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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    The once and future Knick: Westerly’s iconic blues club turns 90 with an eye to the future

    Percussion teacher Chris Gonsalves works with Ian Rossi, 9, during a drum lesson at The Knickerbocker in Westerly on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The venue hosts lessons through the RI Phil Music School program at The United Theater Education Center. The historic music center is celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Director Mark Connolly poses for a photo at The Knickerbocker in Westerly on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The historic music center is celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Artists have signed show fliers hanging on the wall at The Knickerbocker in Westerly on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The historic music center is celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Director Mark Connolly turns on the lights of the Tap Room at The Knickerbocker in Westerly on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The historic music center is celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    The Knickerbocker in Westerly on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The historic music center is celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Historic show flyers hang on the wall at The Knickerbocker in Westerly on Tuesday, July 18, 2023. The historic music center is celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    It’s the default observation when visiting old structures where notable events have occurred. Lee and Grant in the McClean House at Appomattox. The “roundtable” literati waxing snarky in the Algonquin Hotel. The papal enclave where Julius II and Michelangelo negotiated the Sistine ceiling commission.

    “If these walls could talk…”

    Then there’s the structure at 35 Railroad Avenue in Westerly, which has been long renowned as the Knickerbocker — one of the most iconic blues and jump blues music rooms in the world.

    If these rooms could SING!

    It’s late afternoon on a Friday, a few hours before Westerly’s Knickerbocker Music Center opens for business, and Mark Connolly, longtime executive director at the Knick, is guiding a few guests around the property. He starts in the basement under the club, where “the archives are.”

    There are two green rooms for the artists. One is a small space with mood lighting, a refrigerator, a tall-top table, club chairs and a few neon signs and a mirror. The larger area has a banquet-sized dining table, an antique but functioning organ for the keyboardists to entertain, and walls neatly crisscrossed with framed show posters and publicity photographs that chronicle the Knickerbocker’s storied history.

    To peer at the memorabilia, as at a museum exhibit, is to absorb a lot. The Knick is umbilically tied to Roomful of Blues, the ongoing jump blues act that held a years-long Sunday residency that was famous across the country.

    Too, over the years, the venue has hosted hundreds of legends including Gatemouth Brown, Roosevelt Sykes, Junior Wells, Big Joe Turner, Albert Collins, Johnny Copeland, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Coleman Hawkins, Leon Russell, Eric Burdon, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Stevie Ray Vaughan and on and on. These images almost shimmer with the weight of the ages.

    On Saturday, the Knick celebrates its 90th anniversary. You read that correctly — as in 10 years short of a century! The Knickerbocker All-Stars — a quasi-regular act with a revolving lineup of recognizable musical heroes from the club’s past — will headline the celebration. Guest appearances will come from singer/harmonica player Brian Templeton and boogie woogie piano virtuoso Arthur Migliazza.

    A lot to learn

    “All I knew when I signed on was that this was a famous club and tied to Roomful — but I had no idea it went back to the end of Prohibition,” Connolly said. “The original owners were brothers, Albert and Paul Vitterito, who weren’t necessarily blues fans. But jump blues and swing were popular back in that era. The brothers did want a dancehall, and for that you needed to bring in musicians. And that’s how it started.”

    Opened after the end of Prohibition, the Knickerbocker Café — as it was originally known — had an ideal location for attracting live music stars. It’s directly across from the railroad station, which meant that touring players, en route from Boston or New York or vice versa, had an incredibly convenient way to pick up an extra gig simply by getting off the train and walking across the street.

    There was also a tangible neighborhood vibe. The Vitterito brothers provided a strong dining and dancing atmosphere, and who knows how many wedding receptions were held in the club?

    “My Mom Louise Norcia was a very fine singer with a sweet, sweet voice. She used to perform at The Knickerbocker in the 1940s with her two brothers Frank Genese on guitar and Tony Genese on bass,” remembered vocalist/harmonica virtuoso Sugar Ray Norcia — a veteran presence at the club with his own band, The Bluetones, as well as from his time as a former singer for Roomful. “She lived close by on Oak Street in Westerly with her parents and they allowed her to play there as long as they tagged along as her chaperones.”

    In 1967, guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley put together Roomful of Blues. By the early 70s, they began performing at the Knick, and the Sunday afternoon parties were by all accounts wild with nonstop dancing, lots of drinking, people crawling in windows to gain admission, and so on.

    Norcia, then a burgeoning performer, remembers going to the Sunday shows with religious fervor. “I would witness amazing performances as Roomful backed up featured artists such as Eddy Cleanhead Vinson, Big Joe Turner, Roy Brown, Helen Humes, Red Prysock, Sil Austin and many more,” he said. “I would occasionally sit in and sing with them, and I’d be on a ‘musical high’ imagining that someday I’d … front a great jumping, swinging band such as Roomful.”

    In 1991, Norcia did join Roomful — one of over 50 players that have joined that band’s brotherhood over almost 60 years. After leaving Roomful, Norcia and The Bluetones became regulars at the club, headlining and backing up other touring artists. They even recorded a live album at the Knick with Chicago blues harmonica great Big Walter Horton.

    Blues highway

    The club thrived for years and gained renown as one-half of a blues pipeline connected to the Austin, Texas blues scene anchored in that town’s iconic Antone’s club. It was through that dynamic that, first, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and then Stevie Ray Vaughan & the Triple Threat Revue came north — and in turn Roomful and offshoot Rhody acts headed to Texas.

    Reached on tour Wednesday, Kim Wilson, vocalist for the Fabulous Thunderbirds, sent a short “LOL” text in which he recalls his first experience when the T-birds came up from Austin to play the Knick for the first time.

    “There was a LOT of jitterbugging going on,” the text read.

    Decline and rebirth

    By the early 2000s, though, business had slowed. Trends were changing, the clientele was getting older, and stricter municipal codes and regulations were enacted. In 2005, the live music room closed its doors and Paul Vitterito, Jr., then running the club, sold the room to Westerly Blues LLC.

    A massive upgrade was undertaken to provide world-class sound and lighting and a fresh look far removed from what had become a sort of aging VFW Hall appearance.

    In 2009, the club reopened as the Knickerbocker Music Center. Westerly native Johnny Nicholas, a guitarist/songwriter who’d played in Roomful and resettled in Austin, returned to his hometown to run the place. Saxophonist Greg Piccolo, a Roomful alum who still tours with his band Heavy Juice, signed on as the booking agent. Two years later, though the Knick was showing signs of life, it was struggling financially.

    Enter Connolly and Jon Kodama; the pair were well established and respected for efforts in Kodama’s numerous and popular restaurants in the area. They were brought onboard through the efforts of Chuck Royce, the developer/philanthropist behind much of downtown Westerly’s revitalization over the years, and other investors. Kodama and Connolly were able tostreamline the Knick’s financial aspects and, in 2014, when the Knick entered into a nonprofit partnership with the Rhode Island Philharmonic, Kodama exited and Connolly has stayed on in his role.

    Connolly emphasizes that the club would not have survived without the financial help of Chuck Royce and other investors.

    Over time, and through the pandemic, physical improvements to the club continued. Today, the Knick is a showplace. The main layout has a large dance floor bisecting two seating sections, a roomy stage with excellent sound and lighting, and the U-shaped bar visitors see on their left as they walk in. The refurbished walls feature a fresh paint job with pleasing accents, original molding and wainscoting, and the overall atmosphere is at once contemporary and charmingly nostalgic.

    To the right of the entrance is a small, side bar called the Tap Room. It’s been there all along — a sort of tangential spot for regulars and serious drinkers. Now, though, with its own soundproofing, the Tap Room and a similar aesthetic facelift, it features separate performances from Americana, folks and pop singer-songwriters. There are cheaper beers and weekly Turntable Nights where the typically younger demographic brings their own vinyl recordings to play on the in-house turntable.

    This prescient strategy comes courtesy of another Rhody native, musician Glenn Kendzia. With his rock power trio Wild Sun, Kendzia first played the Knick in 2013 and instantly fell in love with the place.

    “I could immediately feel the history of the club that I’d heard stories about from my parents and older friends of ‘the good old days’ — namely, Roomful of Blues,” said Kendzia from Nashville, where he’s based while trying to establish a solo career as a songwriter. He returns frequently to Westerly and to the Knick, where he provides booking and policy guidance aimed at a new demographic through the Tap Room.

    You’re only as old as you’re young

    “The important thing to me,” Connolly said, “was to maintain the music reputation but also attract a younger audience. We really need them, and the Tap Room gave us that opportunity. I told Glenn, ‘You make this place like it was yours — a place where you and your friends would hang out.’ With his talent and knowledge, he’s shown he absolutely knows what he’s doing. He brings in great talent, he brought in bartenders and waitresses that are popular with a younger crowd — and who have their own followings.”

    Kendzia relished the chance because he’s a young musician but also has great respect for the Knick as an entity. “As I got involved working there, I saw reopening the Tap Room with a fresh, modern identity — while preserving the music-centric focus of the Knick – as the best way to get a new generation through the door and become aware of what a special place it is. Being involved with its continued growth and watching it evolve has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my adult life.”

    The Knick has maintained its strong blues presence, of course. Roomful of Blues and alums including Robillard, Norcia, Piccolo, Copley and more continue to play there and, as Connolly said, “I’m friends with the guys from the original Roomful and I want them to always have a place to play. I’m paying homage to the musicians and fans that build this place before I got here.”

    The older musicians appreciate it. Piccolo says, “I first played the Knick 60 years ago and, like a homing pigeon, I’ve been coming back ever since. There is only one Knickerbocker and I’m fortunate to have been connected to it thought all the years.”

    Built for the future

    Across the board, the Knick WORKS. Headliners might well be an established blues act — or it might be contemporary acts of disparate styles like Deer Tick, Jon Batiste, Eilen Jewell, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys or Hiss Golden Messenger. The calendar is also stuffed with popular and up-and-coming local and regional acts.

    The tour ends outside. To the rear of the club is a recently constructed pathway that connects the Knick with the back entrance to the United Theatre; the two entered a partnership in 2021 — in union with the Rhode Island Philharmonic — to provide a community-wide multicultural campus for the arts. The overlap in interests and possibilities is limitless, Connolly said, and includes a series called “United at the Knick” that includes a show Thursday featuring a band called Heavy Makeup — a group that features an improvisatory approach and an internationally recognizable but incognito star. The Knick appearance is a warm-up show before their appearance Friday at the Newport Folk Festival.

    Standing outside the entrance to the Knick, Connolly points out a distinctive white-and-black painted mural that depicts the history of the club over the years — including a railroad theme, a “Westerly 1933” logo alluding to the original opening, and images of musicians from over the years.

    “You know, even when this place was closed for a while, the neon Knickerbocker sign stayed lit 24/7,” Connolly said. “That, and the mural indicated that, even if there were no customers, this is a historic place. Maybe someone passing through on a train looked out and saw the mural or the sign. Maybe they don’t know the club or its history. But chances are they’ll remember a sign that said ‘Knickerbocker’ and wonder what it’s about.”

    If you go

    Who: Knickerbocker All-Stars

    What: 90th Anniversary of the Knickerbocker Cafe

    Where: Knickerbocker Music Center, 35 Railroad Ave., Westerly

    When: 8 p.m. Saturday, doors open at 7 p.m.

    How much: $20

    For more information: knickmusic.com, (401) 315-5070

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