The most prized praise Chris Hanlin ever received was back when fellow blues musicians stopped in passing to compliment his band, Bourbon Jones. "You guys are doing it right," one such player told Hanlin, referring to the motley crew of much younger, much lighter-skinned performers with whom he shared a stage at the Golden Frog in downtown Long Beach that night.
"That meant the world to me," he says about the adulation of his peers during his Bourbon Jones days from 1992 to 2001. He's preparing to do things right once again at reunion shows on Friday at the School of Rock camp's closing-night show at the Grace First Presbyterian Church and at Harvelle's in Long Beach on Saturday.
In the early days, some detractors dismissed Bourbon Jones as more green than blue because they were in their 20s with faces not yet lined like road maps to early graves. But what they lacked in experience, they more than made up for while exorcising their devils, wailing as though walruses in heat.
Then the Blue Café opened its doors. The more upscale club brought in a diverse group of music-lovers who liked to chow down on blue cheese-topped burgers while their lady friends threw back cosmos. The Blue also had the bread to attract higher-profile blues artists.
The band's go-to venue, the Golden Frog--with its prominently placed pictures of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and cooks slinging soul food--closed soon after. Bourbon Jones grieved the loss of the consistent gigs, even if they were only playing for a beer-filled washtub.
When the Golden Frog closed, Bourbon Jones' original members--Hanlin on guitar and vocals, Mario Barmosca on upright bass and vocals, Anthony Arvizu on drums, and Mikey Meyer on harmonica and guitar--tried to get in on the action at the Blue. They were promptly shunned.
"We were always held at arms' length by the establishment," Hanlin says. But they managed to sneak onto the Blue Café's roster thanks to local, legendary booker Steve Zepeda, to whom the owners of the Blue had turned over Monday nights for alternative music.
When the Blue's midday-Sunday slot opened, Hanlin approached Blue Café co-owner Vince Jordan about the residency. Jordan had seen previous Bourbon Jones shows at the venue and took a chance.
That decision paid off, with Bourbon Jones setting up their musical menagerie of vintage instruments and killing it on the patio for four years solid starting in '96. Hanlin's emotional roaring and gnarly, guttural guitar licks combined with Meyer's rockin' reeds, plus Barmosca banging away in time with Arvizu's New Orleans marching band-style snare became a ritual for many, with an eclectic crowd converging for a weekend wrap-up session.
Tattooed punkers and bikers sat alongside accountants in Tommy Bahama shirts, as artsy bohemian girls did backbends on the dance floor, couples swung to and fro, and homeless men jammed on air guitars on the cobbled walkway outside the wrought-iron fence. Bourbon Jones nursed weekend warriors back to life one Bloody Mary and bass thump at a time, with greats such as harmonica legend Lazy Lester, Gov't Mule's Hook Herrera, and members of the Blasters and WAR sitting in on occasion.
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The band members' dark senses of humor combined with self-destructive tendencies and mood swings made for a heavy vibe that was thrilling to watch, but harder to live. Arvizu left the band in '99, and Hanlin followed in mid-2001. The remaining members of Bourbon Jones called it quits in 2002 and did not play together again until '09. They have continued to perform about once a year since at the demand of loyalists.
"I don't know how I did it emotionally," Hanlin says, recalling the intensity of the performances that could last up to five or seven hours at times and were often fueled by substances since abandoned for serenity. "We were a hard-working, hard-drinking band. But we had emotion on our side." And that's all right.
Bourbon Jones perform at Harvelle's, 201 E. Broadway Ave., Long Beach, (562) 239-3700; www.longbeach.harvelles.com. Sat., 9 p.m. $10-$25. 21+.