By Evo Bluestein
In 1974, a fusion rock band called Wild Blue Yonder pooled their meager resources and put in a lot of elbow grease to open a music club of the same name. It was a focal point for Fresno’s Tower District and Fresno. At least the band would have a place to play—their own club!
Finally, Fresno had a stylish, medium-sized place to host a wide array of events. The arts and progressive community claimed it. The Blue could accommodate name touring acts. It was just big enough, yet intimate and cozy when filled with many familiar people (the usual suspects).
Many local rock, blues and jazz musicians could tell you their stories of performing there, but I will relate my experience. It was around the time of the incorporation of the Fresno Folklore Society. I booked folk shows on my own and, later, on behalf of the Folklore Society.
The Bluestein Family played there, Kenny Hall, the Roundtown Boys Stringband (Evo, Jemmy, Terry Barrett and Daniel Bradbury), and when we got into Cajun and zydeco, ZZ and the Bad Boys (later to become Bad Boys Zydeco). I booked out-of-town bands such as Summerdog bluegrass from Tucson, bluesman Paul Geremia from Rhode Island and the first John McCutcheon concert in Fresno.
Musicians from Sweet’s Mill music camp performed there after the summer festival. I booked my favorite zydeco band from Eunice, La., John Delafose and the Eunice Playboys, and the Folklore Society booked Odetta. Poets Philip Levine and Peter Everwine read there. African groups played for dances. The Oakland Blues Masters were there with the West Fresno Blues Masters—it was quite a run. The list of performers is eclectic and lengthy.
We all know that Fresno is halfway between Los Angeles and the Bay. It is common sense to book a show here if you are touring the West. The combination of the Wild Blue Yonder and the Fresno Folklore Society produced that sort of diversity on a regular basis.
It was good for Fresno. The Blue had an attractive appearance from the outside, and it was well-designed inside. It provided a classy venue for the upgrading Tower District. It was located in the short Fulton Street passage next to the Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant.
It all started before the Tower District became known as Fresno’s “arts district.” In fact, the Blue had a lot to do with attaining that reputation, though it wasn’t easy to come by. I remember it was known by some of my older students as a place where hippies went to take drugs and a bad place to be. That sounded like an unfortunate impression to me given that I had just played there with my family. Those students got over it, and some of them performed there!
Eventually, the district became well known as a neighborhood you wanted to walk around in, and even live in, largely because it was the center for theater, music, art galleries and interesting restaurants. But the Blue closed its doors some 20 years after opening.
The band members in the Wild Blue moved on, having families and day jobs, some of them in other cities. For the actual owners, Bixler Brothers Jim and Bill, the reality was they had become businesspeople, as well as artists. The pressure to get people in the door coincided with the era of disco—an evil word for many musicians at the time.
The bumper sticker “Disco Sucks, Hire a Real Musician” was prevalent. However, if you were a club owner, you could hire one person (a DJ), and many paying customers came in to drink and dance. It was economical for the club and the DJ, but it was contrary to the original plan of having live music.
Running a club such as that is like a community endeavor, or a church. If there is no need for it, it won’t be supported. Twenty years is an impressive achievement. The Wild Blue Yonder was a big step up for Fresno.
The Wild Blue Yonder band will reunite for a farewell concert on Nov. 9 at Fulton 55.
Evo Bluestein of Fresno’s first family of folk, is a multi-talented musician, popular dance caller and gifted educator. He continues to perform and teach. His music has been heard and enjoyed by many—locally, nationally and internationally.