The names are familiar ones to anyone who has been paying attention to Buffalo’s vibrant blues scene over the past several decades. Jack Civiletto. Gary Sterlace (aka Speedy Parker), Wally Jetterman. Not household names, perhaps, but names that command respect among the music community, from both fellow musicians and fervent fans. These are journeymen – deeply talented musicians who have been doing this for as long as they can remember, through good times and bad, and quite likely will be doing it until they no longer can. On a blustery and overcast Saturday early afternoon in late January, one would assume most of the cars in the parking lot of the Maple Entertainment Complex in Amherst would belong to folks attending a movie at the movie theater on the far southern tip of the strip mall.
But inside the Iris, right next door to the movie theater, many of these names are gathered, either on the small stage, or out front at the bar, which was already bustling when I arrived a bit past 1 p.m. Each week, the Iris hosts a Blues Matinee show, featuring a house band and, later, guest performers joining in the musical melee. Once a month, the format is given over to an “open mic” format, but calling it a “pro jam” might be more to the point – no one shows up at these jams unless they can play the blues with conviction, can speak the language, and have something distinctive of their own to offer.
As I entered, the bandstand was already hopping, with the house band – led by guitarist Sterlace, and featuring keyboardist Chas DelPlato, drummer Greg Zark and bassist Andy Romanek – laying down a supple and sturdy Chicago-style electric blues in the Muddy Waters mode. Immediately, the listener is struck by the authenticity of the sound. These are all top-tier players who have been playing the blues for most of their lives, and they have mastered the nuances of the form. It’s a form that requires close listening, understatement, mastery of phrasing and the manipulation of space. DelPlato and Sterlace traded solos while the Zark-Romanek rhythm section locked down killer grooves, laid out masterful shuffles and swung gracefully. Looking around the room, I noticed legendary Buffalo blues keyboardist Jetterman hanging with friends at the bar – he would be up on the bandstand joining in the festivities before too long – and guitarist/vocalist and local legend Civiletto holding court a few barstools away. Soon, jazz and blues guitarist Stu Weissman showed up, followed shortly thereafter by singer DeeAnn Dimeo Tomkins. Joined by Zark, Sterlace and DelPlato, Tomkins and Weissman took over and tore through an inspired set of blues, R&B and soul tunes.
Tomkins is a powerhouse, a sultry and soulful vocalist with a beautiful tone. And hearing Weissman and Sterlace trade solos was a real treat – both are distinctive and virtuosic players, coming at the blues from different angles, (Weissman is a jazz player at heart, Sterlace a blues traditionalist) but finding a common meeting place in the middle ground. The Blues Matinees at the Iris kicks off at 1 p.m. every Saturday. A laid-back vibe pervades, but the real attraction is the opportunity to share an intimate space with some of the finest musicians amongst the many who comprise Buffalo’s vibrant blues scene. It’s a cool hang.