Joe Walsh heard a copy of their debut CD and liked it. “He said it was pretty fucking good,” says Steve Bulger — Stevie B — the singer/harpist who fronts 145th Street. The band recently won a series of elimination rounds to end up as Blues Lovers United of San Diego’s (BLUSD) designated hometown choice for the International Blues Challenge in Memphis at the end of January. So, who are these guys?
145th Street is not new. In fact, they’ve been around for almost a decade. They’ve had a residency at Patrick’s II in the Gaslamp for years and Bulger says they’ve played Humphrey’s Backstage, the House of Blues, 4th&B, “and all the local festivals.” But, until now, 145th Street has otherwise been off the local radar. Why? “That’s a good question.” Bulger puts the blame on lack of self-promotion. “When people hear us, they say, ‘Holy shit, are you guys from around here?’”
Bulger, who lives in Serra Mesa and is a distant relative of ex-mobster Whitey Bulger, explains the band’s name: one-four-five describes the chord changes in the 12-bar blues. “We added ‘Street’ because that’s where everything happens.” They carry an old-school wallop redolent of the 1960s, when rock bands were romancing traditional blues. “We don’t play the usual blues covers.” The songs that won in San Diego, says Bulger, all originals, are the same songs they will stage in Memphis.
The International Blues Challenge is the world’s largest battle of the blues bands. It takes place over five days. More than 748 musicians from 13 countries compete. Oceanside’s Nathan James & Ben Hernandez won the solo/duo title in 2007. The year before, Aunt Kizzy’z Boyz finished second in Memphis in the band category, the same category in which 145th Street hopes to bring home a win in 2012.
In the beginning, it was just Bulger and Marco Marrewa on guitar as the Bossmen. “We added bass and drums, and all of the sudden, we had a band.” The winning lineup includes Mike Bullard on bass and a sax player from New Orleans by way of Southeast San Diego named Walter Gentry. The sax man’s dad owned a barbershop in Southeast. When he died, Walter came home and worked the shop for a while. (“He doesn’t cut hair anymore,” says Bulger.) While Gentry was playing New Orleans gigs, he met Tony Peterson, a drummer who would also come to San Diego and eventually join 145th Street.
The win in San Diego means that the BLUSD will provide each of the band members with $750 in travel cash (BLUSD is hosting a fundraiser at Humphrey’s January 21 to help cover travel costs). But what would a lose at the IBC mean? “It means that we went to Memphis, that we made it that far,” says Bulger. The event is generally crawling with music-industry types and the way he sees it, exposure can only help 145th Street reach bigger stages.