There's a new haven for the blues in the Twin Cities -- and it's the same one as 30 years ago.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of cigarette butts and roaches, Wilebski's Blues Saloon reclaimed its historic second-floor dance hall in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood on New Year's Eve. For old acquaintances, indeed.

A lot has changed in the venue's two-decade hiatus. The former music hot spot has become a trouble spot for crime tied to the downstairs bar, Moonlight Magic, including a murder there in 2004 and another on its corner just last summer. Residents have called for the bar's closing. The reopening of Wilebski's may or may not clear the air.

Meanwhile, traditional blues music has hit its own rough patch. Album sales are as down and out as the songs themselves, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone under 40 at most blues concerts.

This two-front battle seems to have created a George Patton- like blend of determination and daring in the Blues Saloon's namesake leader, Ted Wilebski.

"We lived to fight another day," he said.

Wearing a businessman's suit and tie that belied the saloon's rugged appearance, Wilebski, 59, looked very much like a bar owner from a bygone era. He worked the door and walked the room, shaking hands last Saturday, when the saloon welcomed back Chicago guitarist Lurrie Bell -- the kind of influential if not world-famous blues veteran who put the place on the map when it originally opened in 1979.

About 200 patrons showed up for Saturday's gig, enough to satisfy Wilebski.

"I think there are enough people like me, who want to see the living blues legends here while we still can," he said confidently.

Among those people is Butanes bandleader Curtis Obeda, who has coached Wilebski on talent booking since the bar's heyday, when the Butanes were often hired to back stars from out of town. The challenge now isn't just to bring back blues fans, but to find the artists themselves.

"We went down a list of about 40 or 50 of the musicians who played here before, who we'd like to have back," Obeda recalled. "Only about three were still alive."

Obeda didn't sugarcoat Wilebski's prospects, but he did sing the bar owner's praises. "Ted will probably keep this up even if he runs all out of money -- and then he'll probably go three months after that."

Wilebski left the Blues Saloon in the mid-'90s when he got into a dispute with a business partner, who soon turned it into the lesbian-friendly bar Lucy's. He credits the idea for reviving the venue to Willie Murphy, an original Blues Saloon mainstay, and his own son, Thaddeus Wilebski III, whom he says is really the boss now.

The younger Wilebski, 33, wanted to follow his dad into the bar-owner business. Murphy was looking for a place to play on New Year's Eve with a dance floor large enough to accommodate his big band.

"It felt pretty cool being back there," said Murphy, who performs there again Friday. "For better or worse, the place hasn't changed much."

After housing Lucy's into the mid-'00s -- a time when the son of St. Paul's then-Police Chief William Finney was infamously involved in a brawl but wasn't charged with a crime -- the venue mostly sat dormant in recent years. Moonlight Magic's operators would use it only for special occasions.

The dark wood floors dating back to its days as a German and Polish dance hall in the early 1900s remain intact, which is to say they're still scuffed up and warped. The walls are still painted black, with fluorescent stars and neon lettering evocative of an '80s roller-skating rink. Even the old speaker system is still there, a hand-me-down from the Cabooze 30 years earlier.

Whether you see it as historic (in a good way) or dated (in a bad way), the saloon maintains an authentic vibe you don't get at many of the venues that booked blues bands in recent years, particularly suburban sports and biker bars.

"You get a whole different vibe in the city than you do out in the suburbs, which is important with this kind of music," said Rich, a blues devotee who didn't want to give his full name. "But there aren't a lot of places to go to hear good blues music anymore. Even Famous Dave's has become more of a crappy cover band kind of place."

Wilebski's might have more of an urban vibe than many blues fans would like. Security staff waved a metal-detector wand in front of every patron last Saturday, even though the most dangerous looking patrons were the few men who didn't have their T-shirts tucked into their pants. The wand is a security measure required by the city, since Wilebski's operates with the same liquor license used by the troubled Moonlight Magic.

When I called St. Paul City Council Member Melvin Carter III for comment on the blues bar's rebirth in his ward, he noted that the liquor license is under review and said he could not comment further.

Wilebski believes he can turn the location around. He and his son plan to buy the building from Moonlight Magic's owners, who he said "just want to get out of the business." The Wilebskis then intend to turn the downstairs space into a restaurant, not unlike the pizza joint that Ted's late brothers, Bill and Dan, used to operate there.

While those transformations are still far off, Ted isn't biding his time to book the legends. He has lined up Bobby Rush for May 15, the venue's biggest show so far -- and one that's purely due to loyalty. As Wilebski recalled it, "Bobby said: 'I know you can't afford me, but I'm going to come and play anyway.'"

When Wilebski's first came around in 1979, before blues fests were in vogue, many of the legends and younger stars couldn't get decent-paying gigs anywhere, especially Chicagoans. Wilebski's managed to nab Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Lurrie Bell's dad Carey, Koko Taylor, Hubert Sumlin and Dr. John, to name a few. Ted still remembers a young Robert Cray carrying his gear up the stairs.

Even when the music was more popular, Wilebski says it was hard to make money.

"I was the pioneer who took all the arrows, so others could follow me," he said. "There were nights we'd have a snowstorm and only draw seven people, and I owed the band $4,000."

With memories like that, it was less surprising to hear Wilebski predict he and his son will raise the bar at his old bar.

"I think we can actually do better this time around," he said.

501 turns the Big 01

On the occasion of the 501 Club's first anniversary bash, it's worth mulling over the things that made the 331 Club's sister venue the most vibrant rock club to open in downtown Minneapolis in many years. It probably wasn't the room itself, a decent if misshapen space. And based on all the PBR drinkers, it wasn't the above-average beer and wine list. Credit must go to its trendsetting tastes in talent booking, and to the fact that it's always affordable, with no cover and plenty of street parking.

Both of those strengths are on full display in the two-night anniversary lineup, with Gospel Gossip, Zoo Animal and No Bird Sing on Friday and Red Pens, Double Bird and the Guystorm on Saturday (10 p.m., 21 & older, free as always).

'Tis the Tisdales' second

More of a compliment than a criticism, Rich Mattson's first album with the Tisdales did not stray too far from the classic country-rock sound of his old band Ol' Yeller. The same can't be said of "Out With the New," the northern Minnesota-based group's second disc, which they're celebrating with a release party Friday at Sauce (9:30 p.m., $6).

This one's a lot noisier and just plain crazier, with the opener "Scenester Bingo" and the motorheaded "Manifold Eyes" recalling early Soul Asylum. The twangy tracks have more of a punkabilly kick to them, too, especially the barnstormer "Lovin' Arms of Life." One thing that hasn't changed: Mattson is still one of the best rock songwriters in the state, period.

Random mix

If you missed the news earlier in the week, the Jayhawks will reunite for three shows June 19-21 at First Avenue, with the same Olson/Louris-led lineup that played the Basilica Block Party last year. The gigs follow Lost Highway's May 18 reissue of the band's 1986 self-titled debut, aka "The Bunkhouse Album." ...

The folks behind last year's Art-a-Whirl-affiliated concert on a mirror-wrapped Mississippi river boat -- named best concert of the year in City Pages' lethargic "Best of the Twin Cities" last week -- are hard at work on another adventurous voyage for May 14-15. Look for Skoal Kodiak, the Stnnng, Bella Koshka and more to perform either on the boat or on a stage up the hill behind the Sample Room in northeast Minneapolis. ...

Along with its commercially promising if not critically laudable lineup of headliners this year (including 311, the Offspring and Counting Crows), Taste of Minnesota has announced a new partnership with St. Paul folk label Red House Records and public station KFAI-FM, which are lining up acts for what should be an eclectic and diverse smaller stage. ... Grand Old Day's lineup (June 6 on Grand Avenue in St. Paul) is shaping up pretty nicely, with Free Energy, the Von Bondies, Heiruspecs, Mark Mallman, Red Pens, Chooglin', Dessa and Doomtree all scheduled to perform. ...

Sound Unseen's monthly screening Wednesday at Trylon Microcinema will feature "Of Montreal: Family Nouveau" -- with director Spenser Simrill in attendance -- along with the Pachyderm Studios documentary "Cannon Falls" (7:30 p.m., 3258 Minnehaha Av. S., Mpls. $8.) ...

Another sign of both the challenges and devotion in the Twin Cities blues scene, the previous sad news about the cancellation of the Deep Blues Fest has been replaced with talk of the three-year-old event being revived July 17-25 by a new team of planners from the Cedar Cultural Center, Palmer's Bar and Webber's Deck. Stay tuned. ... The Cabooze's great outdoor "plaza" (aka the parking lot), where the Deep Blues Fest fit in perfectly last year, probably will see more shows than the just-announced July 3 Hold Steady gig there. First Ave staff is reportedly working on several more bookings, hoping to use up the eight permits granted to the Cabooze for outdoor shows. Man, it's shaping up to be a great summer.

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658