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Feb. 22 - March 1, 2001

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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 home early."

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 mics.

"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.

classic rock

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 good musicians.

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 place.

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 Days."

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.

Buzz's blues

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 as well.

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 Boogie."

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.

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