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Battle of the blues

Marietta is a hotbed of music with more clubs, more bands, more competition


IT'S A CRISP, breezy Saturday night in Marietta. A full moon shines small and bright in the clear night sky, like the light at the end of a week-long tunnel.

On a crowded bandstand in Darwin's, a music venue and barroom in a small, nondescript building on Roswell Road, the five members of the band Delta Moon are reaching back in time. The material they choose is tapped largely from the pre-World War II musical roots of the Mississippi Delta and the earliest, halcyon days of the Chicago blues.

However, there is nothing quaint or nostalgic about Delta Moon's performance. Lap steel guitarist Tom Gray and slide guitarist Mark Johnson weave sinuous rhythms through Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues" and the Rev. Robert Wilkins' "Prodigal Son," both of which date from the late 1920s. As she keeps time on a tambourine, singer Gina Leigh sways in a low-cut leopard print dress, angular and serpentine, to Slim Harpo's "Hip Shake." Bassist Tommy Dean and drummer Charles Wolff power the beat, steady but insistent. It's music for dancing, drinking, laughing.

Don't look now, but Marietta has the blues. Anchored by Darwin's, which has been open for 21 months, and the Blue Raccoon, which is 7 months old, Marietta and environs offer local blues fans a choice of venues and listening opportunities unmatched outside of Atlanta's city limits. Other local clubs that feature frequent blues acts include Crystal's On The Square; Popper's; Kastaways; Brewster's; and the Blue Pig, which is a few minutes up I-575 in nearby Woodstock

Located one mile east of the Big Chicken, Darwin's is owned by Kay Rowedder, who bought the location in October 1997 after a career as a corporate pilot that wrapped up with 11 years at Georgia-Pacific.

"I enjoyed it. I loved flying and still do," Rowedder says, "but I was never a good fit with the corporate stuff. I'm too much of a renegade, I guess. I wanted to run my own business, accomplish something completely on my own."

Rowedder took some business courses and looked around for an opportunity. She found it in what is now Darwin's, which was a "beat-up-looking house with great possibilities." At the time, it was Kelly's Tap Room -- in her words, a "dive redneck bar" -- that featured karaoke for entertainment. She soon realized she wasn't happy with the atmosphere or the bar and chose to reinvent the business.

Rowedder turned to her love for blues and vintage blues-based rock artists such as Janis Joplin, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. Darwin's was born in March 1999.

Since that time, Darwin's has begun to evolve, so to speak, into a significant venue for regional and national blues acts, having hosted the likes of slide guitarist Bob Margolin, Big Bill Morganfield, Larry Garner and Tinsley Ellis. In June, the club hosted a successful blues festival, a fund raiser for Atlanta community radio station WRFG-FM. The event took in nearly $4,000, according to WRFG deejay Doug "Black Jack" Ketchum. The station also recorded the event and will raise additional funds from sales of a CD of the performances, which should be available early next year, he says.

Currently, such up-and-coming local acts as Sean Costello, Mudcat and the Breeze Kings take their turn at Darwin's, attesting to the wealth of blues talent at work in the Atlanta suburbs.

Delta Moon is a fine example of that talent. The concept for the band emerged after guitarist Johnson saw David Lindley and Ry Cooder playing lap steel and slide, respectively, at a New Orleans Jazzfest performance, and recognized the potential for building a lineup around those instruments. Johnson teamed with lap steel guitarist Gray, a former member of The Brains, whose songs have been recorded by Cyndi Lauper (the hit "Money Changes Everything"), Manfred Mann and Colleen Carter.

The band has been together nearly four years, and has played frequently at Darwin's, including a weekly Thursday stint for a while.

"We like the atmosphere and the people there," Johnson says. "They come there to hear the music and they're not afraid to get up and dance, which is always fun."

Guitarist Slim Fatz, who recently began playing every Tuesday at Darwin's after a longtime Tuesday gig at Atlanta's Northside Tavern, compares the development of Darwin's to that of the Northside. In recent years, the tavern on Howell Mill Road has grown from an anonymous neighborhood bar to a desirable destination for fans of local blues. Fatz, who plays an eclectic brand of acoustic music, says Rowedder's commitment to the blues format and to the financial support of the bands is similar to that of Northside's owner Ellyn Webb.

Though a grandmother, and on the far side of 50, Rowedder is no soft touch as a businesswoman. Perhaps it's a product of her corporate background, toughened by her experience as a woman in a man's world of corporate aviation, or perhaps it's simply her nature. In any case, Rowedder is clearly focused on what she believes is necessary to ensure Darwin's success as a blues venue.

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