Editors' pick

Blues Jam

Open mike

Editorial Review

In Bowie, They're Glad to Share the Blues
By Fritz Hahn
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, September 26, 2008

Everybody gets the blues now and then, and when you got 'em, the best thing you can do is get 'em off your chest. And if you need an opportunity, everyone at the Old Bowie Town Grille would love to hear about it.

The weekly blues jam has been running for almost a year at this large, comfortable restaurant and bar, and every Wednesday and Sunday, dozens of musicians come out to run through classics and original compositions while music fans munch on crab cake sandwiches and listen to great tunes. What makes the night special is the balance between the pros, who use it as a chance to try out new material, and the enthusiastic newcomers enjoying the thrill of performing.

On a makeshift stage, John Vengrouskie, a veteran guitarist who plays in several local bands, trades licks with Joyce Ettingoff, a "close to 60" banker who started playing harmonica four months ago and is at her second-ever open mike.

"It was fun," she said afterward, smiling broadly. "Everyone was good, and friendly."

Vengrouskie, 54, plays around town with the Capital Blues Ensemble and the Country Bunker Funky Blues Band, runs a recording studio in Upper Marlboro and makes frequent visits to Old Bowie. "Everything in rock comes out of the blues, so you can't help but get back into it if you pay attention," he explains.

For him, the joy of the jam session is the chance to play with fellow musicians, no matter how good they are or how long they have been playing. "The jam is a marvelous opportunity for some of the most beginning, rudimentary players," he says. "Just get up here and play. There are no rules, no expectations -- just an opportunity to do something new to you."

The experienced musicians act as guides, Vengrouskie says, laying down support to help the newbies shine. But don't expect amateur hour, because there's serious talent in the room. "The experienced guys don't have to show up for free," Vengrouskie says. "They're here because they want to play something unpredictable."

Bob Thompson opened the Old Bowie Town Grille in May 2006, turning a former antique shop into a two-level neighborhood spot with a restaurant on the first floor and a large, pleasant bar upstairs with an Americanized Irish feel. Last fall, when it looked as if Chick Hall's Surf Club would close, the D.C. Blues Society approached Thompson about moving its weekly Wednesday jam from the Surf Club to Old Bowie, and he said he'd give it a shot. It has done so well that he has added a second jam on Sunday afternoons.

Before the Blues Society asked to host jams at his bar, Thompson booked mostly singer-songwriters for entertainment. But now he has been bitten by the blues bug, and the Old Bowie Town Grille books mostly blues-rock and rockabilly bands Thursday through Saturday nights.

Given all the musicians signing up for a chance to play -- at one point, there were two dozen names and instruments written down on a legal pad -- it's surprising the jam runs so smoothly. The organizers scan the signup sheet and group everyone into rough quartets (two guitars, bass and drums), then add keys, sax, vocals and harmonica when they can. The makeshift band performs three mutually agreed upon songs then heads back to their seats for another beer until their number is called again.

Steve D'Esposito says he has been into the blues "for probably 30 years," and even though the 62-year-old retiree doesn't play an instrument, he drops by blues jam sessions to listen.

"It's amazing when they get together how good they sound," he says, nodding to the beat. "There's always a great party atmosphere. Everyone's really friendly."

The night has the vibe of a house party, with regulars table-hopping to visit friends while the incredibly friendly bar staff never lets glasses stay empty long. (It's also affordable to hang out here: Miller Lite drafts are $2.25 on Wednesday nights, and most of the sandwiches, including a juicy burger, are $10 or less every night.)

Patty Rousseau, a medical receptionist, has been to the jam four times. "How can these guys who don't even know each other . . . play like this?" she asks. Rousseau still talks about a visit when she was blown away by "a 15-year-old kid with really red hair who played guitar and sang. He was great! But he hasn't been back, or we haven't seen him since."

Last Wednesday, even if the newbies didn't realize it, there was a star in their midst: Warner Williams, a 78-year-old legend of the Piedmont blues. With his salt-and-pepper goatee, puffs of white hair peeking out from under the well-folded sides of a cowboy hat and dark sunglasses, and plaid shirt, Williams looked the part of the bluesman even before he settled into his chair onstage. Then he began to sing, a warm vocal timbre that's somewhere between Willie Nelson and John Lee Hooker, and fingerpicks his acoustic guitar with the speed and dexterity of a much younger man. Backed by just a bass and drums, with the occasional wail of a harmonica, these songs have the sound of a long-ago juke joint.

Williams, one half of the duo Little Bit a Blues, still plays gigs in the region and across the country, but when he's in town, he says, he comes from his house in Olney "just for the open mike." He's so good that the organizers generally waive the three-song rule and let Williams have five or six.

"He just shows up," Thompson says. "He might show up for a couple of weeks, and then he's gone for a couple of months."

Next week, maybe you'll get your chance to play with him.