Blues for sale
A new owner for Gilrein's, Hokaha's classic rock, and Blue Hornets at Ralph's
by Brian Goslow
Anytime changes occur at a beloved institution like
Gilrein's, Worcester's Home of the Blues, it's only natural that skeptics will
throw up the warning flags. Last week, Robin Scott and Barbara Haller, who had
co-owned the club since the late 1980s, sold out to life-long Worcester
resident John Murphy. "Any time there's change, people are nervous," says
Murphy, in the midst of mid-day
renovations earlier this week. "I've tried to be here a lot in the past two
weeks [since signing the agreement with Haller and Scott], including the New
England Blues Society benefit for Barbecue Bob, to allay peoples fears.
"I've been coming in here for the last 10 to 15 years," says Murphy, who
previously was a lawyer and owned Mad Murphy's Ice Cream Shop. "I like
listening to the blues, and it's a real Worcester place with a lot of
characters and a great music room." He also knows that a lot of people haven't
visited Gilrein's for a while. "I've talked to some people who haven't been
here in five years and I want to get them back. And a lot of older people still
know it as a steak house."
And they can again. "On Thursday nights, we're going to have a steak night,"
Murphy says. "The original grill is still here. Steak's going to be the only
thing we serve -- you can have a good time, have a few beers, and still get
And despite some paranoid fears that national acts would no longer swing
through South Main, Murphy intends to keep bringing the best possible blues
entertainment to town, with a businessman's eye towards the bottom line; to
that end, he's keeping Gilrein's doors closed on Monday and Tuesday,
discontinuing its long-running but no-so-profitable jazz jams and acoustic open
"I'm going to keep an eye on what's going on in the casinos [in Connecticut]
and in Boston. I obviously can't pay what the big venues can pay [for talent],
but maybe I can get them in on an off-night. Everyone's been giving me advice
-- it's time to bring in some new ideas."
One of Murphy's first moves was to bring back Rick McTigue, who booked the room
in the mid-1980s and has been putting on the odd show in recent years. March
will see appearances by the Mike Valeras Group, the Wildcats, 9-Teen, Jason
James and the Bay State House Rockers, Fatwall Jack, and Mike O'Connell. But
first, there's still a few renovations in store.
"Every thing I've touched needs four other things," says Murphy. "We're
changing things from plastic to glass, cleaning it up a bit, changing the fans,
and putting in some lounge-style seating."
The club will be closed from February 26 through March 2, when it will reopen
with a semi-public opening with pianist (and Gilrein's neighbor) Lou
Terricciano. The following night, March 3, the swingin' Charles Ketter Quintet
will perform at the official opening bash. Both events are free.
"I'm not going to vary far from the blues niche -- that's the biggest asset to
the place," Murphy says.
With all of its devotion to hard rocking cover bands, it's been surprising that
Central Massachusetts hasn't produced a greater number of traditional rock acts
releasing their own original music. It's not like the area isn't bursting with
Hokaha brings together guitarist Joe Margagnoni and bassist Kevin Quinn (who
both played in Every Other Sunday), vocalist John Girard, who sang with the
original version of Musclecah, and Jimmy Jones, who previously picked up a
share of a Worcester Phoenix Best Music Poll Award as a member of Jason
James and the Bay State House Rockers and went onto form Musclecah with Chris
Lillyman when the duo split with James over musical differences. Late last
year, Jones left Musclecah to devote himself full time to Hokaha, although he's
been helping them fill their gig commitments until their new drummer's in
Like many other musicians, Margagnoni would rather not have to categorize his
music. "I hate this question -- it's tough with all the variety of songs we
have. But even still I think we have an underlying sound all our own. I always
prefer `Rock and Roll,' but that can be misleading. So I say bluesy, rock,
funky, pop, metal, groove, and jam. The only thing we don't have is a DJ."
The group's underlying groove is apparent on its initial limited-release CD,
which will be followed by a full-length recording later this year. On "San
Jose," vocalist John Girard sounds like a combination of the Guess Who's Burton
Cummings and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. "I've known him [Girard] since maybe
1989 or so when he was in Twiin Sun," says Margagnoni. "This is the first
electric band he's played guitar in as well and it definitely doesn't take
anything away from his voice. His playing is getting better too. He's got a
very melodic voice, very flowing -- it makes you cry sometimes -- well, me and
a few others I know. His voice is another tasty ingredient in the salad."
Rush-like guitar chords kick off "Redwood," before Girard's dream-like vocals
weave in and out, and there's even a bit of Robert Plant-styled falsetto on "30
The songwriting in Hokaha, whose name originates with the Sioux Indians, is a
group effort. "We all add our two cents in and somehow come up with a dollar,"
Margagnoni says. "I've written lyrics about childhood memories and love for
`Puddle Jumpin',' Jimmy's written lyrics for `Paperwait,' Kevin for `War Dogs,'
and on our tune `Gateswell,' John addresses views on the abuse and mistreatment
of people of different sexual preferences."
Hokaha have the luxury of being able to experiment with their studio sound,
since Quinn owns his own studio. "It's a kick-ass situation," Margagnoni
explains. "We're doing a lot of listening this time around and a little
re-writing as we go." He takes me through the songs that are already recorded.
"It's a great variety -- there's bluesy rock [`San Jose,' `30 Days'], groovy
metal [`Gateswell']. `Puddle Jumpin'' is a kind of Dead, Dave Matthews,
Phishy-thing. `Paperwait' reminds me of some Mother Love Bone tune. `Sandflats'
goes through all the colors of the spectrum."
While the group has yet to perform too far from home, they've been slowly
building a national following through their web page on mp3.com. "I've heard
really good responses from North Carolina, Cali [fornia], Maine, all throughout
MP3.com," says Margagnoni, "especially colleges. I think that's our `target'
audience. And this is just from the four-song demo, so we're very excited about
the new CD.
Not wanting to jinx the release by providing an official date, Hokaha hopes to
finish work on the disc shortly. You'll be able to get a preview this Friday
night when Hokaha appears with Nimmer and the Dirt Junkies at Mulligan's.
It's been a long time coming, but the Blue Hornets, who were voted the Best
Local Blues Act in the Worcester Phoenix's 2000 Best Music Poll, have
finally begun work on the follow up to It Takes Time. "We've got seven
tracks done on a new CD that we're recording at Longview," says guitarist
George McCann, who also performs with the Soulcasters and hosts the Sunday
evening open blues jam at the Chicken Bone Saloon in Framingham, where more
often than not, he performs with a rotating roster of musicians on Wednesdays
They've recorded versions of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells's "Shake It Baby," B.B.
King's "You've Done Lost Your Good Thing Now," and Tyrone Davis's "Turning
Point," as well as a couple McCann originals, "Yah, Man!," and "George's
This weekend, the Blue Hornets make their Ralph's debut. The gig came about on
two fronts -- Buzz Tubert's desire to continue mixing new sounds with old at
the rejuvenated Worcester landmark and McCann's recognition that he had to
expand the group's fan base by bringing their music to a new audience. "I just
want to make R and B fun for the average fan," says McCann, who played the room
back in its glory days. "I played there in a pop band called the Presidents and
in an early version of the Joeys with Duke Levine."
The Blue Hornets appear on Friday at John Stone's Inn and on Saturday at
Ralph's as part of its "Rock Guitar Gods Weekend." Young Neal and the Vipers
appear on Friday.
Worcester band guide
Just a reminder to all you musicians and punk rockers out there -- the
deadline's getting closer for getting your contact information into the
first-ever Worcester Phoenix Band Guide. The deadline is March 9. For
full details, see page 13 of this week's Phoenix.
Brian Goslow can be reached at bgoslow[a]phx.com.