Published: Feb. 12, 1993

THE blues don't make appointments. The blues don't call ahead and ask politely for a ride in from the airport. And they don't give a damn if Fridays are your night to work. They just show up unbidden and before you know it you're veering across four lanes of traffic toward the big sign that says "Entering Dismal State. Trouble, Next Exit."

Yeah, last Friday was one of those. One of those strange nights where I don't feel like making talk with anyone. All I want is to be left alone in the benign, unquestioning embrace of strangers who are drinking, hollering and dancing the blues. I want to see people who still think "rave" is a verb. People who wouldn't know Elvis Costello from Abbott. Men who wear gimme hats from hydraulic pump companies. And middle-aged women with interesting tattoos. Just give me a bar band kicking out a big ol' honking roar and let me sit there soaking it all in until the blues go away.

Of course I end up out at the original JJ's Lounge. For the blues- afflicted, that place is like Lourdes with cheap beer instead of cave water.

In a business where two years is considered a good run, JJ's Lounge has survived five times that long because it's never deviated from the original formula: hearty, unvarnished blues on the cheap. While the other JJs clubs cater to different crowds, the little bar on Stevens Creek remains resolutely and unapologetically a damn good neighborhood dive.

At 11, Tom Castro, a bandleader who got his start at JJs way back in the old days, is leaning off the 2-foot-high platform stage at the front of the club, leering at five acquaintances who have just wandered in. He interrupts his rendition of an Otis Redding ballad and bellows into the mike, "Heeey, it's 11 o'clock for chrissake. Where you guys been??" That's one risk to patronizing JJ's. The club is so small the singer can jump in your face before you're two steps in the front door. Front to back, the club is about as wide as a two-car garage, just a slot with a wide space in front for the band and a wide spot in back for the pool table.

Such intimacy demands a certain decorum. Pretense and personal space are two concepts that just don't cut it when people are often packed two-to-a- barstool. Everyone from Mr. Five-Car-Garage-In-Saratoga up front with his blue blazer to Mr. I-Can-Change-A-Harley-Tire-With-My-Teeth by the pool table seems to understand this implicitly.

The only crowd not represented among the 70-odd patrons are the twentysomething club-urchins. This is serious drinking music for grown-ups. The kids would find it hopelessly earnest and lacking the proper degree of ironic self-awareness. Pity them.

The blues is a unifying experience, yet each devotee is free to worship whatever way he or she sees fit. Stick around JJ's long enough and you will probably see some uncommonly large persons dancing uncommonly well in an uncommonly small space. It's quite common. And you may see gentlemen involved in a form of deep-blues meditation known as the long-neck-Bud-trance. Do not disturb them. There are nodders. And clappers. Stompers and shouters. There is no place for self-censure in such a small room. No place, brothers and sisters, to hide one's appreciation of the blues! Say amen and full disclosure!

Castro's band proves to be a veritable cafeteria of the blues -- basic, yet versatile, with a funky edge that lends itself to Memphis soul. 'Round midnight, as the band rolls into the Rufus Thomas classic "Walking the Dog," the drummer pauses to tell a dog joke. He bombs, and Castro says to him: "Stop. You too hip for the room, man. Too hip for the room."

The moon is full and the sky is clear as I make my way home up Stevens Creek. I nail every green light between JJs and 280. I'm no longer in the dismal state. Full recovery, next exit.

JJ's Blues Lounge
3439 Stevens Creek Blvd.
San Jose
Admission: No cover to $5
Details: Music Mondays-Thursdays at 9:30 p.m.; Fridays-Sundays at 5 p.m.
(408) 243-6441

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