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Local Blues Music at the Crossroads

Last weekend, the Bamboo Room — a longtime blues hub located in Lake Worth — may have closed its doors to the public forever. Fingers are crossed in the local music community as many of us hope that things will change, but as of now, the best blues club in this part of the state is shut down.

A little more than three weeks ago, a news release came out saying that the Bamboo Room was taking a hiatus. It's still unclear how long that hiatus will last or if there's even a chance the club will reopen during the tourist season. Either way, it's bad news for music lovers, a bad sign for local venues, and kick in the stomach for fans of the blues, who cherished the club and now have one fewer friendly watering hole to call home.

Owner Russell Hibbard and his wife, Karen, plan to sit back for the next four to five months and take a reading on the local and national economy to determine whether they can reopen. If there's an uptick and consumer confidence rises, they'd love to be back in business sometime this winter. If nothing changes or, God forbid, this make-believe recession (which the government says we're not even having) starts to get worse, well, that's probably all, she wrote.

I chatted with Russell last week just to help wrap my brain around how such a cool music venue that's so widely adored by blues lovers all over the country could wind up in this position.

Here's how I thought the conversation would go:

Dred Scott: Hey, Russell, so what's going on? I hear that you guys are closing.

Hibbard: Where the hell have you been? I've only seen you at my club twice and you're the music editor at that newspaper. Thanks for all the fucking support!

Hey, man, you're totally right. I took your place for granted when I shouldn't have. I thought I'd get to come up there more often and write about the place, but gas is really high and... [voice trails off in embarrassment].

Tell me about it. Some of you music journalists are so concerned with what's hip and what's new that you don't take the time to appreciate how a blues bar is an American institution. This music is dying out, man. And there aren't a lot of places to go and hear it anymore.

So what can people do to help you stay in business? Some of us realize that, even though we love the place, we didn't go as frequently as we should have. But that's over now. What can we do?

Buy a time machine. Go back to 2004. Keep Bush from getting reelected. Maybe then I'd be in better shape.

Well, the conversation didn't go exactly like that, but the sentiment was in the air. After all, I didn't make it to the Bamboo Room nearly as much as I should have — since I live in Plantation, gas prices have a lot do with that. Some readers may coyly think the same thing.

"A lot of this is psychological on the consumer's part," Hibbard said during our actual conversation. "People are still getting used to $4 gas prices. Folks can't go out and watch music like they used to — that includes you. And touring bands can't afford to drive this far south into Florida if they don't have a bunch of gigs lined up to make it worth their while. They'd love to be able to play our venue, but the additional 700 miles round trip, in two vans, from one part of the state all the way down here and back, would cut into any profitability of that tour."

It's not to say that the price of petrol is putting the Bamboo Room out of business, nor is it causing blues music as a whole to disappear across the country faster than many of us would like. But since both are happening, it was only a matter of time before the Bamboo Room felt the crunch.

"Small venues like us, we get hit first," Hibbard says. "I don't have an occupancy of 400-plus. I'm a 150-seat theater, and I book a lot of artists that rarely play Florida."

In a sense, that's what's made the Bamboo Room such a special place. Since the place opened in March 1999, it's been a hub for some of the finest living blues musicians (young and old) to showcase their stuff. Everyone from Pinetop Perkins to Otis Taylor, Bo Diddly, James "Superharp" Collins, John Hammond, and beyond has performed here. To some, it may have been just another gig — the first time they played there— but after walking in the door, many of those artists came back.

Just sitting around the bar, shootin' the shit with patrons, could lead to any number of crazy, blues-related stories springing forth. Like the time Keb' Mo' sat in the back of the club unannounced during Otis Taylor's last set at the Bamboo Room in 2007. Mo' never made his presence known until the end of the night, when the club closed. It was then that he approached Taylor, hopped on stage, and jammed for another 35 minutes to an audience of fewer than 20 people.

Just a few nights ago, I sat at the bar and met Gerardo and Dar Lopez, who said they loved the Bamboo Room so much, they got married there on January 1, 2006.

It's hard to explain how much the club meant to so many people, because everyone has his own favorite memories of the venue. I sat on the phone with Hibbard and asked if he could give me his top five shows of all time that he booked at the club. Almost 20 minutes later, his top five was a top 16 and growing.

"It's more like a top 100," he said. "Honestly, I couldn't limit it to any fewer than that." And as he started rattling off names — Blind Boys of Alabama, Chuck Prophet, John Hammond, James "Blood" Ulmer, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Fred Eaglesworth, Ben Prestage ("Hell, every time I book him, it's a great show") — and my fingers started Googling, I realized the blues are at a crossroads. And if it weren't for courageous club owners like Hibbard, the music might have died out here a long time ago.

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Jonathan Cunningham