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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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Bowker's good friend and fellow aficionado of the blues Sarah Baker shares his upbeat outlook, though she, too, mourns the closing of the Last Day Saloon where she performed for years. "I think the blues are taking a downturn right now," she tells me. "But they've taken downturns in the past and they've bounced back. The fact is that there are always blues lovers, just as there are always people who have the blues. The music will always speak to them and for them. It'll always have an audience."

Baker and her band, Blues Kitchen, perform from Sonoma to Alameda, Contra Costa to Clear Lake, and she doesn't intend to stop now. "Some blues performers, like Tommy Castro and Roy Rogers, are doing very well, and of course so is B. B. King, who never goes out of style," she says. "It's often a matter of luck who succeeds and who doesn't. You have to persevere."

This Labor Day, Bowker Family Productions brings the rollicking Sonoma County Blues Festival back again by popular demand to Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma. If Bowker's regular Sunday show serves up a steady diet of biscuits and gravy, the Sept. 2 show—the "Coahoma to Sonoma County" festival—offers scrumptious, finger-licking barbecued ribs. Once again, after 22 years of helming the festival, he's the genial host.

RED-HEARTED BLUES Owner Laura van Galen onstage at the Fenix in San Rafael.
  • RED-HEARTED BLUES Owner Laura van Galen onstage at the Fenix in San Rafael.

Headliners include the hellacious harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite and his band, plus singer, songwriter and guitarist Johnny Rawls, who grew up in Mississippi and learned to play guitar from his blind grandfather. Also playing is Markus James, who combines down-home American blues with the music of Mali, and performs with drummer Kinney Kimbrough, son of legendary Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough. The Hound Kings, an acoustic blues trio from San Francisco that includes Alabama-born Michael Benjamin, Scot Brenton and Anthony Paule, launch the fest at 2pm. Their show is free; James and Kimbrough are also free. What's not to like?

Back in the 1970s when Bowker first arrived in Santa Rosa fresh out of L.A., where he had his own show, he thought he'd be in and out of town fast. "In this business, where rapid turnover is the name of the game, I never planned on a long stint here," he says, his hands moving rhythmically across the control panel, the instrument he plays like a pro. (Rapid turnover indeed: just last week, KRSH-FM morning DJ Brian Griffith was let go from the station; Bowker, for the first time in years, takes over the morning slot this week.)

Born in prosaic Passaic, N.J., where the only blues that he could hear was broadcast on WNBJ, Bowker is all about the roots of the music. He loves the Delta sound and the echoes of Delta music he hears in local groups such as Blues Kitchen, the all-woman band, with Nancy Wenstrom, Sarah Baker and Jan Martinelli.

Blues Kitchen carries on the tradition of Ma Rainey, known as the "Mother of the Blues," and the many blues sisters who have followed in her wake. Wenstrom, the band's sultry lead singer and guitarist, hails from Texas and has performed for 40 years. She first heard the blues played by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, later from Otis Rush, famous for bending his notes brilliantly, and Magic Sam, who learned to play by listening to records of Muddy Waters. Little by little, she fell in love with the music that came out of Mississippi.

"The blues is an elusive woman," Wenstrom tells me at Sarah Baker's tiny studio during a break in an afternoon rehearsal. Strumming her guitar, she adds, "The blues hurt you like a woman, and they also make you feel real good like a woman."

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