Music » Music Stories & Interviews

Music Lowdown blues



Local diehards struggle to revive a sluggish scene

In early April, the San Antonio Blues Society promoted a local concert by California guitar hero Tommy Castro. The next week, Kathy Wolters broke out in hives.

The San Antonio Blues Society's board of directors are pinning their hopes on a Fiesta-week festival. Board members are (clockwise from lower right): George Briscoe, Cindy Weiner, Mike Davis, Roger Rutledge, Mark Stewart, Ross Schlichting, Kathy Wolters, and John Cockrell. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Wolters, the Blues Society's president, tends to become physically ill after each of the organization's attempts at concert promotion, events which inevitably produce fine music, low turnouts, and plenty of red ink.

Her rash of infirmities matches the state of the San Antonio blues scene, which limps along from year to year, with a small core of diehards consistently trying - and failing - to generate something more than a faint pulse. Theories abound, but no one can adequately explain why a city that produced Doug Sahm, Randy Garibay, the Westside Sound, and the landmark recordings of Robert Johnson, in a state with a towering legacy stretching from Blind Lemon Jefferson to Stevie Ray Vaughan, can't attract a decent crowd for even the most revered blues performers.

Either out of dogged determination or sheer masochism, the Blues Society is now gearing up for its most ambitious venture to date, a festival on the final night of Fiesta, intended to replace the late, lamented Bowie Street Blues Festival, which was sponsored by the Institute of Texan Cultures. Organizers hope that the event, called the Spring Blues Heritage Series, can survive into a third year, enabling it it to become an officially sanctioned part of Fiesta.

Wolters, a San Antonio native, suggests that the city's minimal appetite for the blues comes down to cultural and demographic issues. "Here in San Antonio we have such a large Hispanic populace, and I think it also comes down to educational levels of the people here. They're just fed this music on the radio stations and they don't know anything else. We're talking country and Tejano."


Cedryl Ballou and the Zydeco Trendsetters,
Ponty Bone and the Squeezetones,
Miss Neesie and the Earfood Orchestra,
and special guest Spot Barnett

Sun, Apr 24
($8 for Blues Society members)
Sunset Station
1174 E. Commerce
Whatever the cause, the evidence is irrefutable: The nationally popular Castro drew a meager 120 people to Sunset Station;

A more recent show at The Cove by New Orleans R&B singer Mem Shannon was witnessed by only about 20 people; The Blues Society can't find a single corporate sponsor, or a club willing to chip in for the costs of their quarterly blues jams; Sunset Station, one of the few local venues with a commitment to blues, recently passed on concerts by both Taj Mahal and Dr. John because the economic numbers were prohibitive. Both shows ended up at Gruene Hall.

Terri Toennies, general manager of Sunset Station, lived in New Orleans and San Diego, and recalls that "even though San Diego is only about 4 percent African-American, it had a very strong blues community."

A longtime blues enthusiast, Toennies often finds herself forced to put aside her own musical passions when it comes to booking blues shows.

"We get calls about blues legends that I'd love to bring here, people like Buddy Guy," Toennies says. "But for a venue our size and with the costs involved, it just doesn't make sense if we can't get 1,000 people here." Toennies also wants to bring Etta James to town, but will probably set it up at a smaller venue, such as the Carver Community Cultural Center.

Mike Davis, public-relations and entertainment director for the Blues Society, recalls that when Toennies moved to town in 2003, she met with the organization to get a feel for the local scene. "We were brutally honest with her," he says. "We said, 'It's kind of feeble right now. You're taking a chance with it.'"

San Antonio Blues Society - web site

As things stand, San Antonio lacks a reliable blues club to compare to Antone's in Austin. Casbeers mixes blues into its roots-music format, and Luna effectively spices up its jazz offerings with occasional blues shows by W.C. Clark and others. Sam's Burger Joint (the site of SA's last major blues club, Billy Blues) and The Cove also dabble in the genre. But if no club gets behind it with full force, it's because a sufficient audience doesn't exist for it.

"Even with our own membership, we have trouble getting them to get their butts off the couch," Wolters says. "You don't even see the blues bands around at shows. That's why Billy Blues became Sam's, because no one would come out to the shows."

To some degree, the problem is bigger than San Antonio. Go to any notable blues festival and you'll find a predominantly white, middle-aged crowd. A genre that was once a contemporary expression of African-American life has become the province of earnest preservationists. If you want to know what blues signified 50 years ago, look at what hip-hop signifies today.

Wolters agrees that blues is "in a slump" and appeals to "an aging populace," but argues that she continually comes in contact with blues fans from cities with far more vigorous scenes than the one in San Antonio. "Blues isn't a great cultural attraction for the city," she says. "They don't think we're important."

One bright spot for the Blues Society has been the strong response to its quarterly blues jams at various local clubs. The money generated from recent jams enabled the organization to again stick its collective neck out with a festival promotion. In an attempt to broaden the tent for blues appreciation, they've adopted the "heritage" theme for this festival, allowing it to focus on musical forms - rock 'n' roll, folk, zydeco - outside the blues realm, but strongly influenced by the blues.

This year's inaugural effort is dedicated to Texas zydeco, with a lineup including Waco institution Cedryl Ballou and the Zydeco Trendsetters, Ponty Bone and the Squeezetones, Miss Neesie and the Earfood Orchestra, and special guest Spot Barnett.

"We're going to continue to do this, and hopefully people are going to wake up and realize that we're trying to bring the blues to San Antonio in a bigger way," Wolters says.

"If they don't start coming out to support live music, there's not going to be any, because the clubs can't continue to take these hits, and neither can we."

By Gilbert Garcia

Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.