If you want a seat, you damn-well better get here early. John Schalk knows that. He's been coming for seven years and is one of the many regulars who flock to Blues City Deli on Thursday evenings for free rations of blues music.
Miss Jubilee and The Humdingers started at 6 o'clock, sharp, and Schalk (like "chalk," but with an 's' in front) walked in late. Now, he's standing in the back left corner of the deli, spooning bread pudding out of a bowl on a six-inch open corner of counter-space. He peers toward the stage between bites, but there are about ten people between him and the low stage.
A better seat, like the front-row stool Gil Cloyd snagged, requires some foresight. He says he got here at 4:30, then points to another grey-haired regular sitting in a stage-side booth. That guy arrived at 3:00--three hours before the show started.
Reporting here is like interviewing DIY punks about squat show-spaces. Everybody is paranoid about their spot blowing up. They don't want to have to get here any earlier than they already do. If you want to know about it, don't ask a punk, ask a retired or middle-aged blues freak. (Or, just check the Blues City Deli website, they post all the shows on the calendar.)
Not too put too fine a point on it, this is a deli--a restaurant that serves (fantastic) sandwiches and chips and tonight, $2 Schlafly bottles -- not a full-time music venue. Yet, this room, twelve-foot ceilings and walls collaged with posters and paintings of local and national blues heroes alongside family portraits and relics of St. Louis history, consistently hosts some of the best blues artists to grace our city's stages.
Tonight, isn't half bad either. "I like her more than I thought I would," says Cloyd. "I saw Pokey LaFarge [and the South City Three], and I think I was the only one in the room who didn't love it."
The comparison is reasonable. Both acts draft their songbooks, sense of swagger and taste in hats from the early half of last century, but the Humdingers lean more towards the Hot Jazz and Swing of the '20s and '30s and black Rhythm & Blues of the '30s-'50s, than minstrel-show jug-band tunes.