At 7pm on most Monday nights, JJ's Blues is about as quiet as you'd expect a dive with modest signage on Stevens Creek Boulevard to be. Melissa is standing behind the long counter, chatting with a couple of regulars while pouring an irregular, me, a drink. Johnnie, the proprietor of San Jose's most venerable blues club, is dividing his attention between a computer, to update the online calendar for the club's website, and a mixing board. On stage, singer, guitarist, and all-around swell guy Peter Stanley is prattling into a microphone and noodling on his red Gibson Firebird to check and double check the levels in the monitors. Looking up, Johnnie lifts a hand from the keyboard, turns just three of the board's hundred or so dials, and returns to his task. He's been here before.
Kneeling next to Stanley, harmonica player Brad Kava aims a penlight into an equipment case to fish out a harp. Behind Kava, Chris Trevisan warms up at his keyboard, switching variously from a punchy Fender Rhodes sound to the heavenly tones of a Hammond B-3. Meanwhile, the rhythm section (Gregory Sandoval on drums and John Braselton on bass) crash and rumble through their pre-show calisthenics. Doghouse Riley is about to tear up JJ's postage-stamp stage, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone that there are currently more people up there than in the audience. Wait, scratch that; here come a couple of friends.
Doghouse Riley has been filling the early-show slot at JJ's three Mondays a month for two years now. A jam of local pros, some of whom play in bands fronted by the likes of Carlos Santana, follows at around 9 or 9:30, depending on how long it takes Doghouse Riley to pack up its gear. With rare exceptions there's no cover at JJ's on Sunday through Thursday, so a working stiff like me can begin the week with a couple of beers, an hour or two of what Stanley jokingly calls "the suburban blues," and still be home by 10.
Kidding aside, suburban blues is not a terrible description for Doghouse Riley's music. Yes you'll hear traditional blues chestnuts like "Born Under A Bad Sign," "Mama Talk To Your Daughter," and "If You Love Me Like You Say," but the band also sprinkles more contemporary covers into its set, including ZZ Top's, "Jesus Just Left Chicago" and, on a recent night, no less than two Steely Dan numbers ("That was a song by those great blues pioneers, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker," Kava jokes after grinding through "Pretzel Logic").
Which is not to suggest that Doghouse Riley is just another cover band. These guys are serious about their music and respectful of its roots, although never morbidly so. Kava is a man possessed when he's wailing on his harp, producing everything from low freight-train moans to those classic harmonica squeaks; by the end of the 90-plus minute set he's pretty much drenched. Trevisan varies his sound from song to song, sometimes exploring synthesized tones that you might expect from Steve Molitz of Particle, other times channeling the great Jimmy Smith. As for Stanley, he finds ways to surprise his audience all night long, crafting fluid leads that benefit from an intuitive touch, a deft hand when speed is the need, and a willingness to simply have some fun (the Los Lobos rocker "Don't Worry Baby" is interrupted, but only once, by the famous Jimmy Page riff in Led Zeppelin's head-banger anthem "How Many More Times").
JJ's is the perfect place for this sort of thing. The walls of the long, narrow space are covered by lots of mirrors and even more photographs of famous blues artists, many of whom make regular pilgrimages to tiny JJ's when they are passing through town on tours that typically take them to larger, more lucrative rooms. There are also pictures of people you've never heard of, which is an important part of Johnnie's mission for JJ's: to give emerging artists a safe and friendly place where they can refine their craft.
That's why Doghouse Riley is here on Monday nights. It certainly isn't for the money. At the end of the evening, as the band members are loading amps and instruments into their cars, Stanley hands each player a five-dollar bill, an equal share from the night's tip jar. Even in the suburbs, you've got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.
Doghouse Riley plays every Monday, except the first Monday of the month, at JJ's Blues, 3439 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose; (408) 243-6441. Music starts about 7pm and admission is free. 21 and over.