It's Saturday night at Redwhite + Bluezz, which shares a courtyard with the Pasadena Playhouse. The business began as a high-end gourmet restaurant with an extensive wine list, in its first home off of Pasadena's Paseo in 2008. It's changed hands and moved over to 37 N. El Molino Ave., but in all of its incarnations, live music has always been central to Redwhite + Bluezz. While small jazz units, like those headed by guitarist Greg Porée, have predominated, on this night it's Blues Night.
The Southern California Blues Society is known for some of the most high-profile blues events in the Southland: weekly shows at the Maui Sugar Mill in Tarzana and the yearly Topanga Blues Festival give the SCBS an active profile throughout the year. This marks the eighth week that blues shows have been presented at Redwhite + Bluezz. While they're officially under the SCBS banner, they are the handiwork of blues impresario and guitarist who goes by the professional name of Cadillac Zack.
"I discovered the blues when I was 12," says the amiable Zack, a SoCal native, "over 30 years ago." No one gets into the business end of the music capriciously or pursues it half-heartedly, and he's no exception. "I tend to be obsessive-compulsive about the things that I'm passionate about. When I get into something, I do it all the way."
Full-time blues clubs in or near Los Angeles proper are now nonexistent; Arcadia Blues Club is a notable exception, but that's much farther east. If the music is presented at all, it's usually a night here or a night there at different clubs. Gone are the days when the Ash Grove in West Hollywood presented virtually every blues headliner in the country. The precarious state of live blues in the Southland is what motivated Zack to begin presenting. "Long-running shows were closing down," he concedes, "and I wanted to make sure the music still had showcases to be heard."
At Redwhite + Bluezz, Zack has brought in Dallas singer-guitarist Holland K. Smith and his band, though they're a little late taking the stand. Blues fans have been accruing in the adjacent lounge, where Blake Griffin and Matt Barnes keep the Clippers just out of the King's reach on the big screen. After beer, wine and appetizers (the crab cakes are devilishly good) the bluesers start to make their way toward the dining room, where the stage sits. A tall Brazilian guitarist with an Elmore James T-shirt mentions that he jammed with guest star RJ Mischo, the harmonica virtuoso, in his native land a few years ago. Is there an audience for American blues there? "There is," he contends. "Not big enough to fill stadiums, but clubs like this, yeah."
The action moves to a large room as the band warms up on a slow rocking instrumental. Smith is a lean presence with his gold Stratocaster, and a moderate blues shuffle shows him working in a quote from Dallas blues guitar god Freddie King's "Hide Away." He's getting his vocals warmed up on "Let's Talk It Over One More Time," sounding a little like Leon Russell, but with a better voice. Gentleman John Street's tasty keyboard shine on this one and the crowd starts to react. Al Green's "Take Me to the River" really gets to the crowd, as Street's organ-like chords punch the tune along.
Just when you think the Smith Band is an exceptional bar band, they change the mood with an instrumental shuffle on "Out of Nowhere," a favorite of beboppers. If Floyd Cramer and Scotty Moore played jazz, they'd sound something like Street and Smith, respectively on this delightful recasting. Holland is admirable for his economical solos and controlled volume, and nowhere more than on King's slow "It Ain't That I Don't Love You." He doesn't play much that he doesn't have to, and he doesn't try to make up in decibels what isn't being said in the music itself.
Mischo tipped his hat to Sonny Boy Williamson II on open harp on a slow number — shaping the notes with cupped hands, and accenting flutters and crying wah-wahs. Switching to a bullet mic, he adopts the 'Louisiana saxophone' mode, before ending with a prolonged circular-breathing trick.
The capacity crowd eats it up, the waiters are hopping, but like the music, Zack will soon be on the move. A couple of days later he concedes that his Blue Saturday show will move over to Big Mama's Rib Shack on Lake Street. "I'm just looking for one place to commit to every Saturday," he notes with a hint of exasperation.
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.