Black-eyed Sally's to celebrate 15th anniversary with classic rock and blues
By Craig Harris
Special to Reminder Publications
Black-eyed Sally's 15th Anniversary
Mick Taylor, July 30
Lucky Peterson, , Aug. 15
Rebirth Brass Band, Aug. 16
350 Asylum Street, Hartford, Conn.
(860) 278-RIBS (7427)
A yearning for a barbecued lunch inspired James Varano, owner of a second-floor bar at 350 Asylum St. in downtown Hartford, to create a southern-style eatery and music club in the space below. Fifteen years later, that club - Black-eyed Sally's - has grown into one of the most respected blues and jazz venues in the United States.
"We have music four nights a week," Varano said during a recent interview, "and there have been so many great shows. I remember the time that David Crosby dropped in and played on stage. That was pretty exciting. J. Geils has played here, Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl and a lot of great local talent."
The club's weekly schedule includes popular jam sessions - jazz on Mondays and, at 14 years old, one of the longest-running blues jams on Wednesdays.
"We have a great connection with the Hartford Jazz Society and the Hartt School of Music," Varano said, "and they bring touring acts to the club. We'll start at eight o'clock and, when they're done playing their first set, students and patrons are invited up to jam. Often, there's an interesting mix of older jazz customers and college students and some wonderful music is created. At the blues jam, there's a house band, with a rotating host, and patrons are again invited up to play. I love the jam thing. You never know what you're going to get. It's exciting and it usually produces good quality music."
A variety of top-notch blues, rock and roots musicians, including former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor who performs a pair of shows on July 30, continue to be showcased on Friday and Saturday nights, while a more-eclectic mix is featured on Thursdays.
"The typical blues clientele has gotten older," Varano said, "and they don't go out as often as they used to. I'm looking to cross over and bring in the next generation of rock, blues and roots music fans. To do that, we've expanded our repertoire. Instead of guys who have been around forever, playing the blues, we're looking for younger bands and regional acts.
Black-eyed Sally's fifteenth anniversary will be spotlighted with appearances by Lucky Peterson, the Buffalo, N.Y.-born blues-rocker who performed on the club's opening night in 1995, on Aug. 15, and the New Orleans-based Rebirth Brass Band the following night.
The club has grown considerably since its' opening. "It originally was a much smaller space," Varano remembered. "We had to expand twice in the first few years. The crowds were overwhelming. We were sold out every week and the place was jammed. First, we bought the dry cleaner next door and then, on the other side, we bought out a pub and expanded into that. We added an outside patio on the sidewalk."
For the past decade, Black-eyed Sally's has sponsored the annual Black-eyed and Blues Festival. Presented in early June, this year's festival brought 5,000 people to Hartford's Bushnell Park to hear five bands.
"I'm very proud, especially during the recession, to be able to give people great music for free," Varano said.
As Black-eyed Sally's nears its crystal anniversary, Varano is eagerly looking forward to the future. "If we could have another 15 years like we just had," he said, "I'd be pretty happy. Things have slowed down with the recession and people have cut back their discretionary spending. But, we've continued to do well. We have some big shows coming up. We're not shy about booking."