Surviving the blues, 2001

A year of loss, return, proliferation and challenges

For the blues community, 2001 was a year of survival. Literally, in some respects, as Sandra Hall, Donnie McCormick, Chicago Bob Nelson and Bryan Cole all suffered heart attacks and lived to tell. Others were not so fortunate: Shadows guitarist Michael Lorenz died in a car fire, while CMO producer/engineer Jimmy O'Neill and R&B saxman Sil Austin both died from cancer.

It's also a year of survival for metro Atlanta blues venues, which are unprecedented in number if not prosperity. Once upon a time (the late '80s and early '90s), Atlanta blues meant Blind Willie's or Blues Harbor, with bands also gigging at assorted other joints. Of these, only Blind Willie's remains. However, a host of suburban venues have emerged. Instead of driving into Atlanta to see bands at Willie's — or at other viable intown venues such as Fuzzy's, Northside Tavern or Fat Matt's Rib Shack — fans in Douglasville can visit the Peckerhead Brewery; fans in Marietta can choose from Darwin's, the Blue Raccoon, Popper's and more; fans in Gwinnett and on the topside perimeter can see local and national acts at Chip's in Winder; fans south of town can visit the Blue Sky Tavern in McDonough.

This proliferation of venues has allowed good bands to work as much as they choose, be it 100 nights a year or 250, as long as they're willing to work fairly cheap and supplement their best gigs with lots of work in sports bars and other places where they're not the center of attention.

From this setting, several Atlanta blues acts are moving forward. To name a few: Francine Reed had a very busy year; Tinsley Ellis continues to tour and signed a promising record deal; Sean Costello and King Johnson are working on a national level while continuing to play local gigs; Liz Melendez is getting regional attention.

But, this year's general economic downturn — accentuated by the events of Sept. 11 — has slashed business and convention traffic, forcing local venues to rely more emphatically on local clientele in order to thrive. This will require that local blues audiences fully consider the value of their home-based performers and not take them for granted simply because they seem to play every week. It'll also require club owners to demonstrate more business savvy, commitment and aggressiveness in their marketing, and to be more selective in the bands they choose. Finally, it'll require bands to work harder to create — and not just to re-create — blues music that is lasting and meaningful to contemporary audiences. It'll be fascinating to see how much the landscape changes in the coming year.??