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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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Baker, who plays keyboards and provides vocals, heard B. B. King and Rufus King growing up in both rural and urban Tennessee, her home state. "You would have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to see and hear the blues in Memphis," she tells me. She adds, "The blues are not downer music. Rather, they provide a way out of feeling bad."

Baker, Wenstrom and Jan Martinelli, who plays standup bass, perform every variety of the blues, from Sippie Wallace and Bessie Smith to Miles Davis and Horace Silver. They also offer their own originals: Baker's "Use it or Lose It" and Wenstrom's "Brickyard Blues."

Martinelli began to perform in junior high. She had her own band that interpreted songs by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Cream. "Blues Kitchen fans are mostly 40-plus," she tells me. "We always have a great audience when we play at Armando's in Martinez, but we've also had good listeners at the Redwood Cafe in Cotati."

For Bowker, the blues are an untamed force. "I like the blues raw," he tells me in a tone of voice that's raspy and smooth all at the same time. He adds, "I first heard the blues as a kid, and they really scared me. Howlin' Wolf gave me goose bumps. He still does. The blues still scare me."

BRINGIN’ ’EM IN Merl Saunders Jr. books the acts at the Fenix.
  • BRINGIN’ ’EM IN Merl Saunders Jr. books the acts at the Fenix.

No mention of local blues is complete without the long-running Russian River Blues Festival, which for over three decades has brought the music of the dark juke joint to the sunny shores of the river in Guerneville. This year's lineup includes Boz Scaggs, Robert Cray, Los Lobos and the California Honeydrops.

Once-a-year festivals are one thing; once-a-week jam sessions are another. John Ranis plays rhythm 'n' blues on the guitar when he's not selling insurance at Allstar West in Petaluma. The Sonoma County Blues Society, a nonprofit that he's often carried on his own back, aims to keep the blues alive. "It's an indigenous American art form," Ranis tells me proudly. No one is more enthusiastic about the blues than he, and no one is more supportive of new talent.

Every Wednesday night from 7 to 11, Ranis hosts a blues jam at Society: Culture House in Santa Rosa. To attend, one need not be from Mississippi, play like B. B. King or sing like Janiva Magness, the woman who lived the blues as an orphan in foster homes before she learned to sing them. Ranis welcomes one and all, even if one's musical skill is just finger snapping and hand clapping. This September, performers include Norman Greenbaum and the Mike Marino Band. Right now, Ranis is especially excited about the two young musicians who make up the Honey Dippers. "Corey Herve and Gonz Ochoa play because they love to play, not because they're making big money," he tells me. "For new blood in the blues scene, they're phenomenal."

Dozens of locals—Bill Noteman, Sonny Lowe, Jody Counter, Levi Lloyd, the Scallywags and the Wilson-Hukill Blues Revue—express their love for the blues almost every night of the week, from the Willowbrook in Petaluma and the Tradewinds in Cotati to Aubergine in Sebastopol and the Blue Heron in Duncans Mills. Wineries showcase blues bands, too, and on KRCB, Mary Carroll hosts her heavenly program Lady Spins the Blues, with live musicians like Sarah Baker.

Whenever the local scene finds itself in the doldrums, Mississippi bluesmen come to the rescue. For his own blues fix, Bowker travels to Mississippi twice a year. He always comes home rejuvenated, and he always brings the blues back to the North Bay. "This year's festival at Lagunitas will take listeners on a journey across the South, up Highway 61 to the Bay Area and the whole world," he tells me. "People who come will be treated to a decidedly Mississippi feeling they won't soon forget."

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