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Best Blues Band: The Blues Orphans

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You can never be sure what you're going to get at a Blues Orphans show. The group calls itself a blues band, but it jumps from genre to genre without apology. On any given night, the Blues Orphans might perform a polka with rap lyrics borrowed from DMX or 50 Cent; their rap version of Roger Miller's "King of the Road" is another standout — cutting-edge, yet classic.

Harmonica player Andy Gabig characterizes the Blues Orphans as "straight-up American music." Their sound ranges from traditional old-school blues, bluegrass, and country and western to hip hop, rap and urban honky-tonk.

"We really play in that jam-band vein," Gabig explains. It's not unusual for the Blues Orphans, who are listed in The Jazz and Blues Lover's Guide to the U.S. , to play one four-hour set … and if the groove is right, they'll ride it all night long.

Andy and his older brother Bobby grew up in a musical family: Their grandfather and uncles played country and western and Irish music. The brothers have been scholars and players of music all their lives. As befits their diverse tastes, they've sopped up the blues in the Windy City and hung out in the punk clubs of New York to feed on the sounds of the Sex Pistols. The band has performed in the streets of San Francisco, Montreal and New Orleans.

Their mode of transportation to these cities was often rail, and Bobby and Andy would play music the entire way. In 1983, the brothers settled once again in Pittsburgh, and their cousin Roy "Bones" Fitzpatrick joined the band.

The streets of Pittsburgh haven't been as kind. "When we played on the streets here, people would walk by and tell us to get a job," Andy says.

"There isn't any kind of street-music scene here," Bobby agrees.

But the band tries not to take such setbacks, or themselves, too seriously. As Bobby Gabig says, "There's no market for old, bald-white-guy rap and blues. We're like the birds in the trees. We just sing."

The trio didn't really have a name during its early years. One night in the late 1970s, a bar patron called them "just a couple of blues orphans," and the name stuck.

The Blues Orphans have been bringing their incredibly diverse sounds to the people since 1974. Though the line-up has changed and grown, it currently includes: Dave Yoho (drums); Andy Gabig (harmonica, backing vocals); Fitzpatrick (electric bass); Nelson Harrison (trombone); Bobby Gabig (guitar, vocals); Mark Custer (trumpet); and Joe Briggs (upright bass).

Band members bring diverse résumés of their own. Harrison's credentials include stints with the Count Basie Orchestra and the Boilermaker Jazz Band; he's a current member of the Roger Humphries Big Band and the Pittsburgh Jazz All Stars. Yoho has headed many rock and reggae bands; when not jamming with the Blues Orphans, he leads his own band, The Heard. Custer is a classically trained trumpeter and has been a member of the River City Brass Band for 17 years. Briggs studied bass in college and has played music ranging from bluegrass and jazz to classical and Latin.

On any given night, various blues and jazz professionals sit in. The Orphans have welcomed locals like Chizmo Charles, and played alongside national artists like Sugar Blue and Big Wheeler.

In all, the Blues Orphans have recorded and released three albums, the most recent a 2005 record in which the Gabig brothers and Fitzpatrick played as a trio calling themselves The Blue Opry Brothers. The album, Corn Creek Travesty, is a blend of country and Western and Irish music compiled as a tribute to their musical grandfather, Leo Fitzpatrick.

Next year, the Orphans head back into the studio to record a new album. But in the meantime you can see for yourself what the hype is all about. The Blues Orphans trio plays next on Fri., Dec. 15, at the Affogato Coffee House, in Bellevue.

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