Review: B.B.’s Jazz, Blues and Soups

Concierges are know-it-alls. Smart yet ignorant business travelers and tourists rely on a concierge’s advice on various local matters: “Can I get a historical walking tour of downtown?” “Where can I buy Umbro shorts and barbed wire?” “Is it going to be sunny next March?” “Where can I catch some great live blues?” In answering said questions, some concierges tout personal favorites. Some – although unlikely to admit it – tout those places that will benefit them monetarily. Most concierges though, taking their service jobs very seriously, tout the bare facts.

It’s quite telling that, when answering that last question, St. Louis concierges have touted one blues joint more than any other for more than a decade: B.B.’s Jazz, Blues and Soups. It’s a bare fact that B.B.’s is one of the top blues venues in the city, if not the country. Ask an STL airport hotel concierge, ask an STL cabbie, ask a blues fan in NYC, ask a blues fan in North County, ask me: B.B.’s rules. And now, these know-it-alls have more to tout, as B.B.’s just completed a major renovation, opening a second floor and “New Orleans-style” balcony, essentially doubling the seating capacity.

If the pre-renovation B.B.’s was an active blues museum peppered with vintage photos of famous bluesman, consider the post-renovation B.B.’s an even more active two-level blues cathedral, steeped in St. Louis’ rich blues heritage. The first floor saw minimal visible changes – an along-the-wall stairwell to the second floor; an expanded stage, above which is a large hole in the ceiling (more on this later); and, on the wall behind the stage, large paintings of St. Louis (and world) musical luminaries Miles Davis, Albert King and Bennie Smith keep a watchful eye on the evolution of their craft.

The first-floor space is still almost overly intimate – incredibly narrow in the rear by the bar and cluttered with four-top tables and straight-backed church pews by the stage. Longtime patrons know that while the coziness of first floor adds to the atmosphere, it often makes finding a table/standing space and staying out of the smoke from your neighbor’s Camel extremely difficult. Ownership knew this, hence the second floor and the total expansion of the B.B.’s experience.

On the fresh second floor, one is immediately struck by the nearly uninterrupted sight lines. It’s not an overly large space, but there are no columns and no strange wall angles. Best of all is the additional seating and an entirely new way to take in the act. The aforementioned hole, directly above the first-floor stage, offers what is now one of B.B.’s coolest features – balcony seating that peers down through what was a section of the floor. At a two-top table snug against the balcony’s railing, catch an uninterrupted view of mannish boys picking simple-vibrato guitar solos dripping with harmonic blasts so sad it conjures tears.

For those on the second floor but not on the rail, a large screen above the stage and another flat screen in the rear will broadcast the performance; two more flat screens enhance the view downstairs as well. Similarly, the improved sound system will broadcast the performance throughout the bar. Other improvements: new state-of-the-art lighting and new ventilation that should help clear some of B.B.’s notoriously smoky air.

Like the first floor, the second’s walls are covered with blues photos and paintings, but here there’s more memorabilia, like Oliver Sain’s sax and Tommy Bankhead’s Goya Rangemaster guitar. According to co-owner John May, the second floor will become a blues museum of sorts, with glass cases and rotating displays. Outside, the New Orleans-style balcony’s 12 marble two-tops overlook Cerre Street and Broadway, nearly peeking into the back yard of the Eugene Field House. As of late July, the balcony’s lighting was a little harsh and the sound system not perfect, but, come on, it just opened.

B.B.’s patrons, like the blues, have always been a racially and age-diverse lot. Most of the night, the crowd skews much older than at the usual nightspots – perhaps because of the younger generations’ relative disinterest in the blues genre. An older dinner crowd reigns till 10, then a younger but somewhat staid bar crowd takes over until 1 a.m., when the kids and blues diehards fill the space until the 3 a.m. closing time. Given the concierges’ love of the place and its close proximity to downtown’s tourist-heavy hotels, non-natives make up at least 25 percent of the crowd most nights. Conversation between patrons only goes down before or between a music set. Flirtation with your date is all nonverbal, usually taking place on the popular dance floor (the minimal area between the stage and front row of tables).

The beer list is extensive, offering the usual domestics and macros and hitting its sweet spot on the imports (Pilsner Urquell and Harp on tap; Duvel bottles) and crafts (Sierra Nevada bottles; many Schlaflys on tap). The wine list is short, but this is the blues – you should lament the fact your key doesn’t unlock the red house’s door over whiskey, not Merlot. B.B.’s offers much whiskey. The food menu is impeccable for a bar/music venue, slightly tweaked Creole and Cajun, available until midnight. Choose from an extensive list of appetizers, salads, beans and rice, sandwiches, burgers, pizzas, gumbos and, of course, soups.

On to the entertainment. It’s almost always world-class blues – some local, some regional, some national. (Interestingly, the “Jazz” in B.B.’s name is something of a misnomer, as jazz is rarely on the docket.) Sit-ins for the most-skilled local musicians are common, as is interaction with the audience. This month, co-owner May highly recommended The Holmes Brothers on Aug. 12, Michael Burks on Aug. 17 and Zac Harmon on Aug. 23.

BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups
700 South Broadway, St. Louis, 314..436.5222,