The problem with best-kept secrets is they should never have been a secret in the first place. Take, for example, the weekly late Sunday afternoon Blues Jam that regularly sees Jethro’s Bar + Stage at 137 Hunter Street West in downtown Peterborough filled to near capacity.
Those in the know come to Jethro’s around 3 p.m. each Sunday, vying for a coveted seat. Over the next three hours, their diligence is rewarded in the form of a live music experience that, while wholly unrehearsed, is a refreshing treat rooted in the inevitable spontaneity that results. No judgment — just unabashed joy.
The Jethro’s Blues Jam is not without its Pied Piper. Al Black has been the guy since he, along with fellow Peterborough musicians Rob Foreman and Brandon Humphries, was asked by owner Kayla Howran to organize and host the event on a weekly basis.
Besides playing drums with a host band of seasoned musicians and serving as emcee, Black is in perpetual motion, arranging for any music performance newbies that darken the door to take a turn on the stage.
“When I was young, I dreamed of playing with the older guys and that happened,” says Black, adding “Now I’m one of the older guys.”
“Getting up in front of people was the scary part for me. When I was in school, we did public speaking. I was terrified. It takes a few times for you to forget about that and just play. A lot of people can’t do it. They can’t get over that hurdle and they never get to play in front of an audience.”
Getting novice performers over that hurdle is one of the goals, and benefits, of the Jethro’s Blues Jam.
“What’s really great is everybody on stage is so supportive of one another,” Black says. “I tell the young people that get up to play ‘We’ve got your back. We’re going to make it as easy as we can for you’ and we do that.”
William MacCurdy and Maddy Hope, both 15 years old and both drummers, show up on a regular basis and provide the backbeat for a few songs.
“I’m pretty sure my dad (guitarist Mike MacCurdy) read something on Facebook about it — he brought me here,” says William, adding he “watched at first” but soon, buoyed by Black’s encouragement, he was in the onstage mix.
Maddy, meanwhile, followed her music teacher’s advice “to get exposure. I just love everything about it. I was really nervous but you get used to it.”
Both William and Maddy have a huge fan in Black.
“Sometimes it’s a little rough, sometimes it’s amazing, but that’s how it works,” Black says. “You’ve got to stick your neck out and take some chances. It takes a lot of courage to get up and perform. I admire the young people that get up to play. The same with older players who come out, be they retired or whatever, and say ‘I’ve always want to do this.’ It’s the same deal.”
Trent student Maggie Sabyan has been coming out to the jam for a few months now, relishing the opportunity to sing in front of an audience.
“Whenever I can find someone else to play with me, I’ll sing,” she says. “I live in student housing and I have roommates. This is the only time I get to fully perform. This is the only time when the noise is acceptable. To get to do this every week is incredible.”
“I’m terrified every single time,” Maggie admits. “I’m horrified at the fact that people are going to witness it but, at the same time, it’s incredible to get to play with people experiencing the same moment.”
Caitlin O’Connor, meanwhile, is a singer of the more seasoned variety, having performed with different local bands. Gifted with a singing voice that lends itself to the blues, she’s been coming to the jam “for months now” for the opportunity “to spread out and play with different people.”
“You learn to pick up and hold on and get through,” she says, adding “You learn to wing it and go with whatever happens on stage. It might not be the most perfect thing, but it’s real.”
“It’s magic. You get to share the stage with legends and with people who are just beginning — all different levels of experience, from one to 10. If you’re not having fun, you are not doing it right. If you’re too focused on the perfect note, this shows you that it’s more about connecting with your audience. Look around. This is community driven. It’s family.”
Lynn Morris has been part of that family since the Blues Jam started. The widow of the late Al Kirkcaldy, who booked acts for the Holiday Inn’s gazebo patio and brought many American blues acts to Peterborough, says she is “a huge music fan.”
“I like afternoon things (as opposed to evening shows) but it’s the calibre of the entertainment that brings me out,” she says. “You never know who’s going to show up. Some days are really good, some not quite as good, but it’s very well supported. Some days it’s even busier than this.”
Morris is referring to the November 26th jam, where the house band opening and closing the proceedings was comprised of Black along with Sean Daniels on keyboards, Jeremy Spencley and Bryan Landry on guitar, and Richard Connolly (who made the trip from Lindsay) on bass. On trombone — yes, there’s a trombone — was Pineapple Frank Barth.
Also taking a turn on stage were brothers Rico and Marcus Browne (who perform with Sam and Ryan Weber in The Weber Brothers, with Marcus also a member of Emily Burgess & The Emburys), playing guitar and drums respectively. Previous jams have seen similar seasoned musicians and singers join in, including Kim Doolittle, Nicholas Campbell, Carlos del Junco, and Black’s Jackson Delta bandmates Rick Fines and Gary Peeples, to name a few.
No one is paid. At the foot of the stage was a tip jar — “The difference between margarine and butter” as Black put it — that, by 6 p.m., was stuffed with bills. While the cash is appreciated, the musicians aren’t there for the money — Black in particular.
“This has been a labour of love for me,” says Black. “When younger players started coming out, I was blown away by the talent. I always have been but here I am, at ground zero. Maddy and William are talented beyond their years and there are so many singers that have incredible potential. It has been a joy.”
Black is hoping he can spread the word about the Jethro’s Blues Jam and get even more local talent on the stage.
“The jam has always been word of mouth,” he points out. “I want more people to know about it.”
Opened by Kayla Howran in April 2022 at the location of the former Sapphire Room, with Ennismore fiddler Melissa Payne headlining the first show, Jethro’s Bar + Stage has been a good news story during a time when so many Peterborough live music venues have closed, the Historic Red Dog being the latest to shut its doors.
A musician herself, Howran saw a void and moved to fill it, with the pub home to regular live music from Thursday to Saturday night along with the Sunday afternoon blues jam. To stay up to date on who’s performing when, visit Jethro’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/jethrosbar.