Many shades of blue
Image Blue flavors their blues with soulful pop and oldies
The “Blues Baby,” they call her. She has a round, sun-browned face and wears a tie-dyed shirtdress. She’s about 3 years old. She makes numerous mad dashes for the stage at Wingfield Park, where Image Blue is pounding out blues riffs. Meanwhile, her brother, also wearing tie-dyed duds, moves his small arms and legs energetically to the rhythm, every now and then turning a summersault on the grass.
They’re the stepchildren of Stevie Dee, harmonica player for Image Blue. While the two children are the most expressive members of the crowd, the folks lounging on Wingfield Park’s grassy shaded knoll are clearly enjoying the music and the beautiful June afternoon as well. It’s the second day of the Reno Days Festival, an event to honor Reno’s namesake, Major Gen. Jesse Lee Reno. It makes sense that this Reno celebration should be teeming with blues bands, from locals like T-Bone Stone and Deja Blues to touring acts like Little Charlie & The Nightcats. Reno seems to have a particular affinity for the blues.
“This is the best music scene anywhere,” says Image Blue drummer Rich Gwinn. He wears a loose-fitting button-down shirt and dark shades as he talks after the show. “I’ve been to Denver, Seattle, Vegas. Reno—and northern Nevada—is the place to play music, if you want to be a play-on-the-weekend band. It’s not just the money. The community support makes it worth it.”
Vocalist/guitarist Huck King agrees.
“You can work in this town,” he says. “There are other places where [musicians] are starving for money. [In Reno], there are a lot of clubs that treat players well.”
Image Blue has been playing in Reno for 10 years now, giving audiences not just a hard-edged, melancholic dose of the blues, but also a mix of soulful pop and oldies.
“We’re not exclusively a blues band,” King says.
Sitting out on the lawn after the show is over, King wears a colorful Good ‘n’ Plenty shirt that provides a lively contrast to his gray hair and relaxed, intelligent demeanor.
“As working professionals, we’ve done country, rock, pop. And we settled on this … this is what makes us happy.”
King, who began playing guitar at age 8, says that he’s the only band member who didn’t grow up in a musical family. Gwinn’s father had 21 brothers and sisters, each of whom played a musical instrument. Gwinn’s father played the fiddle in a band with bassist Donny Babb’s father.
"[Gwinn’s father] inspired all of us in the band,” Babb says.
“This band, to me, has been a breath of fresh air since my father died,” Gwinn adds. “It gives me something to look forward to. It carries on the tradition.”
I ask the members of Image Blue if they have a philosophy of the blues. King laughs.
“If it feels good, do it,” he says. He turns to Babb and asks him for another way to phrase it.
“Pick a philosophy and pin it on us,” he says. “If the crowd hollers …”
As front men of the band, King and Babb, along with Dee, have plenty of ways to make the crowd holler, including leaving the stage and playing among the audience. Gwinn, who says that blues drumming is all about “touch and feel,” has a more bread-and-butter philosophy of blues.
“Keep it simple," he says.