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A Touring-Dependent Genre Feels the Pain: ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues’

Shemekia Copeland, Lil' Ed Williams
Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

Shemekia Copeland performs with Lil' Ed Williams at the Alligator Records 45th Anniversary celebration on the opening night of the 33rd Annual Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park in Chicago on June 10, 2016.

Blues stars, who depend financially on intensive, road-dog touring are on the front lines of the coronavirus-induced concert shutdown.

Over the past 34 years of "blues, booze and Cajun food," Blind Willie's nightclub in Atlanta has weathered Black Friday, the Great Recession, the 1996 Olympics bombing, 9/11, an aging neighborhood and the deaths of headliners from Rufus Thomas to Beverly "Guitar" Watkins. But the coronavirus pandemic "might be enough to put us under," says co-owner Eric King. "It's like a science-fiction movie around here, looking out the door and not seeing people on the street."

Like every other live-music venue, Blind Willie's closed in mid-March, but the club has a "very difficult lease arrangement," and while its landlord has been lenient on rent during the crisis, King doesn't expect this largesse to last forever. The club might last six weeks, but probably not four months, he says: "I'm not particularly optimistic about the state of the blues right now."

Blues stars, who depend financially on intensive, road-dog touring -- sometimes more than 200 dates a year -- are on the front lines of the concert shutdown. With the exception of legends like Buddy Guy, whose 2018 album The Blues Is Alive and Well scored million-streaming tracks on Spotify, few of the genre's biggest living stars stream or sell much recorded music these days. "It's going to hurt blues artists more," says Bruce Iglauer, founder and president of Alligator Records. "Blues artists are perhaps the last of any genre who still expect to go on the road, play four or five nights a week in clubs, and festivals during the summer, and make a living."

As the genre's biggest headliners, such as B.B. King and Lonnie Brooks, have died over the past decade, important venues have closed: B.B. King's Blues Club & Grill in New York City and Seattle's Highway 99 Blues Club, both in 2018; and St. Louis' Beale on Broadway in 2019. "It would be devastating to see that happen here in Chicago," says singer Shemekia Copeland, whose SiriusXM show and employed husband provide income while she home-schools her three-year-old child. "Blues artists, we struggle in general, you know? I guess that's why they call it the blues."

Marooned at home without incoming funds, blues performers, like many other musicians, are desperately figuring out how to pay the bills. Guitarist Joanna Connor is teaching lessons online and drawing money from fan donations and an early live-stream from Rosa's Lounge in Chicago. "By the end of April, I should be OK," she says. "Then, once again, I'll be at the panic stage." Singer Pat "Mother Blues" Cohen is learning "The Very Thought of You" at home in Salisbury, N.C., rather than performing her usual four nights a week, plus side gigs at nursing homes. "The few coins that I have, I'm paying all my bills off," she says. "The blues industry is really tough today -- there's no blues clubs and they're phasing us out. It's a shame because it's the foundation of everything."

"The John Mayall’s and Walter Trout’s and Buddy Guy’s, they're going to go to the big sheds, but the smaller ones are going to have a rough road," adds Tom White, owner of 40-year-old Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa, which applied for a $50,000-$100,000 bridge loan to make up for lost spring concert revenue. "You're probably going to lose a lot of the blues clubs."

In a terrifying period when 10 million Americans filed for unemployment in two weeks, some philanthropists are looking out for blues artists. Music Maker Relief Foundation, in Hillsborough, N.C., recently received a $60,000 donation from one of its biggest donors, to reimburse the hardest-hit artists for health care, rent, utilities and food. "People are stepping up and reaching out," says Tim Duffy, the foundation's president and founder.

And some crucial clubs are at least somewhat insulated, at least for now, from the concert shutdown. Rosa's Lounge belongs to a family trust, so Chicago's blues fixture does not have to worry about paying rent to a landlord; owner Tony Mangiullo has been trying to live-stream to "keep the bands working," but technology for stay-at-home performances makes it difficult. Tyler Grill, owner of GoodWorks Entertainment Group, which owns venues in Hartford, Conn., says blues artists may have options due to instrumental proficiency: "There are a lot of people who want lessons. I hope the agents and managers are trying to secure that revenue."

"I honestly believe it will not have a negative impact on the blues," adds Mike Miller, vp of the Music Box Supper Club in Cleveland. "These songs are about great sadness and hardship and heartache. It still resonates with people."

At home in Chicago, veteran singer-guitarist John Primer is recovering from a harrowing mid-March weekend when he was in Europe for a string of tour dates but had to pay $3,000 to fly his band home from Amsterdam to Warsaw to Chicago. He's living on Social Security and savings and writing a new song every day. "It's going to get tough," he says, "but I think we’ll get over it."

"Once this gets out of the way, I think I'm going to work more than I ever had before," adds Chicago blues frontman Lil' Ed Williams, whose venerable Blues Imperials are finding work as deliverymen and Uber drivers and drawing from a GoFundMe. "I'm hoping and praying."

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