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Guest Column: Live blues music lives, but will it continue to?

January 30, 2013

By Steve Jones
President, Crossroads Blues Society

Live music is the essence of musical performance. Artists may go into the studio to lay down their tracks and record their songs, but the delivery of their art to a live audience truly is where the rubber meets the road.

As president of Crossroads Blues Society, I get to hear a lot of music, both live and recorded. Our group serves the Rockford area as a nonprofit organization working to bring the blues into area schools. We believe the blues are important because they represent the core of all the popular music we listen to today.

The blues have been pronounced dead or dying from time to time. In the 1960s, long-haired white boys from England resuscitated the blues. In the 1970s, we saw two of Saturday Night Live’s comedians catapult the blues into our living rooms and hearts. The 1980s saw a guy from Austin, Texas, pretty much single-handedly restore the blues to the mainstream.

The blues grew and grew from the field hollers of the plantations melded with the songs of the churches and the traditional music of western Africa. The Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and East Texas gave it a variety of flavors. From the diddly bow to a beaten old guitar, it grew; the small orchestras of 1940s and 1950s and the electrified Chicago scene expanded the blues. It adapted, crossed racial and cultural lines, and became jazz, country, rock and roll, R&B, soul, rap, hip hop and pretty much everything we listen to today.

The blues still exist in the world. Last year, there were 526 blues festivals. People everywhere come out in droves for the blues. They support the blues, love the blues, keep the blues alive across the U.S. and globally; everywhere but in Rockford.

For nearly the past 30 or so years, the blues have lived in Rockford clubs like the Adriatic Live Music Bar (formerly Big Cities Lounge), which has brought great blues acts to Rockford. Attendance at live music events has declined over the years. One can make excuses about locations and personalities and the economy, but drive up and down State Street on a Friday or Saturday night, and the movie theaters and chain restaurants are packed. Sure, there is the occasional big hit show that many people will come out for, but an average Friday or Saturday night may see fewer than 10 or 15 people wander in to check out the sounds of a local tavern. Attendance like that means the blues are not going to pay to keep the lights on and doors open.

We are all busy people today. We work hard, we spend hours to make sure our spouses and significant others are taken care of. We strive to make sure our children are accommodated, protected and nurtured. But we need to also take care of our inner souls. Music feeds that inner soul, and the blues is something primal that we all can understand.

The blues shows in clubs in town are generally not expensive. They range from free/$5 and under to perhaps $10 and occasionally $20 when a bigger act is featured. The last I checked, a movie, popcorn and soda for two costs more than a blues act and a few beverages at a blues club. It’s not like going to the Coronado and dropping $100 or more on a pair of tickets. We’re talking about hot, extraordinary bands that play right in front of you and the cover is maybe $10; this is music you can take in and absorb though all your senses.

We need to take advantage of these places that offer us such an entertainment value. I’ve watched weekend crowds dwindle to sizes of shows that one would not have expected on weeknights back in the heyday of live music. It can only be saved from extinction if people come out and listen. This newspaper has done a hell of a job promoting and highlighting live music here in the Rockford area; it’s not like the word is not getting out.

I urge you to come out on a Friday or Saturday night and sample the fares at our local clubs. You don’t have to spend a lot, and you only have to stay for one set to really get your money’s worth. We have such a rich assortment of music that has been available, but it is going away because of a lack of support. You need to hear it live; it’s better live than on the radio or your headphones from your MP3 player. You become a part of the experience, and interaction fuels the artist who, in turn, fuels your own feelings. It is more fulfilling and more enjoyable to be there as the music is being made — it will never sound exactly that way ever again, and you might miss the best performance ever by not going out to listen.

Check out what’s happening each week here in The Rock River Times in the world of local live music. There is so much to be appreciated, but without your support, it won’t last much longer.

Steve Jones is the president of Crossroads Blues Society. He has lived in the Rockford area for 16 years, moving here after retiring as a Navy Commander in nuclear submarines. Originally from New York City, Steve has been a music fan since his youth. He and his wife and family all love music and attend live music shows as often as possible. Crossroads is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit staffed entirely by volunteers who work to raise funds to conduct Blues in the Schools programs; since May 2002, they have done 108 programs for more than 32,000 area students.

From the Jan. 30-Feb. 5, 2013, issue

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