It has long been said that the Blues are an acquired taste. If so, I acquired it some sixty years ago.
One of the rewards for being a good paper boy when I was ten years old was the right to use hard-earned Newsday points to order items from a catalog of eclectic merch. Most boys longed for baseball mitts. Me, I spent mine on the Columbia Records section. For some odd, unfathomable reason I ordered blues LPs: Muddy Waters, Lightening Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, and Howling Wolf. I blasted them on my parents’ Hi-Fi while dancing around the room. They thought I was nuts.
They were right. I have been nuts for Blues Music ever since. Of course, in the sixties, I loved Rock and Roll. I stoned out to The Airplane, The Dead, The Doors, Dylan, and every other craze from the Beatles to Blondie, but I was always loyal to the roots of it all, Delta and then Chicago Blues. The proximity to NYC from Long Island, where I grew up, allowed me at 15 to hang out on Bleecker Street and see real-deal blues men like Dave Van Ronk and Richie Havens at Café au Go Go.
College in Boston in 1970 was concert heaven. Everyone showed up, including Tracy Nelson/Mother Earth and James Cotton. The Tea Party was the hot venue. In NYC, I saw BB King and Jimmy Hendrix at the Fillmore East.
Back to Manhattan for good in 1973, the blues was not easy to hear. Studio 54 was a hoot, the Mudd Club…best time ever. 111’s on Hudson St. super cool reggae. You had to go to Long Beach LI to hear Little Buster and the Soul Brothers. Things got better in the late ’70s. Great blues acts like Doc Pomus and Junior Wells showed up at The Lone Star Café. Later came Manny’s Car Wash in midtown and Chicago Blues in the West Village. They’ve all closed.
Now, the sole remaining Blues club in NYC is Terra Blues on historic Bleecker St. Terra opened in 1990.
To understand the club and the musicians who play there, it helps to think of the music as transcending pure blues. Understand you’re witnessing some of the best guitar playing by any musician east of the Mississippi. The house bands are a nightly rotation of Jr. Mack, SaRon Crenshaw, Clarence Spady, Bobby Bryan, and Michael Hill, all of whom are multiple award-winning blues artists. Their bands vary but all contain drummers, bassists, keyboardists, often a second guitar, and all are first-rate. Barry Harrison on the drums also does vocals. He is not to be missed.
Terra Blues has three shows a night starting at 10:00 p.m. and ending after 2:00 a.m. There is an acoustic set first at 7:00 where you can hear their talent very up close and very personal. If you come at 7:00 you can stay for the later shows on the same ticket.
It’s hard to believe that talent of this magnitude is playing in a club this intimate. Every time I go, I can’t believe these Masters of Music are not performing for audiences of many thousands. Fortunately for them, they do as they tour Europe and play some of the larger American blues festivals.
As Scott Rivers, the club’s manager, put it, “we are so lucky to have these musical masters in the New York area and to have them as regulars at Terra Blues. They are all the real deal. Blues are in their DNA and fingers.”
He went on to add, “we are also proud to be the launch pad for acts like King Solomon Hicks. He considers this his home and stops in to gig when he can. You can also catch upcoming stars like; Noe Socha, Hayden Fogle, Kelton Cooper, and Tom Larsen, I’m also enjoying Doc French a lot, his style is very traditional, but his approach is very smooth and relaxed.”
Solos by these great guitarists leave the audience awed. Applause and screams of joy vibrate off the walls. If you stay late enough sometimes the audience lets loose and dancing breaks out. Think roadhouse in the south circa 1940.
The pantheon of blues greats that have and continue to make special appearances at Terra include legends like John Primer, Lil’ Ed, Jason Ricci, James Armstrong, and Bobby Radcliff, just to name a few. Catching one of these iconic acts in the club setting is how musical memories are made.
The very best news is that in the last two years the audience has changed. It’s now younger and hipper. Scott observed, “All of a sudden, we have Brooklyn and beyond Z’ers and Millennials showing up and loving the music, they have rediscovered the roots of all rock and roll and R&B. Whether it’s social media or just word of mouth they are now enjoying the best live music on a street where more musical legends have been born on than any other. This is super cool and ensures the future of the blues.”
What would any self-respecting club be without great booze? Once again Terra Blues does not disappoint. They have a really full bar but specialize in whiskeys. On their website, check out their list with over 400 choices.
There is no food served, so grab a bite in the Village before. The options are infinite, but my two favorites are Monte’s on MacDougal, very old school (since 1918) red sauce, or Arturo’s Coal Oven Pizza on Houston, just old school (since 1957), great pizza and simple Italian dishes.
These spots and the musicians at Terra Blues are part of what makes life in New York City uniquely worth visiting or living in.