the notes out of his Fender and the music is doing its work. Lou's showcases 17 bands a week, and, judging by the turnout, that number's not enough.
Muldaur, who lives in Marin County, summed up the Bay Area's blues scene best: "It's wonderful that the blues is being kept alive; this music is not being played by people looking to get rich…The blues is what you do because you love it."
Still feeling blue?
Here are some other spots where you can scope out the Bay Area sound.
9 E. Blithedale Ave.
It's been around since 1968; owner John Goddard stocks about 100,000 records, new and used.
Down Home Music Store
10341 San Pablo Ave.
Great selection of blues, folk, Cajun, country, and world music; B.B. King is a regular.
ON THE RADIO
The JOHNNY OTIS SHOW, the country's longest-running blues program, airs Saturdays from 9 to 11 a.m., followed by BLUES BY THE BAY with Tom Mazzolini, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., on 94.1 FM.
The SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE's Sunday edition has listings of club and concert performances throughout the Bay Area; EAST BAY EXPRESS, a free alternative weekly printed Thursdays, has club schedules and good coverage of the current blues scene.
The 24th Annual San Francisco Blues Festival takes place September 28-29. Call 415/979-5588 for information.
David Stuyvesant Barry, a freelance writer, contributes to the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles magazine.