Smoke curls around Christmas decorations still hanging in late January inside the Hide Out, a bar at the end of a Gladstone strip mall.
The high ceiling and exposed beams do little to muffle the din of phlegmy coughs and Miller High Life-flavored chatter on this frigid night. Still, about half the crowd is transfixed by the wholesome-looking young woman tearing into a cover of B.B. King's "Something on Your Mind." A red-faced man in a puffy Mizzou jacket stands and points directly at her, midsong. He yells, "She's good!"
"I don't know if I have necessarily carved out my own niche yet, but I'm starting to get a loyal fanbase," Samantha Fish says on a Thursday afternoon in May at Hannibal's Waldo Bar on Wornall Road, where she plays weekly blues jams. The sessions, which are often standing-room-only, are led by Fish and her bandmates, drummer Danny Montero and bassist Paul Greenlease.
In a genre where legends wail scorching melodies past the age of 80, the 21-year-old Fish is still a kid. But the bubbly, slender blonde, who has been playing guitar for six years, is taking the Kansas City blues scene by the balls. Fish's sultry voice and rootsy, groove-oriented sound aren't quite Delta, Chicago or KC in style but an amalgamation, with room for Tom Waits, Cedric Burnside and Lightnin' Malcolm.
Fish first picked up the guitar at 15, cutting her teeth on Bonnie Raitt covers and cock-rock riffs.
"If I wanted to get my feet wet, I would have to learn some blues songs," she says. "I was like, 'I don't want to play the blues.' But I was a stupid-ass kid. And then I kind of fell in love with it."
Sipping iceless water, she keeps her eyes down as a regular approaches the table. The man looks like he's been taking full advantage of the $2 happy-hour beers. He seems slightly star-struck.
"Samantha Fish? I know you. God, I love your music." He burps.
Fish smiles and nods politely. "Thank you so much," she says. The man wanders off. Fish is genuinely charmed. "There's a closeness that I can really appreciate with the people I see out there. They are like friends," Fish says. "I stand around and talk to them during set breaks. I think the blues just gives back more than other types of music."
Fish and her band have spent the past year playing three to four times a week around Kansas City, promoting her debut CD, Live Bait. It was recorded and produced by Steve McBride, who manages Trampled Under Foot, Kansas City's most toasted blues act of recent years.
"I've been really close to Trampled Under Foot," Fish says of her mentor band. "They were so nice to me, letting me jam. That was how I learned how to play guitar, getting to watch them. A lot of the people in town are like that — they genuinely want to help you. It's kind of refreshing. I don't think there's a lot of that in other cities."
Observing local talent — along with watching countless hours of B.B. King and Stevie Ray Vaughan concert DVDs — has helped Fish become a gifted player of her custom-made ax, modeled after a G&L ASATClassic.
"She's a hell of an entertainer, and she's street-savvy. She's got the pipes and is quite capable of tearing the shit out of her guitar," says Brad Mallen, owner of the Blue Springs blues venue Trouser Mouse.
Gigs at Rosa's Lounge in Chicago and at BB's Jazz, Blues and Soups in St. Louis, and a vacation on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise have helped Fish build a regional following. An upcoming spot in this summer's Blues From the Top festival in Winter Park, Colorado, is set to put Fish alongside Mike Zito, Ana Popovic and Trampled Under Foot.
"Sometimes it's kind of a boys club," Fish says of the blues. But few men in town can compete with her voice. Onstage, Fish ditches her giggling youthfulness and belts out the songs, her eyes closed, a finger pointed high as she stamps one foot. "Everyone wants me to do Janis Joplin covers, which I can understand, but I steer clear of that kind of stuff," she says.
There are covers — songs by R.L. Burnside and Bobby Marchan — alongside her originals (seven so far). Fish wants to write more, and she knows there's work ahead of her. But it's about her music, not her looks. "I didn't start playing guitar because I was a young blond girl and I thought it would be a good marketing move. I started playing because I felt a calling."
After all, a marketing ploy doesn't have soul. And Fish has no shortage of that.