|Band feels best when itís feeling the blues
Blues Defenders have been making mundane Mondays good nights to hit the town for music
In order to truly understand the artistry of the Blues Defenders, one must go back in time about 150 years to Clarksdale, Miss., where the air was filled with the sounds of gospel and work music. Because the cotton gin put so many families out of work, recently freed slaves made their way up to Chicago, taking with them their voices and the tradition of old blues music. What were once simple acoustic performances on the family porch had meshed with the amplifiers of the city.
“What blues does is that when you’re singing it, it talks about the blues, but also when you’re listening to it, it cures the blues,” explains Donny Mederos, bassist for the band, which has been around for about 10 years. “So you’re sharing a spiritual moment with people.”
While living in Alameda County, Mederos hit it off at a jam session one night in Brentwood with Mike Rippee and Jeff Piche, who would later become the drums and voice of the band. They were then joined by Matt Silva on guitar and Bruce Gordon on keyboard and relocated to Cotati. Although they play traditional blues music, they do not consider themselves a nostalgia group, as their goal is to bring a new approach to familiar classics.
“People could come here from the worst day ever: their car is repossessed, got into an argument with their wife. They get in here, they start dancing a little bit, and it all goes away.”
Mederos stresses that blues, because of the popularity of race records in Europe, is considered the inspiration for Rock ‘n Roll, and Rhythm and Blues, as many of the genre’s most notable fans included the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Elvis Presley.
No shortage of venues
Venues are plentiful in Sonoma County. With up to three gigs a week, the Blues Defenders can be found playing at local bars such as the Tradewinds and Last Day Saloon, wineries and downtown festivals, such as the Aug. 21 Downtown Healdsburg Festival.
About 30 percent of their songs are originals, while some favorite covers include “Walking the Dog” and “Unchain My Heart.”
“We want to play songs that people know, because we are entertainers. We want people to dance real quick,” Mederos says, describing the intimate relationship an audience will often experience among blues performers. “Really, what we’re trying to do is play a few songs to experiment around to find something that works for everybody. That’s the first thing you’ve got to do, is change people’s emotional states.”
Notable names on the mic
A prime example of this phenomenon is during Monday night’s Pro Jam at the Tradewinds, a jam session that works best because of its strong foundation as well as weekly well-known guest singers. Some visiting names include: Kenny Neil, Pat Wilder, Zakiya Hooker, Ron Thompson, Danielle Castro, Alvin Bishop and Johnny Rawls to whom the Blues Defenders is the official west coast touring band.
Having managed to turn the worst night of the week into a local favorite, Pro Jam is about creating a friendly family-like atmosphere in a familiar local bar setting. Casting the right jam group is a task akin to a chemistry experiment, as the bassist states a weak rhythm section has often destroyed the mood of an entire room. Just three years old, the carefree and lively Mondays began when he recognized a need for a high-quality jam session with a core band to stabilize those off-nights.
Involving the crowd
“People like to be involved,” Mederos concludes, describing how Piche will often break the common rhetoric of performance by entering the crowd and sharing his microphone with audience members. “Anything to get the them going; that’s really old gospel kind of stuff. It makes it feel like the really old village type of thing.”
There is a clear intimacy initiated in blues, a tradition this band exemplifies through its productions. As the name implies, the Blues Defenders stand for keeping the much-loved and historically significant genre alive yet relatable and fresh to a younger audience as well. Most of all, though, their music is about reaching out and altering the listener’s emotions.
“That’s why we have cave paintings and stuff. To go out there, look at it and feel somebody else’s soul who created that.”