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.
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. Meanwhile, blues album sales are down and out, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone under 40 at most blues concerts. This battle seems to have created a blend of determination and daring in the bar's namesake, Ted Wilebski.
Wilebski, 59, worked the door and walked the room, shaking hands last Saturday, when the saloon welcomed back Chicago guitarist Lurrie Bell -- the kind of influential blues veteran who put the place on the map when it opened in 1979. "I think there are enough people like me, who want to see the living blues legends here while we still can," he said confidently.
Wilebski left the Blues Saloon in the mid-'90s in 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. "It felt pretty cool being back there," said Murphy, who performs there Friday. "For better or worse, the place hasn't changed much."
Whether you see it as historic or dated, the saloon maintains an authentic vibe you don't get at many venues booking blues bands in recent years. "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 a customer named Rich, a blues devotee.
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. It's a security measure required by the city, since Wilebski's operates with the same liquor license used by Moonlight Magic.
Wilebski believes he can turn the location around. He and his son plan to buy the building from Moonlight Magic's owners, then turn the downstairs space into a restaurant.
When Wilebski's first came around in 1979, it managed to nab Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Hubert Sumlin and Dr. John, to name a few. Wilebski still remembers a young Robert Cray carrying his gear up the stairs.
"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."
"I think we can actually do better this time around," he said.