It's a long way from the Mississippi delta to this remote spot on the Oregon coast, but at the Landmark Tavern in the village of Yachats, about midway down the Pacific coast of Oregon, they're keeping the blues alive.
The bar and music club is run by a former New York bureau chief for United Press International, Bruce Olson. His wife Marilyn, another former Unipresser, is in charge of the adjoining restaurant. The place is built along the edge of a cliff commanding the Yachats river estuary, a half mile of rivermouth filled with seawater at high tide but receeding to a wide, puddle filled beach when the tide goes out.
The Landmark has live music three or four nights a week, ranging from touring Louisiana musicians -- Mem Shannon, The Bluerunners, Bryan Lee, Russell Batiste and Rockin Jake have all played there -- to local blues and rock acts and higher profile blues musicians on national tours.
Over the Labor Day weekend the Landmark featured the local band T. Ray and the Shades on Friday, followed by the Chicago-based national act Studebaker John and the Hawks for two nights.
T. Ray and the Shades are young musicians just coming into their own judging from the progress made between a serviceable debut, Seize the Day (2007) and last year's much more engaging Live at Columbia Crossings. The band went over well with the Friday night crowd at the Landmark, playing a mixture of strong originals and standard covers with creative arrangements. Though Tiffany (T. Ray) Murray, the 20-something woman who fronts the band, has long, natural hair and a voice that can break into a raspy vibrato, she has clearly listened more closely to Etta James (she does a convincing version of Etta's "You Got It") than Janis Joplin. Nevertheless the band keeps a cover of "Me and Bobby McGee" in the book to satisfy the inevitable demand from the crowd to "Do Janis!"
"Some people listen with their eyes," says Tiffany, who is learning her crowd-pleasing skills as she goes along. She gives them Janis, but at a slower tempo and without the vibrato. That's only one of several clever arrangements of familiar tunes this band delivers, like the version of "Crossroads" built around a saxophone passage instead of a guitar riff and a cover of B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" that completely turns the song on its head.
The band has the good sense to use Junior Wells and Jimmy Reed songs to whip up the crowd, then fills the set with originals that vaguely resemble well-known hits. You think you're listening to a re-arranged song by the Pretenders, the Pointer Sisters or Van Morrison only to hear them break into a well turned original chorus.
The Shades feature three very good soloists -- Scott Johnston, an inventive R&B saxophonist, the superb guitarist and songwriter Matt Zekala and a bassist, Niko Green, who is so good he drives the band rhythmically, leaving drummer Matt Murray to act as the timekeeper.
Zekala is a whiz with a lot of potential, but the band's future ultimately rides with T. Ray herself, whose songwriting chops and vocal intelligence could take her a long way. She has to navigate a precipitous path between being just another hippie chick leading an interesting jam band and an overemoting neo soul diva, but she can take the heat, which is a good sign. For now you can find her and her enjoyable band playing to the backdrop of giant waves crashing against the rocks of Yachats, which is not a bad place to be at all.