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The New York Blues Scene Of The 90s

In the 90's there was a thriving blues scene in New York City in which I spent a great deal of time primarily as a spectator and student. There were several venues that supported live blues seven nights a week. Anyone that was around the scene at the time will remember some great rooms such as Manny's Car Wash located uptown on 3rd Avenue, Dan Lynch Blues Bar, downtown on 2nd Avenue, Chicago Blues on 8th Avenue and Terra Blues in Greenwich Village. Of course there were other clubs that also had blues bands. Rooms like The 55 Bar, Space at Chase, Mondo Cane and Mondo Perso were live music staples supporting blues pretty regularly.

Although NYC has always been known as more of a jazz town than blues, the two thankfully coexisted in my most formative musical years. I miss seeing a neon sign that said "Live Blues" in the window of an intimate club. On any night of the week touring artists could be seen in Manny's, Terra Blues or Chicago Blues. A NYC based artist on a Monday night may have had musicians from the Saturday Night Live Band sitting in. Names like Bill Simms, Popa Chubby, Bill Perry, Michael Hill, Satan and Adam and Moose and The Bulletproof Blues Band could all be found in these blues haunts all week long.

I think all live music fans have a venue that holds special memories. Perhaps a club that just felt more comfortable for a multitude of seemingly insignificant reasons that when all put together turned into something quite meaningful. Maybe it is the lighting, the smell of the room, the energy of the neighborhood or a great pizza place or record store on the same block. I don't know what it is. But I know for sure it was Terra Blues for me. A second floor venue on Bleecker Street in between Thompson and West Broadway in the heart of Greenwich Village. This bustling block was home to several other music venues such as The Red Lion, Kenny's Castaways, and The Bitter End. Just a few blocks down where Bleecker meets Bowery was the legendary rock club CBGB's

It is in Terra Blues that I found a musical education that I will forever be grateful for. I stumbled in on a Friday at about 10pm and found live blues, exactly as I wanted it to be. It was heartfelt and raw. It was tough and sophisticated, in the way an intelligent and refined professional criminal is portrayed in movies. There was no stage, so the band was on the floor throwing music across the room that felt like a wave moving everything in its path. I sipped straight Southern Comfort, speechless, wondering what this guitarist was doing here in this tiny venue. He is one of those musicians that just has "that thing" that is impossible to describe, but even more impossible to ignore when you are in the presence of it.

This was my first exposure to Michael Powers, a monster of a guitar player. I have always thought of his playing as a cross between Jimi Hendrix and John Lee Hooker. Clever and skilled but as authentic and gritty as they come. I have never heard anyone with a delivery that is as loose as his. If his playing was anymore relaxed it would crumble. It's like mud that has just enough water to stay solid, but still wet and malleable.

I saw him at least 100 more times in the following years in that smoky little club. His impact on how I view music is beyond measure. I have seen him on nights that he was in a rock and roll headspace and going for broke, then there were nights that he was digging down so far into the blues that he was hitting water deep under the subway tunnels that traverse New York City. There was always a bit of a Latin flare and almost Middle Eastern vibe in his playing that made his blues like no one else's that I have heard to date. His soup has more ingredients than gumbo, but it is all securely rooted in the blues in terms of his delivery, tone and phrasing.

In the many nights I saw Michael Powers the one thing that was in common was I never had any idea what I was going to learn, but I knew I would take something from it. The lessons were never about the technical things that make a great musician. That is taught in colleges and music schools everywhere. Watching Michael play was a masterclass in the intangibles and I studied it as if I was being graded. His playing was like a wild ride on the last few hundred yards of the Niagara River before it drops off the edge. It was reckless and dangerous, with twists and turns in the current that would spin the audience like a feather on the rapids. It was a force of nature in every way. There was depth, power, sensitivity and chaos that was somehow under control as it barrelled towards the inevitable drop.

Thirty years later, I can still see the faces in that bar watching this man play that guitar almost never opening his eyes. He squeezed emotion from a piece of wood that ran the gamut from anger, sadness, glee, incredible confidence and I imagine a good deal of searching and frustration. His playing gave me hope in my early 20's that there was an audience and a venue for the "real thing" to be heard. In my early 50's his music provides memories that are similar to looking back at college years for most people.

Those experiences are so formative in a person's life, yet at the time all one is doing is chasing something seemingly larger, clueless to what is brewing within them. The building blocks of life are coming together as we all focus on getting to where we are headed, actually thinking there is a definitive destination.

I watched this musician in real time, live on the floor over and over again, taking for granted that we would always be at Terra Blues, that time would somehow stand still. It is a time in my life before mortgages and deadlines that need to be met. A time of learning without being instructed, and building the base of my musical vocabulary with no idea of where it would lead. Of course I was also listening to a lot of other blues records, but in hindsight, none of it had a more lasting influence than watching Michael Powers testify.

I think the most impactful experiences in life are only clear years later, after they have had time to ferment. Only then can we look at the view from the mountains we have climbed over decades to see the big picture and the many colors that made it happen. As a musician the foundation is typically discovered quite early. Most lifelong musicians have an instinctual reaction to music that has nothing to do with the intellect. It is something that awakens a sleeping giant that needs to be fed. I can't remember that first moment that the seed was planted, but I know for sure Michael Powers was the water that made it grow.


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