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Iguana gets the blues

Monday nights at the Green Iguana get going when the house band takes the stage at 10. Later in the evening, others get their chance to improvise.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times (2003)

Monday nights at the Green Iguana get going when the house band takes the stage at 10. Later in the evening, others get their chance to improvise.

TAMPA — Monday, 10 p.m. Most people are finishing up their least-favorite day of the week and thinking about how distant the next weekend seems.

But for local blues fans, it's time to head out for an evening of some of the best live music around.

Every Monday for 20 years, the Green Iguana Bar & Grill on West Shore Boulevard has hosted its weekly blues jam. Besides attracting several hundred loyal blues aficionados countywide, most of whom have to work early the next morning, the jam attracts the area's best musicians.

The jam has become so well known that international blues superstars stop in to play.

"The thing about this is, you never know who's going to show up," said Dean Germain, the jam's host and co-founder. "We've had B.B. King's backup band, Buddy Guy, James Peterson and Lucky Peterson. When blues musicians come through Florida, they go out of their way to come here to play."

Germain, guitarist Sarasota Slim and a supporting cast of area musicians and fans first convened at the Iguana on a Monday in May 1989.

The Green Iguana on West Shore is the original in a chain that now includes several locations in Hillsborough and Pinellas.

These days, the place is comfortably full when the music starts at 10. Even at midnight, the crowd is still growing. A lot of people bring guitars, saxophones and trumpets, and they wait for their turn to get up and improvise.

"This isn't an open mike night," Germain said. "It isn't live karaoke. This is a jam. Sometimes people get up and play, but they realize pretty quickly they can't keep up with this caliber of musicians."

A lot of the regulars from the early days are still regulars now. Some of them used to hire baby­sitters to watch their kids on Monday night. Now, those kids are old enough to come with them and get on stage to sing.

It's a fun night out, but for more than a few people the Monday night jam has literally been a life-changing experience.

"There have been marriages that came out of here," Germain said. "There have been bands that came out of here, careers that started here."

The talent pool at the Monday night jams is so rich, he said, that well-known blues musicians will stop by when they're looking for someone to play on albums or tours. Guitarist John Street was playing at the jam when he was tapped to join Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets.

It's not unusual for people to discover their own passion for the blues at the jam. Amanda Gerttula had been a violinist for the Florida Orchestra for many years and never gave the blues much thought until a friend dragged her to the Green Iguana one Monday in 1993.

"I learned I was a musician when I came here for the first time," Gerttula, 53, of St. Petersburg said. "I started playing from the heart, instead of from what was written on paper. I found out I loved the blues after I started playing the blues."

Although the crowd is mostly regulars, Gerttula said, it's easy for newcomers to become part of the fold.

"What's nice is that it's such a small community," she said. "You come here as a person who just wants to hear some blues, and pretty soon you get to know all the people, both the audience and the musicians."

The music gets cranked up every Monday when House of Trouble takes the stage. The house band's membership is fluid, but Germain always plays the Hammond B-3 organ and Benny Sudano is a fixture on the bass. Germain has a different guitarist and drummer every week, getting players with different styles so the audience gets a wide a variety of blues.

For the 20th anniversary celebration on Monday, Sarasota Slim was the guitarist. Early in the evening, local singer and harpist Nitro joined them for a fiery version of The Thrill Is Gone.

By midnight, a parade of singers had taken the stage for a song or two. Horns and saxes crowded the stage. It was a busier night than usual because a lot of people wanted to be there for the 20th anniversary bash. On a typical night, maybe 25 or 30 musicians will get on stage for at least a song or two.

One of Germain's duties is quality control. Sometimes musicians will get on stage thinking that playing the blues is basic and easy, but they soon find out differently. The music is what matters most, so Germain doesn't let them stay very long.

"I just tell them to go home and practice some blues," he said. "A few weeks later they're back, and they've started collecting blues CDs and they're learning how to play."

Iguana gets the blues 05/21/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 21, 2009 4:30am]
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