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Anatomy of a Blues Jam

Anatomy of a Blues Jam

PART TWO: Blues Jams Around the US

“It's a great way for younger players to develop their live chops, as well as a place for older musicians to play out without having to be in a full-time band. It is a great creative outlet.” Trampled Under Foot guitarist/vocalist Nick Schnebelen, 2008 International Blues Challenge Albert King Award Winner for Most Promising Guitarist.

A blues jam offers the opportunity for the non-professional guitarist to get out, play with some amazing musicians, and learn a thing or two in the process. I’ve always been grateful for that opportunity and it’s good to know that blues jams can be found all around the US.

While there are many local jams from which to choose in the New York Metro area where I live, it was worthwhile to leave the local orbit for a jam or two and experience the differences. Playing to unfamiliar crowds in unfamiliar venues with musicians you have never met or played with before, while standard practice for the professional or regular gigging musician, presents the jammer with a fresh set of challenges.

At the Bayou Monday Night Blues Jam, from left to right: Johnny "Feds" Federico (guitar),
Dave Schimanksy (drums), John "Elmo" Lawson (bass), and Fred Lind (keys).

Bayou Blues Jam – Mount Vernon, New York
Within ten miles of where I live in White Plains, there are open mic blues jams at various bars, restaurants, and clubs Sunday through Thursday evenings. For several years, Tele in hand, I regularly attended guitarist Geoff Hartwell’s Tuesday Night Blues Jam. When that jam ended after a seven year run, I discovered the Bayou Restaurant Monday Night Blues Jam in Mount Vernon with host band Johnny Feds and the Bluez Boyz. “I run the Monday night blues jam like Little League—everybody gets to play,” says guitarist/vocalist Johnny Federico.

With a long workday under my belt already, blues jam evenings at the Bayou begin with cups of coffee and a slice of pecan pie, while Johnny and the band do their opening set. Over the years, the Bayou stage has seen musicians like Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Tab Benoit, Sonny Landreth, and Kenny Neal—to name just a few—and you can feel the blues oozing from the old wood floors and the festive lingerie dangling over the bar. The Bayou jam sees many terrific musicians passing through and the opportunity exists each week to play alongside someone different. Johnny Feds runs the jam with enthusiasm for everyone participating and it’s great to come back each week and see who has signed up to play.

Because all blues is not local, I decided to board a flight to Kansas City (with my Squier Classic Vibe Tele) to continue my blues jam research and quest for more experience.

Trampled Under Foot seen at the Eclipse Bar & Grill Wednesday Night Blues Jam, from left to right: Gharret Schaberg, friend ("brother from another mother") and occasional sax player locally for the band, Danielle Schnebelen (bass), Kris Schnebelen (drums), and Nick Schnebelen (guitar).

Trampled Under Foot – Raytown, Missouri
I was traveling to KC to meet up with the rising star musician Schnebelen siblings Nick (guitar), Danielle (bass), and Kris (drums) of the Kansas City blues band Trampled Under Foot. Though a dedicated and hardworking touring band, TUF has been hosting a popular Wednesday evening blues jam for more than seven years to appreciative crowds at the Eclipse Bar & Grill in Raytown, Missouri.

The evening before the jam, with my cell phone set for tornado alerts amid turbulent spring weather, I to BB’s Lawnside BBQ, a blues and barbecue landmark in Kansas City to see TUF perform. I felt right at home with a plate of BB’s barbecue and a cold beer on the table, and once TUF fired up, I was certain traveling all the way to KC for a blues jam was the right effort.

The Eclipse, TUF’s Wednesday evening jam venue, is a big, roadhouse-style bar and grill where the atmosphere is welcoming and the crowd loves the music. At The Eclipse Bar & Grill, there is a great familiar local feeling to the place and when Trampled Under Foot started to play, it is an understatement to say that a high standard was set for the evening. The Schnebelens are jam experts, having performed as youngsters at jams run by their musician mom and dad. So they are not only a tight, professional band; they’re family.

Waiting at the bar, I felt like I was about to join the Navy SEALS of Blues as a journalist on a mission and maybe I should keep my head down.  Any fears I had as a newcomer, however, quickly were dispelled by the friendly guidance of the band and the enthusiasm of the crowd. I was grateful for the warm welcome I received and it helped calm my nervous fingers working through Albert Collins’s “Too Tired” with the band.

The privilege to play with musicians like Nick, Danielle and Kris—players who make you better with their skill, patience, and support—is worth a tornado warning or two. And it’s the kind of experience you may find yourself, if you are willing to haunt the blues jam scene.

Author Larry Berglas sits in Warmdaddy's house band members Randy Lippincott (guitar and vocals),
Joey 'Hotbox' Simon (harmonica), Pete Eshelman (keyboards), Barry Meehan (bass),
and Bob Holden (drums) under the glow of the venue's neon.

Warmdaddy’s – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Guitarist, bassist, and vocalist Randy Lippincott has run the Warmdaddy's Tuesday Night Blues Jam with different bands for more than 12 years.
I wrapped my research by making the three-hour drive to Philadelphia on the hottest day of the 2011 summer to date. My destination was the blues club Warmdaddy’s, which TUF’s Nick Schnebelen cited as an important jam experience in their musical development. Led by veteran guitarist and vocalist Randy Lippincott and his band, the Warmdaddy’s jam offers a full, professional, stage-ready experience for participants. “Warmdaddy's is a pleasant, family-run dinner club that we’ve made our home for well over a dozen years,” explains Lippincott. “It's not your typical, old style blues juke joint."

Warmdaddy’s presented me with an entirely different experience than The Eclipse or The Bayou, which are smaller, more intimate venues. Warmdaddy’s offers a large, lofty restaurant style space and, in addition to the jammers present the night I was there, there may have been a hundred or so people still in the audience at jam time at both the tables and bar, an audience who clearly was there for the music. The Bayou can feel like you are playing to friends in Johnny Feds’ living room; Warmdaddy’s offered a stage-centered and boisterous larger crowd experience. At The Bayou, Johnny will often have, as co-hosts, guest musicians including singers, harp players and others leading the sets for the jammers, who help to set the tone for the evening,

Randy and the band gave me plenty of room and support to play that evening. After my first two-song set was done and I left the stage, audience enthusiasm extended all the way to the couple at the end of the bar. They actually shook my hand and insisted on buying me a beer simply because, as they put it, “We love good music.” This kind of connection is what it’s all about at the jams.

Finding Your Jam
Blues jams are open to all and they are easy to find. Some may have a small cover charge; some have none at all. Many bars, pubs and other venues that present music have designated evenings devoted exclusively to blues jams. Searching the term “blues jam” on the web for your area or checking the schedules of local blues or other music clubs will give you results. All you need to do is show up with your instrument ready to play and sign up on the sheet that usually appears while the host band is setting up.
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