Whether it's the guitar riffs, the deep-seated influence or the improvisational nature of the genre, many area musicians get down with the blues.
And with more and more opportunities cropping up for live blues gigs, bands that play blues cover songs or originals tinged with the blues have gained followings within the local community. But does this really constitute a local blues scene? The answer from local bands, show bookers and observers has some singing "We're Gonna Make It" and others saying "The Thrill is Gone."
"Everyday I Have The Blues" - the bands
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Guitarist Jason Feathers and singer Brian Elliott of The Hawks perform Nov. 12 at Pellegrine’s Lounge in Altoona.
"It's just pure, honest music," Felix Kos, guitar player for staple Altoona band Felix and the Hurricanes, said of the blues.
The band's Southern-style blues rock stems from the eclectic mix of influences in the three-piece band, with bass player Jeff Clapper more into country and classic rock and drummer Bob Waters leaning toward heavy metal. But Kos said he's always relished the guitar riffs of blues music, though he thinks of Altoona as more of a "head banging town."
"I always felt like I was bending the rules playing the stuff I play," he said.
The Hurricanes have had both local and regional success, playing regularly in town and also gaining recognition at blues festivals like Pittsburgh. Though they leak bits of blues music into every set, Kos said they could never be a straight blues band.
"To do that around here, you would not be working all the time," he said.
Jim Colyer, bass player for Altoona-based blues cover band The Hawks, disagrees.
"We kind of found our calling in this particular band," he said.
The Hawks formed three years ago, playing covers of popular blues songs while still giving them their "own spin" through rearrangements and improvisation, Colyer said.
"I think it's a genre that allows the ability to express yourself in the context of the music more so than contemporary covers," Colyer said.
Vince Macharola, guitarist and vocalist for Altoona blues band The Ultra-Magnetic, said he's drawn to the blues because his favorite artists range from The Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to The Black Keys and The Derek Trucks Band.
The Ultra-Magnetic plays a mix of blues covers and originals - unlike many of the straight cover bands that play in bars around town, Macharola added.
"I didn't want to do that," he said. "I didn't want to be a classic rock cover band."
"I Know What You're Putting Down" - the gigs
Though songs by Journey and Bon Jovi still have their place in many venues, local bar owners have also warmed up to the blues.
Mike Rubine, owner of Rubine's Bar, 723 Second Ave., Altoona, said he books blues bands like The Hawks because of their talent, even though he's not always sure about what type of crowd will be out to listen.
"I think there's enough blues fans that like it, but they don't know where to go and see them," Rubine said. "Bars are getting [classic rock bands] most of the time because people identify with the songs. People don't identify with the blues."
Despite this, Rubine said that at his blues shows, the audience is just as abundant.
Kos said there are some instances when The Hurricanes could play a full blues set, but it's more likely the band will have to adapt to the audience in front of them. When it comes to opening people up to the blues, he added, it's more about how the music is coming across to the audience than it is about the music itself.
"If you're doing a blues song and you're just dragging through it and you're not really into it, it's going to reflect on the whole crowd and they're going to say 'Play some AC/DC!'" Kos said. "If you come across confident, and that's what you do and you believe in it, it works."
Colyer said the fact that more bands seem to be playing blues music in the area may contribute to what he would call a "resurgence" in the local community.
"With more people playing it, people seem to be digging it more," he said.
But Macharola said younger bands like The Ultra-Magnetic may be having a tough time finding places to play for reasons as simple as their age.
"As far as original music and/or obscure music, there isn't much of a crowd for it," he said. "When I would go in to talk to bar owners around here, they would look at me like I'm nuts."
"I'm In The Mood" - the draw
Blues music certainly wouldn't have been labeled "obscure" in the days of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. But because people don't hear it on the radio these days, Rubine said, they may be less likely to give it a chance live.
"It's just not out there enough for people to listen to," he said.
Jim Price, a local music writer and DJ for Rocky 104.9, said others may be deterred from listening in fear of actually feeling blue.
"Traditionally, blues always had a stigma attached to it that it's depressing music," he said. "[But] those who have an appreciation for it realize it's honest music. There's emotion. Blues is based on reality."
Kos said current events, like the state of the economy, could give listeners a good understanding of what blues musicians try to express through music.
"Blues is not all crying, 'I lost my girlfriend and my dog died,'" he said. "There's happy types."
Events like the "Blues Jams" that were hosted at Pellegrine's Bar, 1330 Pleasant Valley Blvd., Altoona, over the summer are good examples of the excitement blues music can make, Price said. At the "Jams," musicians of all ages came together to play free-form, improvisational sets. They also drew a good crowd of musicians and listeners.
"That's when you see really magical moments," he said.
"How Long, How Long Blues" - the future
But do these fleeting moments and sporadic performances constitute a blues scene here in Altoona? Macharola said it will never be "big," and that his band's struggles to get gigs has forced them to start trying to create one.
"I don't know if that's really possible in a smaller market like this," he said. "Blues is a very specific thing, and people just don't know it around here."
Kos said creating a better scene would come down to bringing in more national acts, and for one venue to really step up and make it happen.
"But these days, for a club owner to take a chance like that, not knowing how the turnout is going to be, that could be a bad hit for a lot of people to take," he said.
At a place like Rubine's, which only holds about 50 people, having a national band play wouldn't be feasible. But Rubine plans to keep booking The Hawks, and would consider giving other local blues bands a chance.
"I think people should be exposed to the blues, especially young people," he said.
Price agreed that national acts and a better venue couldn't hurt.
"If a venue starts to be able to develop that, and provide a place where people can expect to see prominent national acts from time to time, it could definitely help elevate the blues popularity."
Price added that he does think that there is a scene here that's been growing for the past few years and will continue to grow.
No matter what becomes of the blues in Altoona, Colyer said The Hawks will continue to try to grow their fanbase and expand their horizons.
"It's not so much an illusion of grandeur, it's more just about playing the blues," he said. "We're not doing it for the money. We're doing it for the love of the genre."
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.