Diving into the jam

There is a certain inherently interesting quality to what is generally known as the “dive bar.” At some level, the interest is anthropological in nature. Like all animals, humans flock together based, at least in part, on commonalities. The folks who frequent the Monkey Bar, for example, are not the same folks who frequent Old Ironsides, and Old Ironsides’ barflies are not the same folks who frequent such watering holes as the River’s Edge Bar & Grill.

The River’s Edge is a venue outside Sacramento’s regular Midtown live-music grid. It’s located at 2125 West Capitol Avenue, over the bridge from downtown in West Sacramento, in a neighborhood of dive bars, motels and mobile-home parks; in fact, the venue backs up to a mobile-home park. One look at the outside of the venue might immediately brand it in the viewer’s mind as a dive, but once inside, that distinction is not quite so clear. Two pool tables, complete with overhead beer-brand lighting, are just inside the door, mirroring a decor that includes giant beer logos, neon beer signs and posters of bikini-clad women holding bottles of (yes, indeed) beer. So far, so dive bar. But the venue is relatively clean, and the bartender is responsive and polite—although $4.50 for a can of Guinness is definitely not a dive-bar price.

On the other hand, the River’s Edge might qualify as a dive bar after all, musically speaking. Last Sunday, for example, provided an epic blues jam led by Guitar Mac and His Blues Express, a jam that started at 5 p.m. and went well into the dark hours. There isn’t much of a stage at the River’s Edge, nor was there professional lighting at Sunday’s show. However, the venue did make a valiant attempt by linking all of its many television sets up to a video feed of the onstage action, giving the impression that the band essentially was surrounding a very patient audience.

The patience issue seems extremely important to understanding how the blues jam functions. First, the bass or guitar lays down a groove of some kind, and then the ensuing piece cycles around the rudiments of blues structure. It cycles and cycles. Then it cycles some more. All the while, the musicians take their turns at pulling solos over the chord structure. Pieces stretch into five and six minutes and sometimes get even longer. Even with great musicians, it can be a lot to stomach, particularly when blues structures tend to be limited to a handful of chord changes, meaning that the audience is listening to what amounts to the same thing over and over again. Placed in the hands of mediocre musicians, blues, like any music, can be akin to the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. There were many times when Guitar Mac and his Blues Express fell over into the blackboard.

Overall, the River’s Edge is a relatively disappointing venue, particularly when compared with a room like Folsom’s PowerHouse Pub, a sort of upscale dive bar, or the blues-focused club the Stoney Inn. Both of these venues have large, professional stage areas, lighting and sound systems—and both bring in great talent. With the River’s Edge, one is reminded that it takes a bit more than a stretch of carpet and a couple of amplifiers to put on a good show.