Welcome to 2014!

By Kurt Fitzsimmons
March 2014

I am writing this on New Year’s Day, after seeing a fantastic – and sold out – blues show last night at the Bull Run in Shirley starring Lydia Warren, James Montgomery and the Uptown Horns.

I emphasize “sold out” because, sadly, that wasn’t the norm for blues shows in 2013. Sometimes, there were fewer folks in attendance than there were in the courtroom seats reserved for Whitey Bulger’s friends and family during his trial last summer. I kid you not.

Why?

Kurt surmises it’s a dark storm of aging blues fans who don’t like to drive at night and have cut down on drinking, combined with a lack of younger fans, and maybe the economy. There certainly are plenty of good, younger blues artists and bands on the rise, including Lydia Warren, Willie J. Laws, Samantha Fish, Austin Young, Gary Clark Jr., and more – scattered across the U.S.

Then there are the shrinking number of clubs, and the attitudes of some of the owners. My pal Professor Harp has to bust his butt constantly to get these oblivious bookers and owners to even return a call. I recently became an agent for the very talented singer-songwriter Carolyn Waters, a dream job - if only anyone would respond. My old friend Bob Margolin (do I really still have to say he once played in Muddy’s band?) had these words of wisdom: “The way to make a million dollars in blues is to start off with two million.” Enough said?

Nope.

The following was on my Facebook page one night. I don’t know the poster personally, he’s a musician, but it is food for thought.

BANDS.... if you are booking a tour and want a guarantee, and the promoter/venue asks you "How many people can you bring in"... tell them one of two things:

1: Reply with... "That depends how well you are going to promote the show...you guys do promote, right?" Nine out of 10 times they will stammer a little and give some sort of bullshit answer.

OR

2: Just blatantly tell them "That just tells me you aren't going to do any work promoting this show"... they either are going to say "well we promote by Facebook and blah blah blah"... if that's the case, you tell them "That's not good enough. There need to be flyers made, and put up, not just in the venue, but in the stores/places (where) people gather". THE OTHER thing they might say/do is they will get caught off guard and possibly going to get huffy and take offense.

Now, what I'm going to say is very unorthodox , but in the long run if everyone did it, will eventually change things for ALL musicians who tour for the better........

99.9% of promoters/venues will not change their stance. They will not want to book you. MAKE SURE to get in the last word and say "That's fine, I'll just let every band know not to deal with you" ....AND ACTUALLY DO IT AND LET PEOPLE KNOW.

This might seem childish, but no, this sends a big message that eventually these promoters will either have to shape up, or fold. If EVERY band did this, you would see a massive change in the way things are run.

OK. Would we?

One of my first tasks as an agent was to get Carolyn a gig at a prominent Boston venue, which shall remain nameless. We were told she had to sign a contract for a $750 “room fee” (which included the soundman and a waitress) to be paid by her. She would get 80 percent of the door after the $750 was met.

That meant we had to get at least 60 paying customers, at $20 a whack, on the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving.

I put a blurb in the Globe. But with the Phoenix and most print publications gone the way of record stores, there aren’t many places to advertise a gig. We used Facebook and Twitter and an email list. The club put its weekly ad in the Globe as well. Carolyn and I recruited as many friends as possible (even my oldest friend, from like age 5, drove up from Milford. Thank you, Al!)

Carolyn still ended up barely breaking even. I think she owned the club about $30, but of course had to pay the band – the great Peter “HiFi” Ward’s Electric Blues.

Don’t get me wrong, the show was great and there was a decent showing, although most were friends and fellow musicians. In fact, Prof. Harp and Satoru Nakagawa, slide guitarist from the Tokyo Tramps, sat in for a few tunes, and the fabulous Anthony Geraci was on keys. The band did two of Carol’s originals and several of Hi-Fi’s songs. The Prof and Carolyn did a fine Jimmy Reed medley. Satoru was as tremendous as Elmore James on “Shake Your Money Maker.”

A few weeks later, James Montgomery and Bruce Marshall did one of their special intimate acoustic duos shows at the Colonial Inn in Concord. Again, the positive-sounding word “intimate” is a good substitute for a smattering of attendees, fewer than 20 at my estimate. You could hear a pin drop between songs, regardless of the funny banter between Bruce and James.

The show was fun, and the duo did some great tunes by Muddy, Sonny Boy Williamson II and Junior Wells. Marshall killed it with his steel guitar.

Yet where were the fans? I notice people seem to have no problem paying hundreds of dollars to see Beyonce, the Dropkick Murphys, and others, not to mention sporting events. Yet some clubs refuse to charge even a $5 or $10 cover. I’m giving a nod to Smoken Joe’s which has a cover charge on weekends, but regularly allows bands to pass a bucket on no-cover weekdays.

What particularly irked me last year was the White House Kennedy Awards Show, featuring Buddy Guy who received a much deserved award from President Obama. The well-heeled and not-so-youthful audience was going crazy dancing and clapping along to “Sweet Home Chicago.” So where are these people when a live blues act comes to a nearby club?

And while I’m on this topic (I promise to stop whining soon…) the local blues societies should get more support as well. I know the Boston Blues Society is currently run by just two board members; and the Mass Blues Society by maybe one or two more than that. They can’t get volunteers, and they certainly can’t put on shows or festivals by themselves. We really need to lively up!

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