It's Thursday, typically an off-night for budding social butterflies. It's pouring buckets, typically a disincentive for bar-hopping alkies. On a strip-malled swath of Federal Highway, John L. Sullivan's is a high-gloss Irish pub wedged into the generic purgatory of Lighthouse Point. With blue blazers and blond perms gabbing over afterwork dinners, this place is not typically -- how do you say? -- cool, by any stretch of the imagination. There's a band playing: Wellington's Odd Man Out, a quartet of skinny teenagers who drove an hour to play early because it's a school night. Half the room is their parents; the other half isn't paying attention. An arm-long list of factors weighs against Judy Blem and her 2-month-old All Original Music Thursdays at John L. Sullivan's, but her level of enthusiasm isn't on it. From Blem's point of view, the star-crossed folly of starting a free, weekly, locally focused music night at an out-of-the-way bar is balanced by the karmic payback it gives the community.
Blem, affable and wide-smiling, is far from typical herself. The youthful 40-something wants her age printed thusly: She celebrated the 12th anniversary of her 29th birthday last month. Tonight, the married mother of two sports a sequined baseball hat and matching jacket, looking more like a funked-up soccer mom than a veteran show promoter. In reality, she's both.
"I've been booking cover gigs for 15 years," Blem says. "January of '91, I started working at the talent agency of Musicians Exchange. I walked in off the street to get a job in there, and I worked on commission -- no salary, no benefits -- the entire time I was there."
At that point, Blem decided to do something the vast majority of talent bookers never do: go the honest route.
"In '98, I got my license from the Department of Business and Professional Regulations in Tallahassee," she explains. "If you're booking musicians and you're not in the band or the manager, you legally need the license to earn a commission." Betcha didn't know that one, sport.
Since then, she's developed a roster of more than 300 acts that play bars, nightclubs, restaurants, private parties, corporate events, Kwanzaa celebrations, and space shuttle launches across South Florida. "Everything: jazz, blues, reggae, Latin, Top 40, mariachi, bagpipe players, harpists, cellists," she says. "I may only call them once a year, but I have them at my disposal." It's a thriving business, and she loves the music, but All Original Music Thursdays offers something she couldn't get from booking cover bands at bank openings.
"It's to give something back to the bands," she says. "They have such beautiful music, and they just wanna play it. For me, it's truly a labor of love. For what I make from it, it's extremely time-consuming, and I just don't care."
Her labor of love charges no cover, provides professional sound to bands, and even pays them money to play each week. Quaint and cute like a proud mom, she even introduces each band member by name to the small crowd: "It's the recognition they deserve, and someone's gotta do it," she says. "Might as well be me."
Early on, it's Louis, Michael, Matt, and Kyle of Odd Man Out. Pop-punks of startling sophistication, these high schoolers recently returned from a breakout gig at New York's CBGB and are about to release a full-length called Sound of Adrenaline. Later, it's Russell, Mike, Lee, Lucie, and Tom of Lefty Lucie. When they go on around 11 p.m., the after-dinner crowd has thinned out; the leftovers are mainly friends of the band and grizzled drinkers too busy stirring their sauce to notice Lefty Lucie's soulful art rock. Even if the customers aren't into it, Sullivan's owner, Jim Nash, is thrilled with the music Blem has brought to the bar.
"The whole original-night thing got started by me cohosting an open-mic night with [local guitar virtuoso] Michael Bianco since July of last year," Blem says. She had been booking other gigs at Sullivan's throughout the week, but "the owner kept seeing all these people coming on Mondays, playing originals, and I kept saying, gimme a night to do original music. Now I'm psyched because I'm getting e-mails from management companies, from acts that are touring nationally, saying, 'I heard about your originals night,' and I'm like, 'Wow, that's so cool -- too bad I can't get the people in town to come. '"
Since they started in February, attendance at All Original Music Thursdays has been unpredictable. Some nights will see 100 people through the door, others ten. The diversity of talent Blem books -- from Broward jangle-rockers Stratosphere to Miami acoustic songbird Hope Littwin to semifamous, former Floridian/keys freak Robbie Gennet -- might end up working against her, as there's no solid theme for the series, let alone each night. But Blem is relying on artists to help with promotion, which she says just isn't happening. Half den mother, half impresario, she's concerned that her kids aren't doing for themselves, and they might suffer for it.
"I go beyond the call of duty to make sure they're happy," she says of the players she works with. "When there's a musician with a birthday, I'll bake a cake. When there's a musician that's pregnant, I'll throw a shower. I just love these guys, and I love the music. Sometimes I feel like I have 100 children."
That might be a lot of hand-holding, but Blem's got a generous grasp. Her Monday open-mic night with Bianco is still a consistent draw, and she's got Thursdays at Sullivan's booked full through May. Whether or not she can maintain the All Original Music Thursdays, Blem has made an impression on a good portion of local performers. Everyone knows that although she's not exactly typical, a mom's a mom, even when she's rocking out.
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