If the Mississippi River has a musical signature, it's the blues.
"It's the cradle from which all other forms of American music descends," observes screenwriter and author Rafael Alvarez, who has written about the blues for decades. "It's traced to the songs slaves sang in the field. It parallels the history of this country. As John Lennon once said: 'The blues is a chair, not a design for a chair or a better chair… it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not for looking at. You sit on that music'."
We asked resident experts in St. Louis, Memphis, New Orleans and Minneapolis/St. Paul -- all stops on Mississippi River cruises -- to describe the blues scene in their hometowns, along with a shout-out for clubs on their short list. Here's what they said:
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In St. Louis, the blues is a gray area, as it turns out. "We're a mix of genres. It's blues, R&B, soul music and funk," says music blogger and radio DJ Joseph Hess, who organizes the city's largest music festival. "It's essential to the city's DNA and its musical identity that these lines are blurred."
Hess's Top Picks
The Broadway Oyster Bar, Beale on Broadway, and BB's Jazz, Blues & Soups. Incredibly, all three clubs are located downtown on the 700 block of S. Broadway in St. Louis, and they all have live music nightly, both local and national acts. If you want some dinner with your blues, Broadway Oyster Bar, or BOB as it is affectionately called, is your best bet. In addition to freshly shucked Gulf oysters, the Cajun and Creole menu features standards like gumbo and shrimp and grits, and standouts like fried alligator, alligator sausage and shrimp cheesecake.
When the blues migrated from its birthplace in the Mississippi Delta, it traveled up to Memphis where artists ranging from bandleader W.C. Handy to B.B. King introduced it to a broader audience from clubs on Beale Street. This coined the Memphis moniker "Home of the Blues."
Historic Beale Street, just a few blocks from where cruise ships dock, remains the epicenter of the city's blues scene. As Sally Walker Davies, Memphis editor of lifestyle website StyleBlueprint, puts it: "The clubs and restaurants on Beale still move to the beat of the blues."
Walker Davies' Top Picks
B.B. King's Blues Club, The Band Box at Blues City Cafe, and The Rum Boogie Cafe; all Beale Street fixtures. B.B. King's, according to Walker Davies, has the best house band on Beale (it attracts national headliners as well). Live music starts midday on Friday and plays through Monday. The Band Box is a small venue with solid acts like Blind Mississippi Morris, who has been called "The Real Deal on Beale." Rum Boogie Cafe features Vince Johnson and the Boogie Blues Band as the house band, and has a terrific blues hall with 200 autographed guitars from, among others, Stevie Ray Vaughn and Ike Turner. All of the Memphis clubs serve traditional Southern fare; as The Blues City Cafe frames it: "Put some South in your mouth."
There's no one club in New Orleans that specializes in the blues, not even The House of Blues. "Nobody does blues all the time. We're not a town where you can hear the blues every single night," says Jan Ramsey, publisher of OffBeat magazine, a guide to the city's music scene. "We've got everything from hip hop to pop to funk to brass bands to jazz and fusion jazz. Fusion jazz is kind of bluesy."
Ramsey's Top Picks
First off, skip Bourbon Street. Locals get their music fix in the Marigny neighborhood on the 500 and 600 blocks of Frenchmen Street, which host a high concentration of musical venues. Any search for the blues should start there. Check FrenchmenStreetLive.com for listings. There's also a terrific mix of restaurants -- Creole, Italian, Thai, Japanese. If you have an appetite for N'Awlins po'boys, you will find them here, as well. B.B. King's Blues Club, a recent arrival in New Orleans, is getting a lot of buzz. It's located at 1104 Decatur St., a few blocks from the foot of Frenchmen Street. The house band starts early -- 11 a.m. on Sundays and noon the rest of the week.
Minneapolis and St. Paul
The blues scene in Minneapolis and St. Paul is thriving, both in terms of clubs and fans. "We have more than our fair share of talented musicians and some have gone on to reach national and international stature," says Minnesota Blues Society president Richard Schaefer. "There's a tradition here of supporting blues musicians and bringing up that next generation of blues players."
Schaefer's Top Picks
Wilebski's Blues Saloon and Minnesota Music Cafe in St. Paul and Famous Dave's BBQ & Blues in Minneapolis. Schaefer describes Wilebski's, which dates back to the '60s, as a classic dive bar decorated in blues relics. For the most part, it hosts local acts on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. You can find music every night of the week at Minnesota Music Cafe, home to the blues, R&B, soul and rock. Famous Dave's is known for bringing in national acts for covers as low as $10. "This is the venue that has made national blues acts very accessible for a long time now," says Schaefer. All three clubs offer meals. Schaefer's thumbs-up goes to Famous Dave's.