The sound

March 31st, 2011 |

By Michael Swanger


Coming to a street corner near you: Underground blues concerts


Five months after closing Blues on Grand, Des Moines' award-winning blues club of 11 years, former manager Jeff Wagner has returned to the familiar business of booking blues shows, only this time with a twist.

On Friday, April 1, Wagner will launch the first in a series of free underground blues concerts at various locations throughout the Des Moines metro in which he will send text alerts to fans one hour before showtime, announcing the artist and location of the concert. The former club manager-blogger unveiled his plans for the series three weeks ago during a brief press conference held at a bus stop on the city's north side.

" Each concert will be held at a different site, at a random time of my choosing, giving true blues fans the kind of unique, authentic blues experience they won't find in Chicago, Memphis or Boise," said Wagner who bolted from the press event after handing out books of matches with his Twitter address scribbled on them to reporters.

In an exclusive online interview six days later, Wagner reluctantly disclosed that national touring guitarist Anthony Gomes and the Brokeback Mountains would perform the first show to be held on April Fool's Day. Though he would not reveal the location of Gomes' performance, Pollstar lists the musician as playing in the alley behind East Fifth Street in downtown Des Moines. Admission to the show is free, but fans are encouraged to tip the performers.

" It's all about matching the artist with the right environment," said Wagner. "There are some blues acts who shouldn't play in a club with restrooms."

Frank Strong Jr., a longtime local blues artist and promoter of blues shows, agrees with Wagner. Next month he has agreed to perform for Wagner in the basement of the Titan Tire Corp. manufacturing plant.

" We're going to make a killing down there," he said. "I'm hoping there's enough money leftover after expenses to donate to Maurie Taylor's presidential campaign."

Other artists slated to play the blues series include Cyndi Lauper, Blind Bryan Church, Tits McGhee and the Balldusters, T-Model Ford, Washboard Jim and Slickety Slack & the Blues Attax. Fans who wish to receive text messages about future concerts must sign up to be on a text list on Wagner's Twitter, Facebook and Bigadda social network accounts.

" Blues fans are a lot more tech savvy than they get credit for," said Wagner. "But just to be sure we're covering all our bases, we are handing out fliers the day of shows at pawn shops, used car lots and check cashing stores."

The 67-year-old Wagner said that he also hopes to reconnect with fellow blues fans who enjoy smoking cigarettes and cigars. A vocal opponent of the state's anti-smoking laws, Wagner said that smoking will be allowed at his shows because they will be held outdoors, or on private property or in the back of his bread truck.

" I'm sure it's just a matter of time before some communist at the statehouse finds a way to shut me down again, but in the meantime, smoke 'em if you got 'em," he said.

That kind of carefree attitude characterizes Wagner, who said that he enjoys the personal and professional freedom his new live music venture allows him. He borrowed the idea from his teenage nephew who plays two free shows every year with his punk band at house parties and other impromptu, private events.

" The whole concept of booking bands at a club, paying them, feeding them, housing them and catering to their every little need is tiresome, and more times than not, it makes me miss reruns of my favorite TV show, 'Las Vegas,' " he said. "Out here, on the mean streets of Des Moines, if you want to earn your meal money, you better sing and play your ass off. Or at least be a good shot." APRIL FOOLS


caption: Jeff Wagner, formerly of Blues on Grand, is launching a series of free underground blues concerts throughout the Des Moines metro where he will text fans an hour beforehand to announce the artist and location.