Bourbon Jones Brings Backwoods Back to the Beach

Bourbon Jones at a 2013 reunion show (courtesy of the band’s Facebook)

For about five years during the late 1990s, a fresh-faced group of rabble rousers fueled by espresso-spiked Guinness gathered on a sweat-filled mission Sunday afternoons for all-day revivals. Blues evangelists Bourbon Jones preached to the assembled and the occasional drifter on the patio of the Blue Cafe in downtown Long Beach, offering their own brand of salacious salvation from behind vintage gear, an homage to early Southern-style blues music as old as their souls. Sometimes it felt like a jubilee and others a wake, depending how Saturday night transpired and whether they felt like punching one another in the face.

It was that kind of congregation, and the crowd was there for all of it. And still now, every so often, decades later, Bourbon Jones fans need–no, they demand–more. Thankfully, the band members, now in their late 40s to early 50s, are all intact, and no one is more surprised than them: Chris Hanlin (vocals, guitar), Mario “Barmosca” Fontes (upright bass), Antoine Arvizu (drums, percussion) and Mikey Meyer (harmonica, guitar). Heeding the call, Bourbon Jones is ready to unleash their spirited version of early 20th-century, backwoods blues Saturday, July 27, transforming Long Beach’s Alex’s Bar into a juke joint for the night.

Back in the day, there were those who dismissed Bourbon Jones as too young, and worse, too green, and with no business anywhere near the blues. Of course, that did not deter them, particularly Hanlin, whose drive to dig deeper than Led Zeppelin, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley to perfect his acoustic finger-style and slide guitar playing took him all the way back to Charlie Patton, Rev. Gary Davis, Bukka White and Blind Willie Johnson.

The foursome pounded away with a vengeance, determined to kick the shit out of down home country blues, combining their diverse rock backgrounds with reverence for the music’s roots, both African-American and Native American. “We tried to be more authentic,” says Arvisu, who these days is at the helm of the Compound Studio, a recording hub in Signal Hill. “It’s the core, the root.” They had no affinity for the more popular rock blues slingers of the day like Stevie Ray Vaughan. They were tugging on blues’ roots long before Jack White and Dan Auerbach fought over who found them first.

“The main thing we had going for us back in the day was: We were young, horny and loaded, and pissed off,” Hanlin says. “We had a lot to prove–our passion, our talent, our virility. We wanted respect, and what we perceived to be the fruits of being a musician. All bullshit really, but still that’s what motivated us. Deep down we just wanted love. Straight up.”

So now that they’re, as Meyer calls it, “rotting nicely,” has Bourbon Jones paid enough dues to play the blues without controversy? “Yeah, we’ve paid one or two at this point,” Meyer answers with an aged man’s chuckle. Maybe a more astute criticism at this point could perhaps be the lack of enough heart-crushing misery and adversity to sing the blues?

“It’s the same band, same medium,” Hanlin says. “But now we are different. Now we have to bring our experiences as husbands and fathers to the music, a more complete expression of our lives.” It’s a different brand of blues these days, highlighted by technical mastery of their instruments and somewhat-more contained camaraderie. But the songs remain the same.

Bourbon Jones performs with Greg Antista & the Lonely Streets at Alex’s Bar, 2913 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 434-8292; Saturday, July 27, 8 p.m. $15. 21+.

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