Highway 99 Blues Club keeps tradition alive with a distinct Southern flavor
A mural in the lobby of Highway 99 Blues Club depicts an old-time juke joint—the type of place that the Highway 99 hopes to emulate. Signs in the mural declare: “No Bad Language,” “Be Nice or Leave” and “No Gambling.” On a chilly Saturday evening in mid-October, the sold-out crowd is obeying the rules.
Most folks are on dates, their smiles abundant, as are baskets of bread, bowls of food and pints of beer on the tables scattered around the club. Vintage show posters and chicken wire are everywhere. The lighting is low, cast mostly from red cocktail candles and a full rig of overhead spots focused on the stage. In this dark setting, presentation comes second to flavor.
A few girls from Salem, Ore., linger at the bar. They’re in their 20s and are dating members of the night’s entertainment. “This club’s pretty good,” Sarah says, looking around at the décor. “But I’ll know when I hear the sound.”
Robert, sporting salt-and-pepper hair, a slight slur and dungarees, has been to Highway 99 a few times. He points at the dance floor. “Me and my little girl,” he says, thumbing over to his wife. “When we get done fightin’, we’re gonna go out and dance.” She looks out of the side of her eye at him while facing the stage. “Look, I know I drink too much,” he says, turning to her, their argument fading into the bar’s general din.
Younger guys try to pick up women at the bar. Older men leave their dates at the table and head to the back room—one of five coves in the cavernous club, all of which offer a view of the stage. There, they peer at a wall of photos: Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and Pinetop Perkins playing Seattle’s venues of yore like the Fabulous Rainbow and the Backroom.
The wait staff hustles out food, Southern comforts delivered with kick. BBQ shrimp, fresh and perfectly seared, arrive on rafts of garlic bread, swimming in a savory gravy tasty enough to spoon up on its own. Jambalaya skimps on shrimp but packs spicy bites of Andouille from Uli’s Famous Sausage. The meatloaf—a favorite of club regular, noted harmonica player and War co-founder Lee Oskar—tastes like home, with crunchy chunks of onion breaking up the slightly charred loaf’s juicy center.
At 8 p.m. on the dot, co-owner Ed Maloney takes the stage, as he does every night. He is dressed in a well-tailored black suit, locally made by Like a Rock Star. Between the fedora he wears and the electric-blue stripes on his breast pockets, he looks like a Blues Brother crashing a Tron convention. He is the center of attention.
“I appreciate you all comin’ down to the club durin’ a recession,” says Maloney, a native of Boston. “Before you get your ass kicked by this wicked band, you should know who they are. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Ty Curtis Band!” The crowd puts down its silverware and cheers.
Ten seconds into the band’s second song, the dancefloor is packed with couples two-stepping as Curtis moans into the mic, bending blues chords on his guitar while his band swings. Robert, already half way to the dance floor, motions for his wife with drink in hand, but she shakes her head. Over at the bar, Sarah gives the sound engineer a thumbs-up.
The band unleashes its heaviest song yet. “Don’t say you love me” Curtis pleads. And there’s Robert on the floor with his little girl, dancing.
Photo by Nate Watters