A giant crawfish clings to the wall between a guitar and a trombone, looking somewhat dazed by the reflections from the disco ball that hangs over the dance floor near the stage. A long strip of corrugated tin that looks like a rub-board laid on its side adorns the front of the bar. Along the walls, posters for upcoming attractions vie for space with vintage posters celebrating Louisiana culture. On the small wooden square of dance floor, a sweaty group of locals is doing everything from the boogaloo to the twist to the shag while the band bangs away with their backsides to the front window, causing several near collisions from drive-by gawkers trying to swerve up on the sidewalk to check out the proceedings.
It's business as usual at the Blue Bayou, Hillsborough's newest and funkiest nightclub. Owner Gary Lee, a Louisiana native, says he wanted to capture the feel of a South Louisiana club with a warm atmosphere and a focus on the music. "I wanted to make sure we had a good stage, and lights and sound system set up, and just wanted the club to be about the music itself," says Lee. "I think that way the musicians appreciate it, and you get a lot of energy, and you get people that come in to hear the music. And when they show their appreciation, the band gets that feedback, and it gives 'em even more energy, so it kinda feeds on itself."
The feeding frenzy is apparent on any weekend evening, when the club is packed with locals who have come to hear Mel Melton's blend of Zydeco and blues or check out other locals like Cool John Ferguson and national acts like Paul Rishell and Annie Raines, an acclaimed blues duo who performed and conducted a workshop at the club recently.
There's live music almost every night and usually a cover charge only on Friday and Saturday. The Blue Bayou is a private club, which allows it to serve liquor, and you get a dollar off the entry fee if you join.
The music is a 60-40 split in favor of blues. "The other 40 percent maybe can be some R&B, maybe a little bit of classic rock, things that people like to dance to," Lee said. "I like to see people dancing and having a good time, and sometimes it's hard to dance to a straight up blues band, so you like to have them throw in a little bit of boogie and a little bit or R&B and stuff like that." He says he's had a rockabilly band there, but doesn't think he'd ever have any kind of new country on the premises. Heavy metal is also out, he said.
Lee, a former computer engineer, readily admits to not having any previous experience running a club. He got his start in July 2002 after getting laid off from a tech job when the dot.com bubble burst.
"We live out here in Hillsborough, and one of the things we noticed about Hillsborough was that it was a neat little town, but it's too bad it doesn't have any nightlife--a couple of restaurants, but there's no clubs, no real live music venues," Lee says. "So I've always been a fan of blues and Louisiana style music, Zydeco and Cajun music and stuff like that. We had an opportunity, we found out that a building was vacant right in downtown Hillsborough, and looked at it and thought it might be a good place to open a club. We decided we might give that a shot, because there wasn't really any work in the high tech industry at that time."
Lee started out cold, going to clubs and looking at bands. "We just thought we'd start off with local stuff and then try to keep to keep the quality up. We just started feeling our way through." Lee, a Shreveport native who worked all over the Louisiana as a welder after high school, wanted to develop the Louisiana theme and bring in some Zydeco.
"I got to hear a lot of the local music and did my graduate research in clubs down there," he laughs. He credits local Zydeco favorite Mel Melton with being a lot of help, "because he knows some of those guys--he's played with some of the best down there.
Though the club focuses on local acts, Lee says he wants to add more national acts to the mix. His goal is to bring in two national acts a month, but right now he has a poultry problem. "It's the old chicken and the egg thing. Do you get the money to bring in national acts or do the get the national acts to bring in the money?" But since the area is located in a major tour zone for bands traveling the East coast circuit, he has the opportunity to get a better deal on some national entertainers on off nights.
Lee's also shown a willingness to shake up his mix a bit as well to attract a more diverse crowd. "I want to do some reggae, I want to do some Latin music, not necessarily just Salsa, but some Latin music. We've had Memphis, the band, there and they draw a younger crowd than what lot of the blues groups do." He also wants to try more rock-oriented groups to try to draw or at least introduce the club to a little bit younger crowd as well.
But his most difficult problem right now is convincing first time visitors that he's not way out in the boonies. "I think there's a lot of people in Chapel Hill who haven't checked us out yet because they perceive Hillsborough to be out in the wilderness when really it's not, it's an easy drive," Lee said. "It's pretty easy to find. We're about 10, 15 minutes from Chapel Hill, and it's a straight shot right off the Interstate.
For those who aren't good with directions, there's an easier way to find The Blue Bayou. Just go to downtown Hillsborough and follow your ears to the place where people are dancing in the street or wiggling rhythmically with their noses pressed up against the window waiting to get inside the Blue Bayou and let the good times roll.
The Blue Bayou Club is located 106 S. Churton St. Hillsborough, N.C. Call 919-732-2555, or at www.bluebayouclub.com