Deeds: Boise Blues Society sets sights high for 2014

mdeeds@idahostatesman.comJanuary 31, 2014 

ANTHONY RATHBUN

It’s 7:20 on Monday night, and Jo’s Sunshine Lounge is partying like there’s no tomorrow — or at least like everyone will be home by 9:30. Texas soul-rocker Hamilton Loomis flashes a cocky smile, uncorks a thick, bluesy guitar lick, then struts across the stage like a banty rooster. Directly below him, Boise Blues Society president Ken Harris waves a beer pitcher stuffed with cash, enticing fans to kick in a few bucks for the band. A tray-balancing waitress dashes between tables like a running back avoiding tackles.

Less than a month into 2014, it feels like a potential breakout evening for the Boise Blues Society, the city’s small but dedicated non-profit for blues diehards.

Introducing Loomis earlier, Harris had informed the packed room how this show came to be: Loomis and his three-piece backing band were planning to travel through town on a tour eventually headed home to Houston, so his manager phoned ahead: Would the Boise Blues Society be willing to arrange a couple of hotel rooms in exchange for a free concert?

Two weeks later, the group is rocking the Rodeway Inn’s nightclub, cranking meticulously rehearsed originals to 150 grooving listeners.

The majority have never heard of Loomis. But the band opens by exploding into a funky instrumental. Eyes light up, heads nod, feet tap. Minutes later, a dance floor magically materializes next to the waitress station. It’s a display of excitement that hasn’t occurred at a Boise Blues Society event for far too long.

Of the BBS’ eight-person board of directors, five were enlisted in the past 10 weeks. Brimming with new-job enthusiasm, they reached out to everyone they knew, helping boost the gig’s attendance. Two of them are community Radio Boise hosts Mississippi Marshall and Mojo Mike.

Still, nobody could have predicted this turnout on a Monday, even at a purposely early concert from 7 to 9.

“We weren’t thinking it was going to be a home run like that,” Harris says. “We were hoping that it was going to be two-thirds full.”

This was a perfect storm of grassroots buzz and advance media attention. Not to mention a performance from a crack band that surpassed all expectations. Loomis and his group weren’t just exceptional musicians. They entertained in a fashion that many bands neglect — bobbing their guitars and sax in choreographed unison, stopping and starting melodies on a dime.

For the showy Loomis, a road warrior who had never performed in Boise, it was a roll-the-dice marketing success. Now he can return and expect to sell tickets.

For the Boise Blues Society, it was a shot of organizational adrenaline.

“I think we’re off and running,” Harris says, “and we want to keep up the new blood, the new breed, the new BBS.”

Boise Blues Society membership has decreased by more than 50 percent since its peak in the mid-’90s. Back then, Harris co-owned The Blues Bouquet, a Downtown nightclub that fostered appreciation for blues music in the Treasure Valley. The Blues Bouquet’s first five years were great, he says. But by the time it closed in 2004, the popularity of blues had slipped locally and nationally, after a resurgence in the ’90s.

Still, the Blues Society forged on. Each year, it holds an annual Fat Tuesday show, a July picnic gig at Julia Davis Park and a membership meeting/concert. Beginning in 2006, it also launched an outreach program to expose young people to music called “Blues in the Schools.”

Loomis’ band appeared to be about half the age of the graying crowd at the Sunshine — a reminder that passing the torch is paramount.

It isn’t easy, though. School administrators have become less receptive to “Blues in the Schools” in the past few years, Harris says. Their next outreach date is Feb. 18 at Canyon Springs High in Caldwell.

“We want to do more ‘Blues in the Schools,’ ” Harris, 65, says. “We want to make more kids aware of this indigenous American art form.”

Either way, the BBS board is determined to make this year count. They’re launching an all-ages, walk-up jam session from 3 to 6 p.m. on the second Sunday of each month at The Drink in Boise. On Fat Tuesday, they’ll put on a fundraising concert with local acts Jake Leg, Mississippi Marshall, Hoochie Coochie Men and Smooth Avenue at The Sapphire Room at The Riverside Hotel. Board members are in all four bands.

The Blues Society also hopes to offer more touring acts like Loomis. Harris estimates 70 percent of Monday’s audience was composed of people who were not BBS members.

Blues fans are still out there. Knocking their socks off at high-caliber shows is a solid recruiting tool.

“The Boise Blues Society is looking to break out,” Harris says, “and take it to the next level.”

Want more info? Go to www.boiseblues.org.

Michael Deeds’ column runs Fridays in Scene and Sundays in Life. He co-hosts “The Other Studio” at 9 p.m. Sundays on 94.9 FM The River and appears Thursdays on Channel 6 News.

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