The Blues Is My Business, and Business Is Good
For music lovers, moments worth seeking are happening at Beach Cove
by B.C. Phillips
They come from all over Maryland, D.C. and Northern Virginia, as well as from just around the corner. They are young and old, professional and amateur, and many of them have never played together, let alone practiced together, before assembling on stage. From the rockin blues harmonies they make, however, youd have trouble guessing these disparities.
There are good reasons to sing the blues in Chesapeake Beach these days: an open mike and an enthusiastic local audience bring musicians from miles away to Beach Cove Restaurant and Lounge. For close to a year now, blues performers of many levels and styles have come to this Calvert County hot spot every other Wednesday for an ongoing series of blues jams.
Its been phenomenal, said Glenn James, owner of Beach Cove. I dont think Ive heard a bad set in 10 months.
When I slipped in the door of Beach Cove just after 8pm one early August evening, the jam was just warming up. Id nabbed the last legal parking space in the shopping center, but the lounge was still filling. The Beach Cove Lounge, with its own exterior doorway, is partitioned from the restaurant by a wall adorned with glowing aquaria, taxidermied fish, beer emblems and other Chesapeake bar trappings.
The stage a space marked only by its cluster of amps, microphones and drum set occupies the far right corner of the room, just an arm span from the long wooden bar on the left. This makes a bar stool one of the best seats in the house. The tables spilling out over the rest of the lounge are less cramped, but no matter where you sit, Beach Cove is an intimate venue: good for the blues, good for a jam.
One Bad Jack, the host band, was rolling through their opening set with standards like Just a Little Bit and Honky Tonk. On my way to the bar, I passed the players sign-up sheet. Four names so far. I felt a jolt of sympathy nerves. Two young men entered the lounge, looking fresh from the beach in board shorts and carrying black instrument cases. They added their names to the list and returned to the parking lot to tune up. Whiskey sour in hand, I eased back on my stool and let the rhythm take over. Everything seemed to move with the beat: the ceiling fans, the serving staff, the slowly revolving Budweiser sign. I, after all, was here to listen.
James started hosting blues jams at Beach Cove last October. He and blues musician Steve Crescenze came up with the idea shortly after Calypso Bay Restaurant and Dock Bar in Deale ceased having similar jams. Crescenze, who has been profiled in Bay Weekly for his work restoring antique carousel horses, played regular bookings at Beach Cove. He had faith in the venue and the local crowd. He spread the word to the D.C. Blues Society, which now promotes the jams to its wide-spread members.
Crescenze does much of the leg-work for the jams. His band, One Bad Jack, regularly kicks off the evening at Beach Cove and lends back-up musicians to fill vacancies. Players put their names and instruments on the sign-up sheet. Some come ready to play together, others as individuals. Its up to Crescenze to form groups of four to five musicians, each playing for about 20 minutes. Usually the singer selects the song and key. When it comes to solos, the unwritten etiquette is that performers take turns.
Does this kind of slap-dash assemblage ever fall apart?
The good thing about the blues is its not rocket science, Crescenze says. Most of the songs follow standard blues progressions.
But Crescenze is also a careful organizer, often grouping new players with established players to ensure that somebodys on top of things.
|photos by B.C. Phillips
Steve Crescenze, opposite right, jams with fellow open-mikers, while 15-year-old blues player Zachary Sweeney, above, awaits his turn onstage.
For James, whats most remarkable about the jams is the distances theyve drawn musicians. The members of One Bad Jack, for instance, hail from Bowie, Towson, Beltsville, Welcome and Calvert County.
Why come out to Chesapeake Beach? I ask Crescenze.
Because its a good jam, he smiles. A lot of other jams arent successful at bringing in a crowd. But here we always get a good local audience.
Most of these musicians dont belong to a band, James offers. Most of them dont have an opportunity to play unless they come out to the blues jam.
Getting into the Groove
One such musician is young Zachary Sweeney, from Beltsville. Tall and poised, Sweeney played a mean guitar in the second set the night I attended. After the set, when Crescenze introduced Sweeney as the 15-year-old future of the blues, I thought Id misunderstood. Perhaps he meant Sweeney had been playing for 15 years: he certainly sounded like it. Actually, Sweeney has been playing for eight years, although he claims, I didnt really start to take it seriously until I was 10 or 11.
Sweeney has a firm handshake and a friendly disposition. He cites his father as his main influence and a performance of then 14-year-old classical guitarist Nicki Lehrer at Barnes and Noble as the moment of his calling.
His father encouraged him to start performing, but even with Lehrer as a role model, Sweeney was hesitant. After his debut at the 94th Aero Squadron in College Park, he saw an ad on the Internet for the Beach Cove Blues Jams. He credits his experiences at Beach Cove with helping him warm up to performing. Now Sweeneys aim is to become a professional, and he has the business cards to prove it. Performing still makes him a little nervous, but its like learning to ride a bicycle, he says. It gets easier every time you do it.
About 10pm, after Sweeneys set, the young men whod been tuning up in the parking lot come up for their turn, along with a new drummer and harmonica player. They introduce themselves around, tune their axes, and mumble agreement on a song.
By now, black instrument cases are piled high around the sign-up table, and the bar and many of the tables are full. The involuntary tapping and rocking of body parts has become a universal affliction among the audience.
The improvisation of the blues can lead to moments of almost heartbreaking intensity, moments when the players minds seem to fuse and pour out a few bars of music that stun the room. This happens in the middle of sets, when the players have hit their stride but arent yet tired out. For music lovers, these are the moments worth seeking, and they are happening at Beach Cove.
I remember in particular a song I did not recognize but that had the refrain, Have you ever loved a woman so much you cant let her go? These moments pull the audience from passive listening into engagement of the emotions, of the whole dancing body, or of both.
Feeling Good and Blue
A lot of people dont understand the blues, said Crescenze. They think its slow and melancholy, but a good portion of it is upbeat. Even the most down-tempo songs I heard at Beach Cove were more sultry than melancholy, and never without a ripping guitar solo. Soon the players had couples on their feet, dancing in front of the bar in their shorts, T-shirts and sundresses. This, I was told, was a slow night as blues jams go but boy was it a rockin slow night. Did I mention that theres no cover charge?
We didnt work you too hard, did we? Crescenze asked one of the singers after the final set, as the dancers staggered back to their seats. And just think, he continued, You get all this music for free.
Upcoming blues jams are at 8 PM on August 17 and 31, both Wednesdays, at Beach Cove Restaurant and Lounge in Chesapeake Beach: 301-855-0025. No cover charge; food served till 9:30pm. To learn more: Steve Crescenze: [email protected] or www.beachcoverestaurant.com.
About the Author
B.C. Phillips recently returned to his birthplace in Calvert County from Pennsylvania after completing his B.A. at Swarthmore College and working as an emergency medical technician. His friends often remark on his eclectic taste in music.