The Soulard Blues Band has a new album available, sensibly titled Soul and Blues. It's far from the group's first; that one, Live at Burkhardt's, came out in 1979. The only person to appear on each of them, and all the ones in between, is the group's founder and sole original member, bassist Art Dwyer.
Asked how many albums the band has put out to date, Dwyer pauses for a second, then realizes that the answer is in his hands. He undoes the shrinkwrap of the CD he's clutching. He pops the disc out of the jewel box and starts to read the liner notes. The count begins.
"One, two, three, four," he starts, before offering a guess. "I think there's twelve. Five, six, seven, eight. There might not be a dozen. Nine. Ten. Eleven. One might be missing. Shows you how much I know."
The count starts again, but not audibly. After the second round, he's satisfied that this album makes eleven exactly and adds offhandedly, "I don't know anything. I have no answers. I have an opinion or two. but I'm not even sure about those."
That's not completely true: He does know that what he likes most about Soul and Blues is its strong lineup. "When you're putting a band together, that's what you want," he says. "And I like it for that reason."
The group that recorded the disc a year ago is different than the one playing under the Soulard Blues Band flag these days. On it are Dwyer, natch, but also drummer Kirk Grice, who gigs with the band on weekends; frequent collaborator/keyboardist Matt Murdick; guitarist Aaron Griffin, since departed for his own projects and schooling; and popular vocalist Marty Abdullah, who recently left a dozen-year run with the band in mid-June — the same week that the CDs arrived.
"Everything's fine," Dwyer says, between the two men. "We've talked since then. We had a good run. Twelve years? That's a good run."
The album, a seven-track affair featuring a variety of cuts that find themselves in the group's live sets ("Little by Little," "Turn Back the Hands of Time" and "Corrine, Corrina"), won't be given the honor of a formal release show. Instead, the band will sell discs over time, one by one at gigs across the region, at clubs, wineries, weddings and other assorted affairs.
"I've never been much for CD parties and anniversary shows," Dwyer says. "If you had a record ready for Christmas and it doesn't come, just tell people you meant it for spring."
And this is where the band might really miss Abdullah, who had a steady, go-to pitch for selling CDs from the stage, starting off with an offer of $100 for three, then winding his way down to roughly $10 apiece as the band steady-churned behind him. Who'll be the pitchman going forward? Well, it could be anybody.
"Surprises come in music," Dwyer figures, "just like they do at birthday parties. You know what I mean?"
In Abdullah's stead, the band is using a mix-and-match approach to vocals (and to overall membership, generally). Horn player Brian Casserly, who's had a couple runs with the group, has been handling some songs; ditto guitarist John McVey, the recent Texas transplant, who followed Griffin into the band. On vocals, "the rest of us add in our nickels and dimes," Dwyer says. (Drummer Rob Lee is behind the kit for the band during its Monday night residency at the Broadway Oyster Bar, in lieu of Grice, and serves as the drummer for McVey's active, self-titled band as well.)
It's not as if change hasn't been a constant for the group, with Soulard Blues Band alumni stocking blues, soul and jazz bands all over town.
"You learn that the music is what's most important," Dwyer says. "There are plenty of people wanting to play. Everywhere. Maybe people think they're invisible, but I don't think so."
Though sympathetic to fans sad to see a favorite member move on, Dwyer is pragmatic. "It's not the end of the world, that's for sure," he says. "As long as there's respect all the way around, for the music and your other members, then the music can exist. And the music always comes first, for my money."
For the disc, Dwyer turned to a trusted associate, David Torretta, who brought the band into the latter's self-named recording studio. The group, minus Murdick, who tracked his keys later, recorded largely live, in a comfortable setting.
"Dave Torretta, I've known him for not as long as I wish as a studio guy," Dwyer says. "But I've known him for over 30 years; his work here goes back to the '70s. I tell you what, that CD that's getting rave reviews all across the country, Chuck Berry's? That's Dave's work. And I don't think he pulled any punches with this one either."
Listening to the new record and trying to put it into context with the group's history, Dwyer gives a nod to Aaron Griffin, whose father, Larry, preceded him in the group. Aaron was just a teen when joining up.
"The young lad, he worked really hard at learning soul music," Dwyer says. "That's hard. It was out of his musical wheelhouse. But we're playing the blues these days, and this is a return to it ..."
As Dwyer ponders the relative bluesiness versus the soulfulness of the recording, the man who says he has no answers turns the tables.
"Oh, man, you ask me these questions," he says. "People have questions, you know? What's the future of the group? What're your goals? I don't know this stuff. What are we gonna do? I don't know, other than play some music. Get in trouble — some musical trouble." 0x006E
The Soulard Blues Band will appear at the Broadway Oyster Bar on Monday night for its weekly jam session, as it's been doing since 1978.