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Published: 2005/02/04
by Joe Ciarallo

Venue of the Month: The Musical Oasis of Mexicali Blues

Longtime readers may recall. That back when we debuted in September 98 one of our regular features was "Venue of the Month." It is our intention to bring back this element of the site on a semi-regular basis. So this month we feature Mexicali Blues. In the coming months we hope that you will pitch us a piece on your local club of choice…

Rising up above the barren wasteland of cover bands, karaoke bars and DJ nights, Mexicali Blues has been one constant that New Jersey music lovers have come to rely on. Supporting original music in the Garden State for over ten years, the venue has hosted a virtual "who's who" list of the jam band scene, and continues to do so now more than ever. While the current day witnesses many clubs scaling down their live music schedules or closing up shop altogether, Mexicali has been able to maintain itself in a fast changing live music industry.

Sitting down with owner Eli Wells in his modest office adjacent to the venue's backstage green room, he tells stories of the club's mission, "To keep the music of the Grateful Dead alive." Wells opened Mexicali Blues in its first location on Cedar Lane in Teaneck in 1993, hosting mostly Dead-like bands and blues acts. "I was more about just the Dead, blues and all the New Orleans stuff," he says, but clearly the lineup has expanded greatly over the years. Frustrated with the lease and eager to upgrade his operation from a "restaurant with music," to a "music venue with food," he merged with Rob Ortiz and Josh Dunsky of the NJ promotion company Create A Vibe and found a new, larger building within close proximity that could meet his needs

"Me and Eli go way back," says Ortiz. "I actually was delivering pizzas for him at one point. We've stayed in touch over the years, and once he decided to move to a new venue it just made sense for us to work together." Ortiz's Create A Vibe LLC has been around for over six years, focusing mainly on Mexicali, but also presenting occasional festivals and events at Waterloo Village and the Stanhope House. When asked about what kind of music he hunts out for the club, Ortiz states, "Deep down we'll always have a home for the jam scene, but we definitely want to bring in all kinds of music, that's where Create A Vibe came from."

Since Antibalas played the first show at the new location in October of 2003, the club has featured touring heavyweights including Soulive, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, the Funky Meters, Dickey Betts, Jimmy Cliff, Chris Robinson, Maceo Parker, Derek Trucks, multiple two-night runs by Steve Kimock and the list goes on and on. Recently Jersey's own Railroad Earth celebrated their New Year's at Mexicali with two sold out shows, the first of which featured special guests Billy Nershi and Keith Mosely from the String Cheese Incident, who had the night off from their NYC New Year's run.

In talking about that show, Wells reflects on the "family vibe" that has been developing. "It's almost getting like a family, because it's not New York and there's less people and everybody knows everybody, especially when Jersey bands like Wigjam, Railroad Earth, Jounce and Scarecrow Collection are here. It was great at the Railroad Earth show we had Billy and Keith [from String Cheese] just hanging out, hopping on stage to play a tune, then going back into the crowd. No one was hassling them or anything, they could just roam around and have a good time." Ortiz adds, "The fact that a lot of them [bands and fans] come back again and again means a lot…if we could do half of what the Wetlands did in our time, we'd be extremely grateful."

When entering Mexicali for the first time, one can easily see that no expense was spared in delivering an optimal musical setting. The monitor board is bigger than most club's main sound board, there is a full intelligent light system, ample floor and bar space, balcony seating in the back for those who need a rest, and a gentle color changing backdrop on the stage. Says Ortiz, "Eli knows how important a good sound system is, and he has a vision of where the club should go." The wall parallel to the entrance of the club contains pictures of those who have graced the stage over the years, as well as an interesting quote recently left behind by Camper Van Beethoven, "I will fight for hippie chicks!" The small staff, anchored by bartender/doorman Joe and waitress Hillary, has been there for years and know many of the customers by name.

While things are going very well for Mexicali, nothing has come without hours of hard work by all those involved. As Ortiz explains, "The concert biz in general has been a little rough lately, the economy is not as good as our government thinks it is." However, by being in business for over ten years and offering a consistent hang for those who need it, Mexicali has been able to survive the ups and downs of the entertainment industry. "It's opening doors to the future," says Wells when asked about how being able to book top name acts has helped the growth of the club. This is not to say that he is only concerned with big time national bands, as many smaller and local acts have built long-term relationships with the venue, and even more continue to do so. Further bucking trends in the music industry, especially in New Jersey, Mexicali has no need to overload its calendar with tribute and cover acts that dominate many of the other area clubs. "It's funny, none of those tribute bands ever worked for us, the only tributes that play and do well at Mexicali are Dead tributes," exclaims Wells.

Looking into 2005, Mexicali continues to diversify its lineup and present the best original music in Northern New Jersey. Recently added are "Irie Vibes" open mic hip-hop and reggae night every Wednesday, hosted by one of the area's top original hop-hop bands, RaiNation. The Tuesday night blues jam hosted by Nikki Armstrong also remains very popular. The upcoming show lineup has some excellent options. In addition, the club will host its own tsunami victims benefit show in February with some very special guests that will be announced in the near future.

When asked to describe Mexicali Blues in one sentence, Wells states, "The last musical oasis in the free world," and laughs at the phrase created by one of his longtime patrons.

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