Singin’ the blues every Monday

Ali Breland

Blues has generally maintained a reputation for its spontaneity and improvisational characteristics. Since its inception dating back to the days of bands such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, artists have fused pre-rehearsed tunes with free-form musical odysseys. Keeping the tradition alive, legendary Austin venue Antone’s hosts the Austin Blues Society’s weekly jams.

A quick glance around Antone’s sheds light on why the place is perfect for blues artists to convene and collaborate.

The walls are lined with posters from every era, highlighting performances of the past, featuring music greats such as Bob Schneider, Jimmie Vaughan and KRS-One. Aside from the posters, Antone’s simply emanates a classic vibe, with exposed brick scattered about various portions of the wall, an antique-looking bar and a hallowed sense of the past the venue retains.

As in any case, though, what gives Antone’s the truest blues feeling is the actual blues talent that shows up on Mondays. Although a majority of the talent remains local, Blues Night has hosted a great number of musicians from all over.

WHERE: Antone’s Nightclub
WHEN: Mondays at 8 p.m.
TICKETS: $5 for spectators and free for musicians

“People will come from all over to play at the Blues Jam,” said Darryl Menkin, Austin Blues Society interim president. “Oftentimes we’ll have tourists from out of town come in and play just because of the reputation we have built up.”

In some cases, the newcomers have been blues legends such as Bob Margolin and Hubert Sumlin. Grammy award-winning blues artist of the original Muddy Water group, Pinetop Perkins, even makes regular appearances at the jam.

He sits in the back selling CDs and occasionally makes the trek up to the stage to perform.

Even at 97, Perkins’ music isn’t the work of an old man struggling to relive what once was but instead recaptures the past. In accordance with his brilliance, he is given a heartfelt introduction every time he plays, and his performances are treated as rarities despite the fact that they occur at least once a month. Pinetop’s performance always proves to be a highlight of the evening with his talented keyboard performance and his ability to fully engage the audience.

While these blues greats give the Austin Blues Society’s Blues Jams notoriety, another interesting aspect of the jam is the performances of artists just getting their start. Two UT students stand out in particular: Spanish and Plan I sophomore guitarist Eric Nikolaides and Plan I freshman vocalist Olivia Applegate.

Nikolaides has been performing at the jams since the start of the school year and has already built a reputation within the blues society.

“Eric’s really impressed me,” Menkin said. “He’s got great talent and a good voice. He also has a natural feel that a lot of guys don’t.”

His abilities have been honed through years of work. Back in his hometown of Mason, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, he played in a blues band as well as worked with the Blues In The Schools program, an outreach program by the Cincy Blues Society designed to encourage blues appreciation in the youth. From there he built up connections in the blues world, meeting and opening for musicians such as John Riedel and Sonny Moorman and he eventually worked his way up to represent Cincinnati at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tenn.

Applegate’s story differs greatly from Nikolaides’. Monday at Antone’s was her first-ever performance at the Blues Jam.

Despite this, her natural talent garnered her instant respect, with two musicians approaching her after her set on stage, requesting that she sing for their respective bands. Applegate has no background in blues but has always maintained an eclectic and diverse interest and participation in music.

As a multi-faceted artist, she has maintained proficiency in a number of musical outlets, including cello, piano and singing. At the core of her background lies basic but relatively impressive accomplishments such as awards at University Interscholastic League state competitions and performances at weddings. What is most unique, though, is her past performance with the Houston Symphony orchestra. Despite her classical roots, she still very much enjoys blues.

“From a performance standpoint, it is very liberal,” she said. ”It allows me the most freedom. I could do whatever I wanted on stage.”