By Rick Coates
For the past 26 years, if you have been out and about on the local music scene, there is a good chance you have come across the Jelly Roll Blues Band. Since their inception as just a group of guys getting together for jam sessions at the Park Garden in Petoskey, through today, Jelly Roll Blues Band remains one of Northern Michigans favorite party bands, regardless of the season.
Along with Song of the Lakes, they are the senior members of the Northern music scene. Somehow these guys have avoided the pitfalls that many a band fall into that eventually lead to their demise.
I think that its us and the Rolling Stones that have the longest tenure, laughs Bill Reisenbeck, the bands drummer. I think our secret is fun. We simply have always been about having fun and we will only keep doing this if it remains fun. The band started for fun and we have just kept that as our focus.
The fun began as a weekly jam session, and when patrons of the Park Garden asked for the bands name, keyboardist Craig Stadtmiller blurted out, We are the Jelly Morton Memorial Blues Band. The name stuck and was eventually shortened.
The line up has stayed the same for the past 17 years. Reisenbeck calls himself the junior member while Stadtmiller, bass player Bob Crosser and guitarist Johnny Storm are all original members.
The original drummer Graham Fineout got on his catamaran 17 years ago and sailed to Florida into retirement. He is part of what is known as The Jelly Roll Blues Retirement Band that goes by the name of Deb & The Dynamics, chuckles Reisenbeck. He is joined in that band by another alum of Jelly Roll our former sax player Newt Cole.
Now, Newt Cole was famous for two bands in the region. During the 1970s he had Newt & The Salamanders, and after leaving Jelly Roll, he formed The Fabulous Horn Dogs. During the 90s Jelly Roll, The Horndogs and Luther Gravy and The Soul Biscuits had the corner on the summer party band circuit.
When Jelly Roll Blues Band first started, they quickly built a following, and it is funny to look back at it now, but there was a time when the band was considered too big for some venues in the region, said Reisenbeck. We attracted a party crowd and we created a party environment. They didnt invite us back to Blissfest because our fans were shouting for us during the shows of the bands performing before us. We use to play the Here Comes The Sun party in Leland but they told us we brought too many people out to the show.
Reisenbeck says that another thing that keeps them energized is seeing a younger audience at their shows.
We wondered as those who grew up with us stopped going out as much, if there would be a demand for us. But what has happened is now we are performing for their kids, said Reisenbeck. Plus we are doing a lot of private gigs. Some of our longtime fans have flown us to Florida and Colorado for private concerts.
As for the biggest change since the band started?
Drinking and driving. We have always been a party band and people are hesitant to go out and have a couple of drinks now. So that has changed the dynamic of the local scene, not just here but everywhere, said Reisenbeck. So we do a lot of resort work; for example, this winter we are at Boyne on the weekends, and this works out great for people staying at the resort, as they dont have to drive.
So the bands favorite gigs of all time?
It would be real hard to pick just a few, but I think our Sunday night gigs at Legs Inn in Cross Village, from Memorial Day to Labor Day each summer, rank right up there, said Reisenbeck. We have a great balance between private functions like weddings and summer club dates and winter ski resorts. It is all good.
What about ambitions of the big time?
I think that is one of the reasons why we have been able to keep it together for so many years, said Reisenbeck. We never had that sort of ambition. We all had other things in our lives and I am not sure any of us wanted to be on the road all the time. Quite frankly, it is nice not having to deal with agents and managers and record companies telling us what to do. We all feel very blessed to do what we are doing here in Northern Michigan. We may not be stars but I think we are having a lot more fun than some stars.
Look, this is a funny business, it isnt always about talent. At times it is a lot about luck, said Reisenbeck. So at the end of the day we feel very blessed to be in demand. We have a full schedule, we rarely travel and we get to enjoy all the things we love about Northern Michigan.
After 26 years the band has built expectations, but Reisenbeck says it can be a double edge sword.
If we play the same songs and sets, then people say, Hey we can set our watches by your sets. Then if we dont play certain songs, we get people saying, Hey how come you didnt play this song? But there are expectations to every show, like my drum solo where I go through the audience and bang on anything in site, said Reisenbeck. We have around 400 songs in our arsenal, so we keep things fresh and different from show to show.
What about original tunes and CDs?
We have originals but no one likes them, especially the ones I wrote, laughs Reisenbeck. People come to hear us play danceable cover tunes. We are pretty much a live experience band; we have had tapes and CDs out in the past and some live recordings, but I think we are best enjoyed live, so we are not much for the recording studio,
So what is in store for Jelly Roll Blues Band in the future?
More of the same. So far no one has mentioned leaving to join up with Deb & The Dynamics in Florida, chuckles Reisenbeck. We have a pretty full schedule for 2008 and look for us to keep partying and having fun for years to come.
To get reacquainted with Jelly Roll Blues Band, or if you have never had the privilege, then get out and do so this winter. The band plays the Slopeside at Boyne Highlands every Friday through St. Patricks Day. They will perform at the Snowflake Lounge at Boyne Mountain in Boyne Falls, January 19 & 20, and at the Northern Lights Recreation Center in Harbor Springs on January 26. For additional details visit their low-budget web site (according to Reisenbeck, the band chooses to invest in good clothes instead of a good web site), jellyrollbluesband.com or call Bill Reisenbeck if you are interested in booking the band (231) 526-5527.