Axes In The Audience

Okay, party animal, it's a Sunday afternoon in late July. With its lissome chase of benevolent cottony patches across an opulently blue overhead, it may be the most idyllic day of the year. You can glimpse fragments of it through the small horizontal rect angles set high in the subterranean walls of the West Strand Grill's "Downtown Underground" as you soak in the loping progressions of a 12-bar blues like a musical moloch.

Ian Bennett is guiding his saxophone through channels charted long ago by James Brown as the other Blue Rays shape out the jib and keel for this maiden voyage of the afternoon cruise. The tug of the rhythms and nocturnal suggestiveness of the setting obscure, for a clock stretch, the golden panorama of the sun-drenched marina that the cafe out back overlooks. That clock has submerged in the wake of a finishing kick by drummer Gary Schwartz and now there's only Bennett's vocal launch into Texas Eddie's "Wait A Minute, Baby" over Robert Bard's bassy downbeat and the settling in of your fellow subterreanians. You notice a flow of people arriving with instruments and the presence of seniors and grade school kids grooving into the show. There's a crew from a Manhattan cable station setting up a monitor, dancing couples and mixing singles to remind you what brought you in from paradise. This is, as word has it, a "happening" scene.

Rich Colan, sitting in for the Blue Rays regular guitarist, Chris Vitarello, warmed the waters with an automobile blues while Bennett switched to mouth harp and melded some scrumptious short licks into the breaks. Showing a taste for less common tunes, and blues history is replete with solid b-sides and album-fillers begging for retreatment, Bennett laced on Muddy Water's "Evil" for a snug fit and the tapping toes of arriving jam-meisters were already twitching to test the temperature of the pool, ready to swap strokes with the other swimmers. This was underground networking with musical immediacy. A horde of axes bristled in the audience, a couple of hatchets, some swords. But all were honed to an edge of blues steel (strings) at a well-trod entrance gate to contemporary music.

Ian Bennett grew up in the British farm country of Surrey and met the late Gary Windo in Brighton.

"Gary was a very influential character," Bennett recalls. "I was in the merchant navy and I used to take a record player out to sea with me. Gary was on the same ship and we'd go out in different ports and buy jazz records. Gary had a saxophone and we used to finish work and go down in the holds. One of us would play for an hour while the other did theory...I was about 21 when I heard John Coltrane and, of course, I didn't realize just then what a true genius Coltrane was but that's what kicked me into saying that's what I want to be."

After joining an r&b band in Queens when he moved over in the 1960's, Bennett hooked his tenor and vocals into Jama, a group that played mostly original material on Long Island. He was a ticket-ripper living in a theater in West Hampton when Buzzwell recruited him to toot upstate. "We were playing 6 or 7 nights a week in the '70's," he noted. "That was a commercial band, so there was more demand for that music. That was the only band I've been with where I didn't have to do a day gig."

When you look at the Blue Rays' schedule, there's a lock-solid line of fri-sat-sun bookings at widely-flung venues through the end of October, beyond their regular jam-hosting in Kingston. With most of them day-gigging all 5 weekdays, as well, it looks strenuous but, says Bennett, "It's satisfying and that's good. It's like you're doing something for the community in a sense. There are younger players who want to learn the blues and this is a good venue for them to do that. It's successful; one day we had 32 people sign up and sit in. Two kids- one about 4 or 5 and his brother about 7 or 8- playing drums and congas. They were awesome. We've got another 12-year-old kid comes down and plays guitar...(and others he ran off, including the pros, and new people every week)...It's healthy to see these young kids channeling themselves to learn this music. It's a healing force and God knows this planet needs to be healed. So, this is our way. Personally, for me, I hear the blues and it takes away my problems, troubles, and gives me a nice fresh feeling to keep on a roll, keep on trying."

With the variance of ages, and especially the presence of children, there is a sense of community here which is becoming scare in an America where corporate strategies have dramatically diminished real wage levels and parents are typically working longer hours than they did decades ago. Watching the shared enjoyment of generations here gives a sense of at least part of what is "happening" on this afternoon.

Five years ago, David Futrelle wrote "If patriotism is, as they say, the last refuge of scoundrels, then concern for "The Children" is running a close second-to-last. Like The Flag, The Family, Our Troops and other such abstract symbols of wholesome Americana. The Children serve as many rhetorical and political uses as there are politicians to invoke them."

It was to "protect the children" from nudity in slick magazines catering to a male audience that a bill was passed to force them under the counter and, many of them, out of existence. But, that was only part of the story, as any investigative journalist could tell you. They were also a venue for socially and politically vital articles too "dangerous" for major media that paid enough to support the deep research most larger markets were reluctant to sponsor and thus we lost an important independent voice. (Note how citations of these markets drop off in Carl Jensen's 20 Years of Censored News after the ban). Today, it is again The Children being cited as legislative moves are made to lock up the Internet before these emerging freedoms of exchange become affordable to the mass lower strata of unwashed minds.

Little girls danced with each other and boys gleamed at the stage as the sign-on talent kept the beat. Young Chris O'Leary loosened up and cut loose on harmonica, singing out some of his favorites as slicksters and fledglings traded licks behind him and an "anything can happen" feel drifted the room. O'Leary returned to back vocalist Susan Linich with a bass after Pete Santora sandwiched a ripping version of "My Babe" with slices of "Pledging My Time" ala the blues standard and Dylan's take-off.

Santora, party animal and veteran performer in the Beatlemania shows of the late 70's and early 80's, had glowing comments about the previous night's outstanding Tom Pacheco show in Boiceville. Pacheco, himself, observing America after a decade's stay in Dublin, had some remarks relevant to the scene. He watched Ireland change dramatically in 10 years from a "third world" economy to the best economy in Europe and said the thing he liked best about the country was that its people were so little influenced by media.

"People were out more, like they were in America years ago. They weren't so cocooned in their houses as people have become in this country," Pacheco commented. "Now, nightclubs don't do well in the United States. People stay in glued to the tube. They're home and isolated from one another where, there (in Ireland), each night everybody's out in the pubs all the time and not just the men. It's men, women, children, dogs, everything. So, there's a sense of being with people more, being with human beings in a social setting, that we've lost. There's a fear all over America keeping people inside. We've lost a lot of freedoms here and, everyday, you see more erode."

Neil Eisenberg, Pacheco's keyboardist for that packed house on Saturday night, noted that the lot of the musician in rural New York changed drastically after the drinking age hiked to 21. A stringent side effect of the DWI blitz has been its crushing effect on live music and its replacement with television programming. But, the biggest surprise of this bright afternoon was coming to a blues jam in a dim downstairs room and finding a sense of community. Upstairs, the restaurant's tv was tuned to the s teamrolling Yankees while Boss Steinbrenner maneuvers for a new taxpayers' stadium with big money corporate skyboxes and Rudolf, the mayor, takes time off from forcing the disabled to work to drop into the broadcast booth to shine his image. Downstairs was not an escape from reality but a different reality. It was just us folks networking, meeting, interacting. Musicians mapping out the terrain. People with more on their minds than reaching for the chips and beer from the couch. Thomas Paine wrote that society and government "are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices."

Downstairs at the jam is more than a blues subculture zonking onto the riffs in a basement. It's a trace of our wants, our desire for live music, our united affections for life itself.

-Irv Yarg