That's as good a definition as any for the scratchy sounds made by the members of Bleecker St.: Stevens, vocalist/percussionist Washboard Chaz Leary and harmonica player Steve "Porkchop" Sheldon. Unlike modern-day Chicago blues, which is exemplified by fiery fretwork and a decidedly urban feel, the act's music seems to emanate from the back porch of a creaky shack in rural Mississippi. Add the live presence of Leary, whose primary instrument is a customized washboard that he scrapes with thimble-capped fingers, and you've got a vibrant twist on the acoustic blues.
The musicians come from widely varied backgrounds. Stevens grew up in Australia and immigrated to the States in order to study filmmaking at New York University. But after he made a few visits to Bleecker Street, a Greenwich Village strip of jazz, blues and folk venues, music began to take precedence over movies. "I had more fun playing music than going to film school," admits Stevens, who used to practice blues tunes in the stairwells at his NYU dorm because he loved the way they echoed. "I did a couple of production internships, but they just weren't creative enough for me. With the guitar, I can do anything I want."
Leary, a native of Queens, committed to a musical career at a far younger age than did Stevens. "I knew I wanted to be a musician when I was eight," he proclaims. "My buddies and I would go hang out outside roadhouses, and then wait until the poker games were finished. We watched the jazz musicians strut out the door in their fancy suits, and that's when I decided music is what I wanted to do." But it wasn't until the early Seventies, while sitting in with a friend's band in Key West, that Leary discovered the tool that would become part of his name. "I was playing the congos and my buddy was playing the washboard. We traded instruments and I really liked it," he recalls. "The washboard is a simple instrument, so you can do a lot of stuff with it." Leary's current board exemplifies this philosophy; it's decked out with a couple of tin cans and a hotel bell.
Although they took independent routes, both Leary and Stevens eventually wound up in Boulder and became regulars in the city's blues scene (Leary also got to sit in with visiting performers such as Bonnie Raitt and Muddy Waters). But it wasn't until they participated in a jam session at the Sink in Boulder that they became a team. "I was jamming with a musician by the name of Barbecue Bob and Chaz sat in with us," Stevens says. "And after the show, the manager of the Sink walked up to us and said, `I want you and Chaz to play together here.' Our first gig was October 17, 1990, and Chaz and I have been making music ever since."
It took a while longer for Bleecker St.'s membership to solidify. Different fiddle, horn and harmonica players briefly complemented the lineup, but because most of them were attuned to the twelve-bar blues style that Stevens and Leary generally avoid, the fit wasn't quite right. Then, a year and a half ago, the pair met Sheldon, the son of an Iowa brewmaster. They soon discovered he was a kindred spirit.
Sheldon began playing the blues harp, he claims, "when a friend gave me one after she decided to give it up. I just started playing and it made sense. The harmonica only has ten holes, so it forces you to be creative, and it makes you use the notes. You have to think up different things."
Some of those things appear on I Need a Gun and a Drink, the first Bleecker St. disc. The CD is dominated by original compositions such as the title cut, the first song the bandmates wrote together. Its genesis was a chance comment Stevens overheard. "Back in the early days when we were playing at Potter's on Pearl Street," he notes, "a young waitress became so frustrated with the group of wild frat boys that she slammed down her tray and said, `I need a gun and a drink.'"
The latest Bleecker St. platter, Tumblin' Down, is even stronger than its predecessor. Cover versions of Robert Johnson's "Dead Shrimp Blues" and Bukka White's "Fixing to Die Blues" are supplemented by tunes penned by Stevens and Leary. Also pitching in was Leary acquaintance Taj Mahal, who added mandolin and banjo to a remake of the Mississippi John Hurt standard "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor."
To support the disc, Bleecker St. plans to return to Germany, where the trio performed in 1994. According to Stevens, "People really rallied around our music there. Fans would travel 150 kilometers--some even on bikes--and then ask us to play a Blind Lemon Jefferson tune. There's a real educated audience over there. We can't wait to go back next year."
In the meantime, the threesome is taking its act to cities throughout the West. Sheldon says they've been on the road enough to qualify as part-time truck drivers. "We only wish we really had a truck," he adds. "Because right now all we want to do is keep on bluesin'."
Bleecker St. 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, December 6, Soapy Smith's, 1317 14th Street, 534-1111.