February 21, 2014

Modesto's 'Millionaires' blues act opens up for its hero

The local winners of the open for B.B. King contest, members of the Poorhouse Millionaires, have a strong connection with the area’s blues scene.

Modesto’s Poorhouse Millionaires won the contest to open for B.B. King, but frontman Earl Matthews thinks it’s the area’s blues scene that’s the big winner.

“I don’t view art as a competition,” said Matthews, who is known on stage as Big Earl. “Everyone (who entered the contest) are people I have played music with around here and shared the stage with. I see them all as peers.”

The Poorhouse Millionaires was among 15 local acoustic blues acts who entered The Bee and the Gallo Center for the Arts’ “Open for a Legend” contest. The winners were selected from the finalists by King’s management after more than 1,700 votes were cast online.

Matthews’ acoustic four-man group has been playing around town for four years, but if its lineup looks familiar it’s because most of the members have also played in the electric blues band Big Earl and the Cryin’ Shame for nearly twice as long. Matthews and Poorhouse bandmates Eli Lester on guitar, Randall Niemann on bass and Nathan Ignacio on harmonica, drums and guitar created the smaller group to be more flexible. Acoustic bands are often a better fit for more places and occasions than full electric groups with all their big amps and other equipment.

The Poorhouse Millionaires play blues with rootsy folk and country sprinkled in. The quartet took home the Modesto Area Music Association Award for Best Blues Band in 2012. That year, the group released its first (and so far only) album of all-original material, “Prevention Intervention.” The group will play some selections off that CD during its 20-minute opening set Tuesday at the Gallo Center.

Matthews said King has long been one of his musical heroes. The 37-year-old Modesto native has played in blues bands since he was a teenager and has respected King’s work for just as long.

“There really is no one in blues that is a bigger name than (King),” Matthews said. “There are a few seminal people in the blues that did things and changed things and made stuff happen. But B.B. King is the biggest blues artist in the history of blues. This is a chance to open for a hero of myself and pretty much anyone who is a fan of blues music.”

Matthews said he hopes excitement from both the contest and King’s appearance helps highlight Modesto’s blues music scene. “There are definitely some good blues bands around,” Matthews said. “There’s a crowd here, too. The tough thing is we just don’t have a venue that is the home of the blues here in Modesto on a regular basis, which I wish we did.”

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