VALLEJO - Geoff Drake has always loved the blues. He grew up in Richmond hearing Henry Oden and Freddie King practice up the street, and he was hooked. He rode his bike around North Richmond listening to music outside of blues clubs and a Gospel church.
“I was the white kid in places I shouldn't be,” he said. At 17, he hung out in front of Oakland’s Eli's Mile High Club – a blues venue at the time – even though he was too young to go inside. "They couldn't get rid of me," he said. The club owner put him to work, paying him $20 a night to keep an eye on things.
Drake now brings his lifelong passion for the blues to Vallejo, booking the Empress Lounge with internationally renowned performers like singer Tia Carroll, harmonica player Mark Hummel, guitarist Kid Andersen and pianist Greg Rahn.
A volunteer at the Empress since 2012, Drake convinced the management to let him launch a Wednesday blues series starting in July. “They gave me six weeks and it just kind of took off,” he said.
The Empress Lounge is next door to the larger Empress Theatre. It's an intimate venue decorated in black and white, with a full bar to the left of the door and a small stage in the back. A hot dog stand and a taco truck park out front to serve hungry guests. "I've got a soft spot for the place," Drake said. "Long ago it was called The Talk of the Town. I saw Ray Charles in this building."
Drake says that Wednesdays are a good night for the blues. Clubs like Sacramento's Starlight Room and Club Fox in Redwood City have all done well with blues shows on Wednesdays. Musicians who might have higher paying gig on the weekends are available on Wednesdays.
The shows start early by nightclub standards. Doors are open from 5:30 - 9 p.m. and music plays from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. Drake acknowledges the timing is tricky for people coming from out of town, but said an earlier show can work well on a weeknight. "This way you can come straight from work, have a bite to eat and a couple of drinks and it's over in time to go home to bed," he said.
Musician and former Empress Theatre musical director Don Bassey is a regular at the Wednesday shows. Bassey says the bands that Drake is booking are world class. But despite that, many great shows there, like award winning singer Cathy Lemons, have been poorly attended.
"We just haven't taken off yet, “ Drake said. He said that some people may be deterred by Vallejo's reputation for crime and violence, though he has seen few problems with crime during his decade at the Empress. Performers with a strong local following tend to bring the biggest audiences.
Attendance was high last week for Kid Andersen and the Greaseland All Stars. Andersen played to a full house, pouring sweet blues notes from his old Gibson guitar, and brought up special guests who weren’t on the marquee.
Mississippi native John "Blues" Boyd sang several old blues standards in a classic style reminiscent of BB King; Maurice Tani – a veteran of San Francisco rockers the Flamin’ Groovies and the Zazu Pitts Memorial Orchestra – played a couple of Americana-style tunes.
Andersen’s wife, Lisa “Little Baby” Leuschner Andersen, took a break from drumming to front the band, belting out several songs in a traditional throaty blues style. Eric Spaulding on saxophone, Steve Ehrmann on bass – a blues veteran who has backed up John Lee Hooker, among others – and Steve Lucky on piano completed the ensemble.
The band was energized and played well past 8:30. “Kid had so much fun he texted me asking when I can bring him back,” Drake said.
Upcoming Wednesday blues shows at the Empress Lounge:
- Oct. 26 - Greg Rahn Band - features Rahn’s upbeat honky-tonk and ragtime piano.
- Nov. 2 - Allen “Ace” Vega - powerful blues rock guitar.
- Nov. 9 - John Del Toro Richardson - award-winning blues guitarist from Texas.
- Nov. 16 - John Lawton and the Orphans - guitar, bass and drum trio.
- Nov. 23 - Tia Carroll - up-beat and engaging blues vocalist.
Cover charge is $12. More information and tickets at empresstheatre.org.
Before you go...
It’s expensive to produce the kind of high-quality journalism we do at the Vallejo Sun. And we rely on reader support so we can keep publishing.
If you enjoy our regular beat reporting, in-depth investigations, and deep-dive podcast episodes, chip in so we can keep doing this work and bringing you the journalism you rely on.
Click here to become a sustaining member of our newsroom.
THE VALLEJO SUN NEWSLETTER
Investigative reporting, regular updates, events and more
- Empress Theatre
- Empress Lounge
- Geoff Drake
- Kid Andersen
- Don Bassey
- John "Blues" Boyd
- Maurice Tani
- Lisa "Little Baby" Leuschner Andersen
- Eric Spaulding
- Steve Ehrmann
- Steve Lucky
Gretchen Zimmermann started volunteering with Vallejo Open Studios in 2010, launched the Vallejo Arts and Entertainment website in 2014 and creates mixed media sculpture at Mare Island Art Studios.
follow me :