The blues, it is often said, takes a lifetime. One may be born a musical prodigy or may soak up influences with the first breath, but a bluesman or blueswoman must live the music, and live it a hard, long time.
This romantic view may have a kernel of truth, but don't tell it to your record collection. The icons of the music — from B.B. King to Robert Johnson, Etta James to Eric Clapton — all began their careers, on the road and in the studio, in their youth. St. Louis' own Henry Townsend cut his first record in 1929, when he was just twenty.
The vitality and power of the blues, and its kindred genres, admit no ageism. Oliver Sain remained a dominant, inspiring presence on the scene until his passing at age 71. The image of the wise and weathered bluesman isn't just a cliché; it's a reminder that hard-working, regular-gigging musicians are the ones who pass the tradition along with every show.
In its fourteenth year, the Baby Blues Showcase continues to shine a welcome light on younger generations — musicians 30 and under — of St. Louisans who have been mentored by their elders and who, in turn, sustain the circle of mentorship. This year's event will take place at BB's Jazz Blues and Soups on the afternoon of November 29. Artists will include Marquise Knox, Paul Niehaus IV, Greg Hommert, Aaron Griffin, Delta Sol Revival, Katie Schleicher and Sasha Chiecsek, as well as a set from youngsters in the School of Rock, who have been woodshedding with blues maestros such as Eric McSpadden and Rich McDonough.
Organizer Jeremy Segel-Moss, guitarist and songwriter for the well-established Bottoms Up Blues Gang, remembers how it all started.
"At that time, the Bottoms Up Blues Gang had done maybe a year's worth of gigs. BB's was our Fox. It was a gem. All the old guys were still alive. Tommy Bankhead was there, Oliver Sain, Bennie Smith and Johnnie Johnson. We were new, not very good, and we were young white kids. We were never going to get a gig at BB's. So the organizer in me said, 'Let's all get together,' and we picked a day when there wasn't anything going on. We got all the young musicians together, and that kicked it off. And then within five years we aged ourselves out of the show! But it's not about me; it's not about my band."
Since 2002, the Baby Blues Showcase has featured some 60 acts, including national artists Sean Costello and Jason Ricci, and many of the marquee roots musicians of St. Louis who were once up-and-coming and unknown. Pokey LaFarge, Aaron Griffin, Marquise Knox and young jazz players from University City and East St. Louis have all gotten a career boost and a chance to test their mettle at one of the most storied venues in town.
"What's amazing is how the community has come out," Segel-Moss says. "It's so great for the artists to play for those kinds of crowds. When high school kids come, it's so cool for them. They see the pictures on the wall at BB's and they experience the tradition. And if there's any timidness or nervousness that someone like a young Aaron Griffin might have had, it's overwhelmed by the positivity of the crowd. But if a young musician is not ready, I don't ask them to play, or maybe they'll just play one song."
In the blues world, the flow of influence and knowledge runs both ways. Young musicians have everything to learn from those who laid the foundation, but the blues journeymen also draw on their apprentices.
"These young kids play with the old guys," explains Segel-Moss, "but they can teach them how to make a CD, make a Facebook page or create an electronic press kit. Paul Niehaus, for example, has a studio in his basement and is part of the Blues Society. Paul has now hosted fifteen bands in his studio — all the heavy hitters — and he's worked closely with them and helped teach them industry standards."
One of the young bands taking the stage at BB's for this year's event is Delta Sol Revival. Still in his early twenties, singer, guitarist and songwriter Tyler Stokes has begun to get a taste of what a full-blown career is like. The band formed in January 2013 in Springfield, Missouri, where Stokes (a native of St. Charles) was studying music therapy. Delta Sol Revival's earliest recordings show a bewildering array of influences — ska, Latin, blues rock and party-band styles — but Stokes' current direction is more in the soul and blues revival pocket, with plenty of echoes of hard-driving St. Louis R&B and bar-tested rock & roll.
"I went to see Devon Allman play, and I hadn't been writing songs for years," Stokes says. "I went home and wrote like five songs. Devon said, 'These are really great. We should do a record.' So that really inspired me. And then a year or so later we were opening for Robert Cray. It started with Springfield musicians, a rotating lineup, and now it's all St. Louis musicians. I try to surround myself with people who are better than me."
Stokes (who played Baby Blues once before as a teenager) and Delta Sol Revival have just released a five-song EP called Witness, produced by Allman and recorded in Memphis, Tennessee, with engineer Peter Matthews, who has worked with the likes of George Thorogood and the North Mississippi Allstars. The EP focuses on Stokes' gospel and soul-based songwriting, with the drive of dirty, electric blues.
"I think my writing has changed and then there's just playing with St. Louis musicians," says Stokes. "We've gotten tighter, with more of a groove. We don't really jam, but there's more energy. It moves up and down, and we feed off each other. But writing-wise, I was originally influenced by Latin stuff, and I still am. But now getting to see Kim Massie and Roland Johnson play live, that is so important. I've also been learning about pre-war blues music, but the soul music of St. Louis has definitely changed our sound. For me, it's all about those artists that make you feel good when you hear them."