A sanctuary for the blues

One of Puget Sound's best blues venues is a haven — a sanctuary, actually — for the region's finest blues talent.

Sacred and secular combine in rare form at the monthly Blues Vespers at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Tacoma. The Rev. David Brown crafted an inspired variation of the traditional worship and music of evening prayer.

Services took root in 1999 when Brown was a part-time pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, and they have flourished across town at Immanuel, where he moved in June 2005 to lead the congregation.

Brown is a long-time blues fan. Maybe the seeds for Blues Vespers were planted years ago on bus rides from his home in New Jersey to New York City's Greenwich Village to visit blues clubs as a high-school senior.

The service lasts an hour or so, starting at 5 p.m. the third Sunday of the month. Each gathering has a theme and rhythm of its own. Typically, the evening opens with a welcome and poetry, the musical guests play, Brown offers a brief reflection — a less imposing word than sermon or homily — the band fires up again, a prayer is offered, the music continues, and the evening closes with a blessing. And likely an encore.

Call it a concert with a take-home message.

Try to imagine the biggest impediment to launching Blues Vespers. Theological propriety? A stodgy church board? Anxious parishioners? No: the musicians.

Brown said they had the same view of organized religion that keeps others away from church: It's not a positive, hospitable place. Kinda scary, in other words. He initially built their trust with the easy rapport of a blues-wise fan.

First-rate blues keeps vespers humming, but also credit the attitude Brown and church leaders brought to the effort. They envisioned vespers as a way of extending church hospitality into the community. They would open the doors to a free and friendly space to hear good music. They were pointedly not interested in the blues as a gimmick of evangelism.

Funny how that works, though. Blues Vespers has grown from Sunday nights of 100 blues lovers to 300. Brown saw many faces from those concerts at the standing-room-only Christmas Eve service.

He is getting married next month, and the pastor estimates blues musicians are a quarter of the guest list. He has performed weddings, offered spiritual counseling and spoken at memorial services for them.

Blues Vespers has more top blues players eager to perform than Immanuel has monthly slots. The evening is no amateur hour, either. Two weeks ago, the artists were a quartet with guitarist John Curley Cooke, vocalist and harmonica player Annette Taborn, drummer Marty Vadalabene, bass player Rob Moitoza and guest guitarist Rod Cook.

Those five names combine epic experience with legendary bands, global touring, countless recordings and a wall full of best-of-the-blues hardware from the Washington Blues Society. Taborn, a veteran of the Midwest blues scene, is new to Seattle. Oh my, what a talent.

Next month, Feb. 19, it is yet another group of venerated, all-star performers: The Mark Riley Trio, with special guest Alice Stuart, a member of the blues society's Hall of Fame.

Immanuel Presbyterian Church is at 901 North J St. in Tacoma. A goodwill collection is taken up for the band. Let your conscience be your guide.

So how does one go about preparing to play in the sanctuary of a California mission-style church that is more than 100 years old and on the National Registry of Historic Places?

"Dave's sermons set the tone for a really good feeling in the room," said Curley Cooke. He has played Blues Vespers several times and he looks for positive but not necessarily spiritually oriented tunes. For certain, though, no "funky lyrics."

In separate conversations, Brown and Cooke made the same point: Fans and musicians alike enjoy the combination of music with added value to think about later.

Musicians love to play the church. Blues Vespers is a vital offering on many levels. In 2004, Brown was celebrated by the Washington Blues Society for Keeping the Blues Alive — for blues fans, a hallowed honor.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com