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Rebirthing the Blues

Every time the local blues scene hits a crossroads, it finds its way home

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Every Sunday evening, whether the sky's blue or cloudy, Bill Bowker, 69, blasts the blues from Studio "H" at the KRSH (95.9 FM), the station that has long played the moody, soulful music that began in Mississippi and traveled north and west to Memphis, Chicago, Detroit and California, morphing all the way.

"On the KRSH, Blues with Bowker," he says, his mouth practically kissing the microphone as he selects yet another tune by Bobby "Blue" Bland, who died this summer at his home outside Memphis at the age of 83. Van Morrison, the Band and the Grateful Dead popularized Bland's biggest hits, such as "It's My Life, Baby" and "Farther Up the Road." And ain't that the way it's always been with the blues; somebody's always covering the originals and making a mint.

For two hours tonight, Bowker's in blues heaven. So are listeners who've learned to hear the difference, thanks in large measure to his regular Sunday-night shows, between a really good English translation of the blues and the authentic Mississippi sound.

CLARKSDALE AND BACK When he’s not sojourning in Mississippi to discover new artists, Bill Bowker is the most recognizable voice on blues radio in Sonoma County.
  • CLARKSDALE AND BACK When he’s not sojourning in Mississippi to discover new artists, Bill Bowker is the most recognizable voice on blues radio in Sonoma County.

Like blues aficionados almost everywhere these days, Bowker gets hot and bothered about the state of the music that he loves and promotes. At times, he even sounds down about the local blues scene. After all, the Last Day Saloon, a venerable venue for the blues, just closed its doors. But one club closes and another opens. At the newly risen Fenix on Fourth Street in San Rafael, there are blues jams with local talent, and special guests such as Lynn Asher once a week on Wednesday nights all year long, plus a bar and gourmet food. Sounds like blues heaven.

Merl Saunders Jr., son of Merl Saunders, the preeminent piano player and king of the keyboards, books the shows at the Fenix. His father's love of music rubbed off on him a long time ago, as did a lot of music history. Born in San Mateo, Saunders Sr. collaborated with the likes of Jerry Garcia, Mickey Hart and Bonnie Raitt. He died in 2008, but his soul lives on at the Fenix. Saunders Jr. tells me, "Name any kind of music. Go ahead. We have it all: jazz, bluegrass, soul, classical and, of course, the blues."

In fact, the Fenix House Band—drums, guitar, keyboard, sax and bass—wails the blues every week. Saunders is committed to new talent and to veteran all-stars. "Six months after opening," he tells me, "we've already showed up on the radar as a destination for touring bands."

There are heaps of young talent out there, from Marin to Mendocino, and tucked away in the hills are the old masters: singer, songwriter and guitarist Nick Gravenites, and Charlie Musselwhite, who plays a mean harmonica and who hosts and boasts his own show on the KRSH.

With all that talent, Bowker never gets down about the blues for long, if only because his own show has a steady stream of loyal listeners. He also sees hopeful signs close to home. Just the other day, he drove up to "Beverly Healdsburg," as he calls it, to attend a free concert in the plaza by the North Mississippi Allstars. "The place was packed with the older wine crowd," he tells me. "You know, the guys with the sweaters and the women fashionably attired. The blues isn't their thing, but they were getting into it, starting to move their bodies. The blues are infectious and damned hard to resist. I went home feeling mighty pleased."

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