A true blues warrior

The first time I clapped eyes on Robbie DeCosta I silently mocked him from my corner of The Beanery in Ashland.

Before you dismiss me as a small and petty man, consider the sight that greeted me that spring day. Robbie shambled into the coffee joint wearing a suit coat a size too small, tight black jeans, old man loafers with white socks and a dusty, small-rimmed hat. He looked as if he'd bought his clothes off the characters-out-of-a-Tom-Waits-song rack at the Goodwill.

His one saving grace that day was the cool red guitar, well worn, that he packed around. What I know about playing music can fit into a shot glass, but I recognize a righteous six-string weapon when I see one.

I kept my distance from Robbie at first. During our one and only exchange in those early weeks he called me "bro." This makes me irate. To all Ashland "bro" and "brotha" users: This ain't New York City circa 1973 and you sure as hell ain't Richard Roundtree. You know who you are. Consider yourself warned.

The first time Robbie began strumming his guitar outside The Beanery I remember letting loose an audible groan. There's nothing worse than coffeehouse crooners. But Robbie surprised me with his obvious appreciation of old-time blues. And he knew how to play the guitar, a rarity in Ashland's music scene. His voice was just gruff enough without overdoing it.

I eventually warmed to Robbie, especially after watching him give tourists twisted, rambling and incoherent directions to major Ashland landmarks. I once saw him utterly confuse and perhaps frighten some well-meaning Californians who asked if he could direct them to the Plaza downtown. When the father loaded the wife and kids into the van, Robbie lit a cigarette and said, "Wow, man, I hope they get where they're going OK."

Robbie is one of the few people I know who is cut off from modern culture. For the most part, he doesn't know what the hell I'm talking about when I mention a band or film released in the past 20 or so years.

He represents and rejects the dominant trait in the Ashland character. Everyone is living in the past. Which is fine, if that past does not involve an army of bell-bottomed bottom feeders setting civilization back 1,000 years in a muddy field in New York in 1968.

Robbie, a walking anachronism in his own right, has chosen the path of the traveling 1920s bluesman. At least I can dig that era. Also, the music is infinitely better.

One of my favorite Ashland haunts is Alex's on Monday nights. I was on my third blues night when Robbie took the stage with the Royal Blues Band and amped up the energy a few notches. His approach to blues is tinged with punk rock, as he plays loud and fast and sometimes lets the music get away from him.

"Hey, this guy means business," I thought.

He has since started his own band. I dropped into Alex's last Saturday to check them out and was surprised to find the rowdiest bar in Ashland. It was about as close as this town could come to a for-real blues bar feel. It was hot and sweaty and the music was loud.

Robbie sticks mainly to blues standards, some of which creep up on you because of how good they sound live. His version of "Crossroads" blows Eric Clapton away. Believe it.

I believe the Robbie DeCosta Band is going to be a staple of Alex's for the foreseeable future.

Do yourself a favor, skip the next $100-per-ticket washed-up Britt show and see some music with heart. Oh, and you can actually dance if you want to. There are no Britt fun police there to stop you.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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