If we take the 1914 publication of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” as a starting point, this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the blues genre. The music has waxed and waned in popularity since then, but handwringing over its survival seems unnecessary. Lately the blues are back in downtown Ann Arbor, with several weekend shows monthly at Mash on Washington. The blues-whiskey nexus has historically been a productive one, and as an old country song observed, good whiskey never lets you lose your place. So I stopped in for a couple of shows last month to sample the state of the blues art.
Mash is a pleasantly meandering basement space that fills the needs of barside flirts, deep conversers, and music lovers equally well and encourages free flow between these categories. The music has a room of its own, with long connected tables across the back for groups that want to talk and smaller ones in front of the bandstand. There’s a small dance area that’s more suited to individual eruptions of enthusiasm than to sustained dancing by couples; get up and move, and you might attract the attention of one of the musicians, but the place is not really a dance club.
I heard a couple of generations of the blues that suggest the music is alive and well. The Bluescasters have been around for a decade, and all the members have been part of other current and past musical projects. All four members seem to be out to have some fun, and this spills out into a spirit of creativity. “If you don’t know a lot of these songs, it’s because we wrote ’em,” says guitarist Kerry Adams, introducing one of the group’s originals–all of them rock-solid takes on Chicago blues, jump blues, and proto-rockabilly models, but none of them purely conventional.
The following week brought guitarist Chris Canas and his band, the Blues Revolution. Canas is a youthful local hero, a product of the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts, and he brought out quite a few of his age-mates, although younger folk looked in from the bar to check out the Bluescasters as well. Canas presents a state-of-the-art blues that represents the crunching, difficult style of Stevie Ray Vaughan, mixing it in with funk, rock, and Motown and R&B numbers from vocalist Angie Cottingham. He also has a good-sized bag of originals, and the fact that members of both these bands feel moved to express themselves in the blues medium is more encouraging for its future than is Canas’s self-professed blues evangelism.
Mash has also presented the Terraplanes, who do the tightest version of “All Shook Up” that you will ever hear, and the place also features quieter music on weekends from 6 to 9, while your whiskey is being sipped rather than swigged. From an Ann Arbor perspective, the second blues century is looking good.