CHICAGO — THERE'S a coat rack on the dance floor, another band's equipment crowds the stage, and a hockey game flickers overhead on a row of television sets.
Madison Square Garden, it ain't.
But the Loose Cannons, a little-known blues band in this city of blues legends, doesn't seem to mind. In fact, it's tickled to have this downtown gig.
Kicking off a 10-song set with the hard-driving ditty: ``Messin' With the Kid,'' the Cannons hit full stride with a soulful rendition of ``Honey Hush,'' that gets the audience of about 70 at Chicago's Cue Club bopping and jiving.
Close your eyes now, and you could almost be in Madison Square Garden.
The blues is picking up steam and conquering new audiences. Chicago guitarist Buddy Guy's latest release sold close to 250,000 copies, making it - according to Billboard Magazine - one of the most successful modern blues releases.
Nationwide, record stores are expanding their blues sections, and rocker Eric Clapton's bluesy compact disc, ``From The Cradle,'' topped the charts last year shortly after its release.
According to the Cannons, more clubs in the city, and especially in the suburbs, are converting from a pop or rock format to blues. For the Cannons, that means more opportunities to play the music they love best, and to start catching the attention of fans across Chicagoland.
With the exception of keyboard player Don Freund and lead guitarist and vocalist Greg Crask, the band's lineup has turned over three times in its five-year history.
Together with drummer Rob Davis and bassist Eyal Maor, the Cannons practice once or twice a week if they have a gig, and play on weekends. In all, the band plays about 20 hours a week; the members all have day jobs.
Drummer Davis, a schoolteacher by day, is the youngest of the new Cannons. He says that since he moved to Chicago he has found plenty of opportunities to play the blues because of a tradition of mentorship: Older blues musicians, he explains, usually seek young ones to accompany them - an age-old practice that keeps the idiom alive.
But the face of the blues is changing, Davis says. While the best players, like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, are black, most of the blues' surging new audience is white, as are most of its young players.
Davis, the only black member of the Cannons, says he is becoming a rarity as most of today's talented black musicians gravitate to rap and hip-hop.
According to Crask, a software designer, most young black musicians avoid the blues ``because it's like listening to what your parents listened to. It would be like me getting really into Frank Sinatra.''
Freund adds that it's ``next to impossible'' for a white blues band to get a recording contract unless they have at least a black front man. Most of this, he says, is driven by audience prejudices.
``When tourists come to Chicago to see a big blues show, they don't want to see a bunch of white guys on the stage,'' Freund contends. ``They don't think it's authentic.''
To get the gig at the Cue Club, Davis says he started making calls and dropping by to talk to the manager in August. To get the best bookings, he says, a band has to develop a following. ``It basically doesn't matter how good you are,'' he says, ``all club owners care about is the gate.''
Crask says the Cannons's next step would be to get picked up by a corporate sponsor, or catch the attention of one of the independent blues labels, like Chicago's legendary Alligator Records.
Yet Crask says that it's especially difficult for blues bands to make it, because of the nature of the music. Blues, he says, loses some of its appeal unless it's played in a small club where the audience can get close to the performers.
Bass player Maor, who works for a publishing company, adds that listening to recorded blues also takes away from the experience because blues musicians like to play off the audience. ``It's more of a real-time, interactive style of music,'' he says.
Jackie Beard, director of the performance program at Boston's Berklee College of Music, calls blues ``the folk art of the Americas.'' He says the 12-bar harmonic setting and the lyric storytelling that characterize the blues show up in all musical genres: rock, pop, country, gospel, and even rap.
``The blues is timeless,'' Beard says. ``It's an expression of the human condition that touches people. I get students from Turkey and Japan, who, if they have any sense of the history of Western music, say `Teach me how to play the blues.' '' The Loose Cannons say they've all dabbled in other styles, but they'll always come back to the blues, even if they never make it big.
It's 2 a.m. now, and the Cue Club is closing. The manager hands Davis the band's share of the take: $40. Davis stuffs the bills into his jeans pocket and smiles. ``Perfect,'' he says. ``That should pay for gas to the next show.''