The Blue Olives Are Back … Tonight!

The Blue Olives are back, rocking the Harmony Bar with their signature brand of blues, funk and pop. The band is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and we asked founder, guitarist and vocalist Dave Turner to reflect on then and now.

The band is twenty years old now. What does that feel like? It’s ironic because today one of my children turned twenty so it puts it into perspective. We started as a three-piece band. I had come off of the idea of playing in bands and bars. I was getting married. I was opening a recording studio. Then we played at a bar in Janesville, passed around the tip jar and it came back with $350. I noticed a jar of olives at the bar, and I went back to a comedy skit by George Carlin about blue foods. Twenty years later I’m going, wow, I can’t believe I named the band The Blue Olives.

So what’s the band’s music like today? We’ve been described as loose enough to be different and exciting but structured enough to put something professional together every night. We’re spontaneous but also composition oriented. We jokingly call it spontaneous composition! Now we do our own rendition of songs. It’s vastly different because we just do them as if they’re ours. So we get away from that expectation thing. We try to make things ours that way.

But you have a lot of original music, too. Between the band’s solo stuff that we perform and our originals, there is eight CDs worth.

It’s been a while since you’ve played at the Harmony. It’s nice to go back to a Madison music landmark. It’s a great place to play so we’re happy to be back there.

So what can we expect this weekend? It’ll be more conducive to the moment and the crowd. We played in Illinois last weekend. We had a great crowd for a Sunday afternoon, but they were more of a passive, sit and watch crowd. But if we can get people dancing and it’s a dancing crowd, then we try to push that.

What’s your gig schedule like these days? Our average is about 160 shows a year for the last twenty years. To put it into perspective, I’ve seen band members more than I’ve seen now- ex-wives or family. These folks are family to me now. Last night, we took a little movie singing “Happy Birthday” to my son, and the whole crowd got up and jumped up and down. That made his day to have his band family sing happy birthday to him.

Have the band members been with you for most of your twenty years? The bass player Johnny Payne and I have been together for sixteen or seventeen years now. I stole him from a band with his own name in it. I talked him into coming up to Wisconsin out of Chicagoland. Anton Seda, the trombone player, has the same longevity. Joan Herzing on saxophone and vocals has to be close to ten years in by now. The mighty Joe White on drums is the youngest in Blue Olive years.

We’ve had timeframes when we’ve had full time musicians—times when I was doing all the booking and sound. I own a recording studio and a production company. We were up to a ten-piece band at one point. Trying to babysit all those folks, all the logistics—it was a pretty full-time job. Now everyone has other outlying forms of income but they’re flexible. There are no delusions of grandeur here. We just love what we do!

What are some of your favorite venues—you’ve played the House of Blues in Chicago, for instance? House of Blues is always a fun gig. Any time you’re opening for somebody that’s better than you are—or you perceive them to be better—those are the best gigs. Music is a language. Playing in front of large, enthusiastic crowds or with other musicians who are really good, the enjoyment is endless out of that.

There are great music venues that are so much fun to play and we want to hang on to those. Everybody in my band is a musician from beyond the physical gratuity and money. It’s part of their soul. This group has chemistry and we would be doing this either way, privately or publicly.

So you do private functions, like weddings? I hate weddings. Nothing will suck the creative energy out of you like a wedding. Once in a while you run into some cool ones. They pay the bills so we do a couple a year.

How did you get into music? My parents. My family was very musical. My mother was an Oberlin College graduate in classical music in harp and piano. I think it was somewhere around first grade when my parents sat me down and said, “You have to play an instrument but you can pick it.” I picked up the trombone. I remember playing an hour a day before and after school from second grade on. In seventh grade I picked up the guitar and started teaching myself how to play.

Johnny Payne has more innate talent, more internal, born-into-him talent than anyone I’ve ever met in my life. And Todd Phipps—I often joke that I’m not sure how he puts pants on in the morning but he plays a mean keyboard. His musicality is off the charts.

Catch the Blue Olives live at the Harmony Bar this Saturday, November 8, 9:45 p.m. $7 cover.