By Adrian Murillo
The time has come to praise our own unique Sandpoint sound of democracy and equality throwing it down every Monday night. I’m talking about the blues jams at Eichardt’s.
In my life, money is too tight to mention. This makes me a very frustrated musician. I can’t afford proper equipment (synth, PA, mic) and I am also a deep-blue soul living in a red state, so you know I got the blues. Every day I got the blues. But there’s nothing better for the blues than to hear the blues played live. Thank gawd for blues night.
I had forgotten about this longstanding tradition that makes Eichardt’s a down-home treasure. But I heard the Liam McCoy trio play at Matchwood this summer and was reawakened to this old passion. I asked him to perform at Pride this year and he did. McCoy, 21, also sat in on two of my songs during my set — a real thrill for me. When I heard he often jammed with John Firshi on Monday nights, I started going again to check it out.
I always sit off to the side by the doorway leading upstairs. Visually, what I see of the stage is like a Picasso painting. A disjointed jumble of planes and angles, sound, motion, colors. Blue neon light in the window, rainbow flag tucked up high in the back corner of the stage, brick wall, John Firshi’s face bathed in an amber-red spotlight, the brassy glint of Denny’s sax like visual sparks of notes, bright spots of light on the other players, red guitar hanging from the ceiling, smiling faces crossing my line of sight entering or leaving. A three-dimensional painting: “Tavern Life, Early 21st Century.”
I come from a musical family. My father played all the saxes and clarinet. He had a slew of cousins who all played something: upright bass; piano; drums; percussion (congas, timbales, maracas); trumpet; or sang. It was a rare Saturday night when my father didn’t have a gig somewhere. They covered everything from big band swing (Ellington, Dorsey, Kenton) to mambo, cha-cha-cha and Mexican music (cumbias, rancheras). When I discovered at 13 that the piano was the instrument for me, my father sent me to spend a few summer weeks with a piano-player cousin of his who, when I was 14, taught me boogie-woogie grooves that he made me practice every day before I could go outside and play. I loved it.
Every adolescent boy needs to master at least one manual creative or reparative skill to keep him moving in the right direction. Video games don’t cut it.
I had two cousins — brothers Dave and Rick. Dave was a few years older and Rick was a year younger. We all found our instruments around the same time. They turned me on to the blues. Dave was a brilliant guitar player who mastered his heroes, lick for lick, no sweat — B.B. King, Albert King, Clapton, Hendrix, Santana, Wes Montgomery. No style was beyond him. Rick, inspired by Paul Butterfield, took up the blues harp and in a couple of weeks he had it nailed as good as Butterfield could blow it. He also grew into a soulful blues singer over the years in the way only a life of racist bosses and faithless women can make a man.
We jammed at my house because I had the acoustic, upright piano. By the time I was an adult, family gatherings were three generations of musicians sharing the stage: my father and his cousins doing their swing/cumbia thing, us doing our rock-and-roll-Hendrix-blues thing and the kids rapping and scratching to Funkadelic samples. This was our family expressing our shared spirit. Music was the best part of us, our healing power and pleasure. It wasn’t a party until grandma got up and danced.
I knew growing up that musicians aren’t perfect. We all had our issues, imperfections. Different political perspectives. But for us, family is family no matter what and music is the blood that runs in our veins. On stage or just jamming at home, we formed a respectful democracy of equals no matter the level of development. Everybody got a turn to shine and stretch. We wanted for all what we wanted for ourselves, to reach down deep to express full potential.
That’s the spirit I feel at Eichardt’s. Music as a democracy of equals — a family of sorts — fathered by the blues. You never know who’s going to show up to sit in.
Like, Young Sam (I didn’t get his last name) in his early teens, a study in contrasts, standing absolutely still, almost stoic, as he rips it up. He told me his influences range from the Kings (Albert, Freddie, B.B.) to Joe Bonamassa and Steve Vai, which you can definitely hear. He’s got a searching, sonic drive, a futuristic howl reaching for that cosmic soar. All within the 12-bar format. These are his woodshedding years and he’s lucky to have a live venue to hone his chops. I advised him that although it’s only natural for young players to cop the style of others, you eventually have to grow your own style, take these influences to shape your own voice of authentic, deep truth telling.
What I love hearing is the enthusiastic love for the art form Liam and Sam bring to the blues. The energy of commitment to it, open to jamming with anyone for the rush and discovery it brings.
There have been nights when women stepped up to sing. Some sing in the true blues tradition of telling a story. You can hear the heartache. Others seem to be calling attention to themselves, off-beat, confusing volume for passion. You’ve got to live the life to be an authentic blues shouter. No one would say Billie Holiday was a loud singer, but every note oozed a blue life. But a blues jam is a stage of rotating desires open to any who have the heart to work out their blue feelings. I noticed that the women loved hearing a strong, loud female voice, however, which makes sense in this time when women’s agency is being repressed and criminalized.
Blues jams are healing for the people who listen. In these politically discordant, divisive times, I think what people seek from music are chord progressions and solos, however wild and uncertain at first, that always reach a sweet resolution. The experience of shared satisfaction has become a deep need and the blues provides it. You can find it every week at Eichardt’s. Firshi’s willingness to share the stage, whole sets with others, is a rare display of generosity and respect for other voices, styles.
One highlight for me was when the young Mexican musicians brought up from Baja, Calif. by our local music conservatory sat in for a set. The drummer and bass player who normally play with Firshi turned over their instruments to two of them, and a violinist and cornet player also from Mexico joined in. The kid playing bass, in particular, took to the blues like a fish to water, proving the blues is truly a universal language. I later told the young Mexican who played the bass that the blues is the real American music, not classical.
Not only was this an intergenerational moment, it was intercultural. Where else can you experience this in Sandpoint? This deserves our continual support.
As for me, my sound is steeped in the blues but I don’t really play that old 12-bar format much. I’m bent on working out a straight-ahead funk drive (which I think players like Sam and Liam can appreciate) that breaks on through to the other side, breaks the spell of fear, indifference and acceptance of the spreading authoritarianism slowly squeezing our hearts shut. Performance as ceremony of public healing.
My vocal chops have got to bring it on home for me. If I can only break my chocolate habit.
Adrian Murillo is a longtime Sandpoint writer, musician, poet and activist.
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