The Elwood Blues Club began in 1997 as a Sunday blues jam at Elwood RSL, a returned servicemen league club in a leafy bayside suburb of Melbourne. The original house band lineup of guitar, bass and drums was soon augmented by Adrian Reeves on keyboards.
The policy for jam sets was that everyone would get a play, regardless of ability. This might be seen by some to be recipe for disaster, but the sets were generally of good, and more than occasionally exceptional, quality.
By 2000 the lineup had expanded to include Roger Nelson on harp and the house band had a name, the King Size Five. A model had evolved where guest artists were invited to join the house band for the feature sets. The guests included local blues legend Dutch Tilders and a couple of young performers, Lloyd Spiegel and Ash Grunwald, who would go on to enjoy international profiles.
Before the blues jam the RSL had not hosted live music on a regular basis. It soon had live acts on Friday and Saturday nights. Roger and Adrian arranged to spruce up the somewhat dowdy atmosphere with lights and black curtains behind the band area. The joint was jumping but there were some issues to deal with.
A woman in the house at the rear of the club would make constant complaints about the noise, and many efforts were made to address her concerns. She eventually sold up and took her house away on a truck. Meanwhile the club’s management sacked the people running the very successful kitchen and replaced them with several dismal failures. The club became increasingly reliant on poker machine revenue, never a good practice in general but a disastrous one in an affluent suburb like Elwood.
The RSL closed in 2012 and the band was quite happy to sit back and reflect on 15 years of providing great blues music and encouragement to hundreds of performers. Unexpectedly, dedicated jammers and general punters had other ideas. There was pressure to relocate the jam to another venue. The band decided to package the jam as ‘The Elwood Blues Club’ and see if a local venue would take it on. Enter the GH Hotel.
The GH was the latest incarnation of the Greyhound Hotel in St Kilda. For years the Greyhound had hosted grunge bands in the public bar and was a contender for the stickiest carpet in Melbourne award. It also hosted drag shows on the weekend in the big room out the back. In many ways it combined the two elements St Kilda had long been renowned for. The new owners swept away the grunge part and an expensive renovation revealed a glitzier vision, replete with mirror balls, marble and chandeliers. The GH was now basically a gay pub with a huge back room to hire for large events.
For some reason, probably financial, the GH decided to broaden its patronage. In December 2012 the Elwood Blues Club became part of this push. The more salubrious surroundings and barmen in hot pants may have put off some regular blues fans but for the most part everyone adapted and concentrated on the most important thing, the music. And it was here that the biggest change was taking place.
Rather than rely on a roster of four or five feature artists, as was the case with the RSL, the guest list slowly began to expand. This was largely due to the efforts of Dennis ‘Salty Dog’ Trevarthen. Through his Salty Dog Blues ‘n’ Roots podcast, Salty had amassed a huge list of blues contacts. Now was the time to open the address book.
While the jam sessions remained the same, the guest list became a who’s who of Australian blues. The King Size Five morphed into the EBC Allstars, who were now backing a different performer every week. The music defied a simple definition of the blues, and could well be blues rock one week and fusion the next. Joe Camilleri (Jo Jo Zep), a giant of Australian music, even made an appearance.
The Elwood Blues Club model provides a unique point of difference in Australia’s blues scene. Where a blues jam will normally host a whole band or have a static house band, the EBC’s feature sets are always ‘one offs’. Performers who are used their own band’s way of doing things can, and often do, try out material they wouldn’t otherwise attempt. Artists who normally perform solo can have the luxury of a band to pick up some of the slack, allowing them to gain a different perspective on their material.
In spite of the Elwood Blues Club becoming a popular gig with a rapidly growing reputation, after two and a half years the relationship with the GH was wearing thin. It certainly didn’t help that punitive licensing laws meant the GH had to employ two security guards at considerable expense. Sound from the jam was also seen to compromise some of the events being staged in the big room. Priorities were changing, and not just at the GH.
The Prince of Wales Hotel has long been a stalwart of live music in Melbourne. It’s situated at the beach end of St Kilda’s Fitzroy St. Like many long-standing entertainment precincts, this famous, or infamous depending on whom you talk to, strip has had its ups and downs. The last few years have been more down than up, but there are concerted efforts to redress that. The Prince has contributed to this by providing solid live entertainment in the public bar several nights a week (they also have a band room upstairs for big local and international acts).
The Elwood Blues Club’s relocation to the Prince in mid 2015 had a sense of homecoming to it. The public bar at the Prince has the feel of an American blues bar, pool tables and all. The guest list has became even more impressive, with 60s pop icon turned bluesman Russell Morris appearing and Ross ‘Daddy Cool’ Wilson leading a wild night of blues. The EBC Allstars have also broadened their horizons, recently backing Tanya Lee Davies at the Blues at the Briars festival, and Toni Swain at Docklands Blues Fest. The fortunes of Fitzroy St and the Prince appear to be on the up, and the Elwood Blues Club is proud to be part of that.
St Kilda, August 2017
The Elwood Blues Club is:
Adrian Reeves – Keys and musical director
Dennis ‘Salty’ Trevarthen – Harp, vocals, all things internet, and booking maestro
Mark Gove – Guitar and video
Peter Beulke – Bass
Roger Nelson – Harp, vocals, sound and logistics
Ruben Shannon – Bass
Tony Martin – Drums and set organizer extraordinaire
Some artists that the EBC Allstars have backed:
8 Ball Aitken
Tanya Lee Davies
Mr Black & Blues
John Luke Shelley
Justin Yap & Nardia Brancatisano
Rod Paine & Dave Birtwell
Troy Wilson & Matthew White
Ise & Nathan
Brian Strafford & Greg Dodd
Johnny Cass & Jim Hilbun