In the history of Fresno’s music scene – the past 40 years of it, at least – there are few names you’ll hear mentioned as often, or with as much reverence, as The Blue.
You hear it in variations; it’s The Blue, The Wild Blue, or sometimes Wild Blue Yonder, depending on the context. The speaker may be talking about the nightclub (The Wild Blue), which served as the hub for live, original music in the 1980s. The club, on the one-way strip of Fulton street just off Olive avenue, was such a cornerstone in the scene, Bee writer Ken Robison gave it an obituary in his Around Town column when it closed in 1994.
The idea for The Wild Blue was based on the original Catalyst nightclub in Santa Cruz.
But they could also mean the band (Wild Blue Yonder), the members of which opened the club – with borrowed money and elbow grease – because they needed a place to play. The two are inextricably linked. The Blue served as a house band of sorts, playing its namesake venue when the place wasn’t booked, or jumping into opening slots when needed.
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This was the 1970s, and for bands in Fresno, there were few options unless you played disco or top 40 music.
“And we weren’t into that,” says Bill Bixler, who started the band and club with his brother, Jim Bixler.
Outside of the club, the band toured much of California and developed a strong fan base on the Central Coast.
They never landed that big record deal, but managed to release two studio albums. The first, “Blue Print,” released in 1978, followed by “Enthusiasm” in 1981.
“It was as good as any band out there at the time,” says Leslie Davis, a local concert promoter and longtime radio personality who will host an acoustic round table with the band Wednesday, Feb. 17, at Peeve’s Public House. Members of the Blue, as the band is now known, will play a few tunes and discuss the making of their new album, “Under the Weather.”
It is their first recording in 35 years. An official release show happens Saturday, Feb. 20, at Fulton 55.
The Blue never stopped being a band, though its members eventually moved on to other projects. Bixler did some experimental jazz and R&B and had a band called the Outpatients. Eventually he relocated to Malibu. His brother Jim had a country-style project called Appaloosa Sky with Phil Wimer and Tad Waddams, who left for Los Angeles in 1982. He later played with Sheryl Crow and cowrote on her second record (the Grammy-winning one).
“We all went off in different directions,” Bixler says.
But every decade or so, some incarnation of the band would pop up for a gig or two. In 1994, they played a final two-night stand at The Wild Blue. In 2002, they reunited for a single show at the Tower Theatre and again in 2011 for a show after the death the band’s original drummer, Dave Stewart.
“Tons of people came and it was really fun,” Bixler says.
After that, the shows picked up some. In 2013, the Blue even played a reunion at the original Wild Blue spot. It had recently reopened as a dance club. The energy of the night was palpable, Bixler says: “It was like you were there again.”
The following year, they played Fresno State’s Vintage Days to celebrate the event’s 40th anniversary. They also happened to play the first Vintage Days in 1974, opening for Muddy Waters, Bixler says.
It was after that show that the band set out to record “Under the Weather.”
While the Blue had always been a live band, those first first albums were studio projects and a bit too sanitary to really capture the essence of the band, Bixler says. For the 13 songs on “Under the Weather,” they ditched the studio and rented out the Tower Theater. They set up on stage and used room microphones to capture the ambient sound, he says. Then, they just played.
“There were no metronomes, no click tracks, none of that,” Bixler says.
He has no illusions about the future of the Blue, other than the release show and the album, which he says will be a good pickup for people who have a sentimental attachment to the band and what they do.
And that’s as it should be.
“This is a bucket list, a legacy thing.”
We kind of had to learn what the band was again.
Bill Bixler, on making a new record after 35 years
The Blue acoustic roundtable
- 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 17
- Peeve’s Public House, 1243 Fulton St.
- Free, all ages