Blue lights shine on the guitarists, percussionists and bassists lining the stage of Champions Sports Bar & Grill in Highspire. They warm up alongside musicians wielding trumpets, harmonicas and flutes as a 50-person audience watches. A few couples begin to dance.
“Most new people coming in hear the band’s set thinking they’re an organized band,” said Andrew Kehe, secretary of the Blues Society of Central PA.
The band is entirely improvised. Some players didn’t even know each other when the night began.
Musicians who want to perform write their name and instrument on a clipboard. The host mixes and matches musicians from the list to create and expand their sound. The big moment comes when they see their name on a set board by the stage. Then the players join forces on an improvised, four-song set.
“The cool thing about it to me is that you never know who you’re going to play with,” said Gary “Rocky” Rothrock, treasurer of the Blues Society.
A longtime attendee, he now facilitates and manages the jam nights.
“There’s a core group that comes out to play, but we get new people all the time,” Rothrock said. “Touring musicians will hear about it and come out. You never know who’s going to come.”
One key element draws people into the jams—the randomness of the sets.
Most performers decide to play covers, but some play their own material. One person leads and cues the musicians, who listen and try to complement the sound of the group. Solos rotate from instrument to instrument, so everyone has a chance to jam. The styles of blues can vary from country to classical to rock ‘n’ roll to jazz depending on the instruments included in the set and the musician’s personal sound.
“It’s great music. It’s free. It’s a cheap night out,” Kehe said.
Rothrock describes the jam as different from other ones that he’s experienced.
“Most jams have a house band, they play a set, and then they invite one or two people to sit in,” Rothrock said. “We’ve never done that. We’ve always just thrown the sets together, come on up, and play. You really need to learn how to listen to each other and feel out where the music is going.”
The Blues Society provides instruments and sound equipment, so musicians can come in and pick up something if they don’t have an instrument on hand. Society volunteers come early to set up or stay late to tear down the stage.
“We store all of the gear here, and we even have a big organ that was donated to us 15 years ago,” Rothrock said. “That’s a feature that a lot of keyboardists like.”
Despite not knowing what people and instruments will play together, Rothrock said there is a secret to performing well together.
“We all have the same sort of foundation in the music, and there’s a basic structure to blues,” he said. “So, once you know the basic structure, then you just kind of improvise on top of it. The more you do this, the more you get the feel. You know, it’s a cooperative thing, and it’s really good training.”
The jam has been going on continuously for 18 years. Champions is their fourth venue, after starting at the Lochiel Hotel in Harrisburg in 1998. The group changed locations after a 2001 flood badly damaged the old building. The group tried jamming in other locations, eventually settling in at Champions three years ago.
The society is involved with other events such as the Lancaster Roots and Blues Festival, the annual Mississippi Railroad show, the Dauphin County Music and Wine Festival and a members-only holiday party. But the weekly jam provides the all-volunteer Blues Society with a musical meetup just for fun.
“People in this organization work really hard to do what they do,” Rothrock said. “It’s pretty remarkable. We’re like a big family.”
To learn more about the Blues Society of Central PA and the weekly jams, visit www.bscpblues.org.