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Lair of Legends

Sweetwater marks 30 years of great music

By Greg Cahill

It's the biggest little roadhouse west of Texas. I branded Sweetwater with that several years back after then-owner Jeannie Patterson--a vivacious redhead who put her heart and soul into the rustic, wood-paneled place--asked me to contribute a quote to a program note for a tribute to the legendary Mill Valley nightclub. It wasn't hype.

For nearly a decade I enjoyed an (almost) all-access pass to this little room with the big reputation (I once walked in on Etta James in the dressing room while she was clad only in her sweaty slip). In the '80s, the Times of London hailed it as one of the best nightclubs in America; BBC-TV taped a blues special there in 1992.

Since then, Sweetwater has survived cranky neighbors, fiscal crises and changing times.

On Tuesday-Wednesday, March 16-17, the Sweetwater Saloon--owned since 1999 by Becky and Thom Steere--celebrates its 30th anniversary with 12 hours of music and the promise of big-name acts dropping in to mark this milestone.

The roster of artists that have crowded onto the club's little stage reads like a Who's Who of roots and rock music: John Lee Hooker, Carlos Santana, Mimi Fariña, Huey Lewis and the News, Aaron Neville, John Hiatt, Robert Cray, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Rory Block, Odetta and Townes Van Zandt--to name just a few. A couple of months ago, Train stopped by to warm up for their latest tour.

At Sweetwater, the once-in-a-lifetime show is commonplace.

After headlining the Oakland Arena during their "Money for Nothing" tour, Dire Straits dropped by Sweetwater unannounced, with two tour buses and an entourage of 70, to catch guitarist Mark Kopfler's hero J. J. Cale, that night's headliner. Knopfler, who had never seen Cale before, joined him onstage while the entourage huddled in the basement.

In 1989 Elvis Costello teamed up with Jerry Garcia and other rock luminaries for a night of unforgettable acoustic performances. And when film star Dennis Quaid, fresh from his leading role in The Big Easy, started to moonlight as a blues singer, he picked Sweetwater to hone his chops.

For years, the club served as a way station for an Austin, Texas/Bay Area axis that drew the Tailgators, Boozoo Chavis, Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and many other Lone Star State greats.

But the real action was in the basement, with its low ceiling, exposed water pipes and gallery of autographed photos. Down there the poker table, with its well-worn green-felt covering, served as the focal point for stars and backstage crashers alike. Entertainers and guests often gathered around for a low-stakes game of cards and a few drinks.

None exhibited more enthusiasm for the game than country-soul singer Delbert McClinton and his band, which at the time included local keyboardist Mike Duke. This band was flat-out poker obsessed. They would load in their equipment, run through a quick sound check and then retire to the poker table. Hours later, the musicians would pause just long enough to hop onstage, only to return to the table right after the last encore.

But the peak experience in my 20-plus years as a music journalist--hell, in a lifetime as a fan--came in the mid-'80s after catching singer, bassist and songwriter Willie Dixon at Sweetwater on a rainy Saturday night. I had long cherished Dixon, who penned such blues standards as "Spoonful" and "I Can't Quit You Baby." His show was pure bliss.

Afterward his band straggled downstairs and settled around the poker table to play cards, scarf stacks of spicy chicken wings and share a few laughs. I hung out with Dixon and Patterson, listening as they told war stories about the fickle music business.

At four o'clock in the morning, an exhausted Dixon announced that he was going to the bus, parked down the street from the club, hoping the band would get the hint and follow him. They sat riveted to the poker table. Dixon started walking. I tagged along. Grabbing his old leather satchel, I headed up the rickety stairs behind this towering blues giant.

Outside the morning air was crisp and cool, the town dead quiet, the pavement shimmering after a light rain. Overhead, the clouds broke behind the bare trees to reveal a full moon. It was just me and Willie Dixon, his broad Stetson shading his eyes as we strolled down the narrow sidewalk. And then he started to sing--a deep, low blues moan. For the next three minutes, time stood still--like in a dream--and I was transported to blues heaven.

It's never gotten any better than that, and I know it never will.


For details about the Sweetwater celebration, call 415.388.2820.

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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