Travelin' Blues

'Johnny Guitar' and the Bad News Blues Band take their TAMMIES and head for the road

Mike Blommer and Alex Flores were hanging out on the patio at the Chicago Bar, sharing a smoke a few minutes before a recent midweek gig with their group, the Bad News Blues Band. Old friends and fans drifted by, greeting the musicians as the bar filled up inside.

Singer and guitarist Blommer (aka Johnny Guitar) and tenor sax player Flores are original members of the Tucson group, which Tucson Weekly readers voted Band of the Year in this year's Tucson Area Music Awards (TAMMIES). That's good news, but within the Tucson music community, it's clear that Bad News arrived a long time ago.

It's also never too late for a new and improved, media-savvy marketing campaign, the guys figured. So at the Chicago Bar, they riffed on ideas for an imaginary slogan for the band.

Blommer adopted an outer-boroughs New York yawp to deliver this gem: "The Bad News Blues Band--eh, you could do worse."

It's no "plop, plop, fizz, fizz" to be sure, but it also ain't false advertising. And it works for these guys, whom Blommer described as "just blue-collar musicians."

"We're just trying to make a living and keep away the day job for another year," Flores said.

Making a living may be a challenge sometimes, but building a passionate fan base and reputations as killer players have come naturally for the past dozen years.

Blommer, Flores and bassist Larry Diehl have all been named to the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame. That's as individual musicians, not a band. Bad News plays about four nights a week in Tucson and regularly tours Europe and the Western United States.

On its own label, ARV Records, the group has released three well-received albums--Cruisin' for a Bluesin' (1996), Bad News Indeed (1998) and Knockout (2001)--four if you count Blommer's acclaimed 2004 solo album Still Cadillacin', which also happens to have won the TAMMIES prize for readers' favorite Album of the Year.

Still Cadillacin' was just about finished and on the verge of release at this time last year. It was the product of Blommer's side project, Johnny Guitar and the Thou$andaire$, honored by TAMMIES voters last year as the top up-and-coming artist.

The album, billed to Blommer upon its release, boasts a combination of original tunes by Blommer and friends, as well as a few choice covers of songs written by Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Charles Brown and Memphis Slim.

The record's sound is a tad more traditional and rootsy than the funky blues of Bad News Blues Band, mining the mother lode of classic electric blues--Willie Dixon, Bo Diddley--as well as making piquant forays into Texas blues, vintage soul and swamp rock. Blommer's haunting instrumental interpretation of "Amazing Grace" closes the CD on a beautiful note.

Still Cadillacin' also serves as an all-star showcase of Blommer's friends and the Tucson music cognoscenti, who in most cases are pretty much the same thing. In addition to Flores, it features such local luminaries as Richard Medek, Namoli Brennet, Jimmy Carr, Teddy Morgan, Randy Lopez, Jon Penner, the Deacon, Steve Grams and Hurricane Carla Brownlee, as well as an appearance by trumpeter and Bad News member emeritus Mike Blommer Sr.

Legendary Texas blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Long John Hunter appears on a couple of cuts, including his own "Always Singing the Blues." Blommer has remained in contact with Hunter after Bad News and the Thou$andaire$ toured as Hunter's backup band.

These days, the Bad News Blues Band features a few of the Thou$andaire$. The current lineup, which has been together for about a year and a half, features Blommer, Flores, drummer Glenn Velardi, Brownlee on baritone saxophone and either Diehl or Grams on bass, depending on the night.

The dual-sax attack can be pretty fierce. "Especially with Carla," Flores attested. "She's just insane, and she has boundless energy."

Showmanship always has played a part in the band's impressive live performances, even when there are five people in the audience. During gigs, the guys have been known to not only climb up to play on the bar, but to stroll outside with their instruments--connected by wireless mikes to their amps--and play on the concrete median on Speedway Boulevard.

Blommer noted that the band is preparing some more Bad News for its listeners, i.e., a new CD. "We're working on putting something new together, but it's still in the planning process."

As the Bad News Blues Band's reputation grew in the late 1990s and early years of the 21st century, it established itself has a hard-touring unit, playing around the United States almost as often as it played at home. Then, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, effectively put the kibosh on American touring for a couple of years.

The band has continued to play blues festivals here and abroad, including gigs in Canada, Mexico, Turkey, Romania and Russia. They will return to play the Cork County, Ireland, this summer to play again at the five-day Kinsale Fringe Jazz Festival. Along the way, they'll play a few other gigs in the British Isles.

"We went to Ireland not knowing anybody or what to expect, and we made a lot of friends and contacts pretty quickly," Flores reports.

"They really appreciate the blues over there," Blommer adds.

But before Bad News heads across the ocean, it has a tour of the Western United States to do. In fact, the band leaves on July 15, the day of the TAMMIES ceremony for gigs in San Diego, San Francisco, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Part of the band's appeal is that its members are in fact those folks who live across the street.

"We're no different than the people who come to listen to us," said Blommer.

"Yeah," nodded Flores. "I think people will come and hear a band more if you're familiar to them. You know, like they'll see us on stage and say, 'I know that guy. He owes me money.'"