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[whitespace] Nina Storey
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Story Time: Blues singer Nina Storey scrawled her name on the autograph wall after a 1999 performance at Moe's Alley.

Bars, Clubs & Coffee Houses 2001: The Alley Cats

After 10 years, Moe's has become a vital organ of the Santa Cruz music scene

By Barbara McKenna

ONE TOO MANY Johnnys on this wall!" complains one of the many bits of graffiti in the backroom at Moe's Alley.

Along with editorial commentary and the signatures of a lot of Johnnys (including Copeland), such names as Jimmy Rogers, Luther Allison, Bernard Allison, Gatemouth Brown, Luther Tucker, Chris Cain, Jimmy Thackery and Pinetop Perkins are scrawled across the weathered walls of the club's backroom, where band members hang out between sets. The wall is a docket of local blues history--a homespun testament to the remarkable range of legendary musicians who have played in Santa Cruz thanks to the management of Moe's Alley.

The club, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, has come a long way since the early days.

"Back then, the booking agents didn't know us and the musicians didn't know us," recalls co-owner Phil Lewis. "It was a long process of showing them who we were and gaining credibility." Now, Moe's Alley has become a vital organ of the Santa Cruz music scene, not only bringing in the major blues acts but supporting new artists and helping them launch their careers.

Moe's was the brainchild of Lewis, who tended bar at Margaritaville and the old Edgewater before opening Moe's. The bar is now far larger and has far cleaner carpets than when Lewis took it over, and the old truck yard across the street has been replaced by a Toys "R" Us and a Circuit City.

Moe's opened on the heels of the closure of O.T. Price's, which used to present similar acts and was eventually replaced by a funeral home. Lewis knew he was taking a risk but wasn't daunted.

"It's not about the money. It's about the individuality of it--the enjoyment of making my own decisions and either suffering the consequences or watching it work out. I have no desire to drive over the hill and be stuck in a cubicle with some bonehead of a boss.

"From the beginning we wanted this to be a part of the community," he adds. "We're not here to scrape the gravy off the top and then skip out. Our aim is to present quality music, not canned crap. It doesn't always pay the bills but it's rewarding."

The "we" Lewis refers to includes co-owners Michael Blas and Bill Welch and booking agent David Claytor (who, just this past month, relinquished his duties with Moe's to focus on other projects). The four have been working together since the club's inception. Welch designed Moe's sound and lighting system, Claytor has brought in the talent week after week and Lewis is the self-described "chief bottlewasher."

Along with keeping the club running, the team has produced the Santa Cruz Blues Festival for the past nine years. The two-day festival, which draws thousands each year, has imported such world-class performers as John Lee Hooker, Keb Mo, Los Lobos, Charles Brown, Taj Mahal and Luther Allison.

The festival takes far more time and energy than their families might like, but it perpetuates the vision the four share: bringing quality music to Santa Cruz.

"There's so much crap out there," Welch says. "It's crowding out so many great musicians who don't get exposed to the masses. When you hear the music of someone truly phenomenal, you don't take it for granted. You want to do your best to share their art with people who are going to enjoy it." Welch is a longtime sound engineer and tour manager who's worked with such performers as the Crusaders, Minnie Ripperton, Bill Withers and even Kiss.

Even with the loss of Palookaville last month, Santa Cruz offers far more in the way of quality music than most towns three times its size.

"This community is uncommon in its support of live music," Lewis says. "You can't name me another town of this size where, in the space of a month, you can go see McCoy Tyner at Kuumbwa, Coco Montoya at Moe's and the Neville Brothers at the Catalyst. It just doesn't happen in a town of this size. That, to me, is the most special part about Santa Cruz--the people in it and how they support live music. And thank goodness they do."

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From the October 24-31, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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