A common misperception about blues music is that the music is all sad. On the contrary, blues can be celebratory, and the genre often includes detailed ballads about life, love, and lust.
Far from simply background music, the acoustic blues duo Two for the Road is now providing diners and those just in for a drink at Kafe Kabul — the Afghani-themed restaurant inside Rats Restaurant at Grounds for Sculpture in Hamilton — with some much-needed relief to cure those mid-winter, um, blues. “Blue Tuesdays” takes place from 5 to 11 p.m., Tuesdays through March 14, with a limited bar menu and drink specials offered from 5:30 to 10 p.m.
On one recent warm Tuesday evening , Two for the Road — Bob Neuberger and Ken Butler — entertained the crowd with guitar, vocals, and harmonica. The repertoire was wide-ranging and eclectic and by no means straight-ahead blues. The tunes included Bob Dylan’s “One More Weekend,” County Joe and the Fish’s “Going Up the Country,” James Taylor’s “Steamroller Blues,” and several selections from pop-blues star Keb’ Mo.’ The duo plays lighter blues fare, and even their takes on classic blues from icons like Robert Johnson evoke a lighter shade of the music.
“Ken and I have been working together for two years now,” says veteran guitarist and singer Neuberger, 56, who lives in Woodbury, not far from his harmonica-playing partner Butler in Mantua. Neuberger has a long and varied background as a guitarist with a procession of blues and blues-rock and jazz bands going back to the mid-1960s.
Neuberger was raised in the Camden County town of Audubon. His father worked as a master machinist and his mother worked for a printing company. “I’ve been playing music since I was about five,” he says, “and here and there between other things that I would need to sustain myself and my family. I always loved the blues and would go to record stores as a kid and buy things by Muddy Waters, Bo Didley, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Howlin’ Wolf.
“I started out playing violin, but it was such an atrocity in the neighborhood that I later switched over to guitar after working with a baritone ukulele for some time,” he says, adding that as a six-year old, his relatives found him the smallest baritone uke they could, so it would fit properly in his arms and hands. “My parents were not particularly gifted with any instruments, but they encouraged me.”
As a teenager Neuberger became involved in many electric rock and blues-rock bands. He graduated from high school in Audubon in 1967 and still has the original receipt for the first guitar he bought at a Sam Goody shop in Philadelphia. “I got to open at concerts by some really big people, including like Spirit, Chicago, Janis Joplin, and Procul Harem. I had a really neat stint at a place in Glassboro called the Kaleidoscope, where I got to sit back stage with [Chicago blues guitarist] Buddy Guy. Now, that’s another goal in my life, is to find him and thank him, because he was very encouraging to me and showed me anything I wanted to know on the guitar. I really got to pick his brain.”
Neuberger and Butler found the Blues Tuesdays gig via StarChase Entertainment, an agency in Trenton, who referred them to Anthony Accardo, general manager of Rats Restaurant. “I was kind of dubious about this to start with, because there’s only so much you can do with two musicans,” Neuberger says, “but so far things have been going well.
“People often ask me, ‘What kind of music do you like?’ and I always say, ‘The kind that pays bills.’” Aside from the money he earns from shows, Neuberger also teaches guitar out of his home in Woodbury. “When you’re doing music fulltime, you become a hired gun, so it’s better to not have all your eggs in one basket as a musician,” he says, noting he has played in rock bands, jazz combos, and wedding bands.
Harmonica player and singer Ken Butler says he took up the harmonica as a teenager. “It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I began singing as well. I was kind of shy. I was in a couple of bands, but some time later I joined another guy who had just had a throat operation and couldn’t sing, so I went out and started singing for him.”
Together, Two for the Road create an eclectic mix of music that includes classic blues like Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” but also some pop tunes from the likes of Van Morrison, Dylan, and other 1960s icons.
Jeff Carlson, a sommelier and manager at the Rats Restaurant complex, which has five private dining rooms, notes the Sunday jazz brunches with John Bianculli and other area jazz musicians have been enough of a success that he and Accardo have continued them, adding in the Tuesday night blues series.
Carlson says the music from Bianculli and other jazz groups that frequent Rats can be piped throughout the complex. The wood-lined walls and the preponderance of solid wood in Kafe Kabul and the restaurant makes the place an ideal listening room. Rats Restaurant at the Grounds for Sculpture opened in January, 2000, while Kafe Kabul opened in 2001, influenced by the 1942 classic film “Casablanca.”
The menu includes appetizers such as plate of assorted tapas ($14), fried olives ($6), poutines (French fries with cheese and gravy) ($6), and pate maison ($8). Salads include salad frisee aux lardon ($10), and roast beetroot salad with walnuts, endive, and Gorgonzola ($4). Main courses include Cuban sandwich with pulled pork, ham, pickes, and cheese with French fries or salad ($13), fall squash risotto ($14), and salmon with Puy lentils and a whole grain mustard sauce ($16). Desserts include Queen of Sheba cake ($8), pink grapefruit meringue pie ($6), and baked apple “Grand Mere” ($6).
Carlson formerly ran a jazz club, Sambuca Jazz Cafe, in Dallas, for 15 years, and he also helped the chain expand into other cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Denver. “In Dallas we did everything from local acts to national acts,” he says, adding that he got to know nationally-recognized jazz musicians like Chuck Mangione, Branford Marsalis, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Jeff Lorber, through booking them into the club in Dallas. Carlson says Rats’ management is thinking about expanding Grounds for Sculpture’s musical events to include some more national acts in the near future. “Eventually, we would like to be able to do bigger shows where, perhaps with an amphitheater, we could bring in people like Chuck Mangione or Jeff Lorber, as quite a few of these people have become friends of mine.”
Two for the Road, Tuesdays through March 14, 7 to 10 p.m. Kafe Kabul, Rats Restaurant, Grounds for Sculpture, 18 Fairgrounds Road, Hamilton. 609-584-7800.