Contrary to many people on Earth, 2020 has been a pretty good year for the Avey Grouws Band, and it’s getting better all the time.

The Quad-Cities-based blues rock outfit (whose female lead singer lives in Decorah, Iowa) hit the top 10 on the Billboard Blues Album Chart for its debut disc; is nominated by Blues Blast Magazine for best Debut Album New Artist; was a semi-finalist in this year’s International Blues Challenge, and is the inaugural artist for a new online series presented by River Music Experience and Joy Avenue Media.

The new J.A.M. Sessions – starting 6 p.m. Friday with the Avey Grouws Band – aim to present high-quality, free livestreams of the best Quad-Cities bands, providing safe live music to our community. Tips and donations to the band help cover production costs.

Tyson Danner

The Avey Grouws Band is Chris Avey, Jeni Grouws, Bryan West, and Randy Leasman, and often with Nick Vasquez on keyboard.

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been continuing to experiment with ways to continue our mission of providing music,” RME executive director Tyson Danner said Tuesday. “There are so few opportunities for the public to hear live music right now. We’ve worked with Dustin Cobb at Joy Avenue Media for years, and he has been a great supporter of our mission. He has outfitted his studio with multiple high-quality cameras and built it out to be Covid-safe. It’s impressive.”

“We have been hesitant to overload people with too many solo acoustic sessions filmed in homes. It’s great to see those, too, but we felt that if we were going to provide something, it needed to be unique and high-quality, and filling a need locally,” Danner said. “The fact that he has a full studio setup, with professional audio mixing and multiple cameras that are pieced together in real time…that makes it stand out as something really special.

“We got to talking about how we could support each other’s efforts, and realized that we each had a piece of the puzzle: He had high-quality video and audio capabilities, and we had the staff and community reach to get the sessions out there to lots of viewers,” he said. “So we developed this collaborative production partnership.”

The Avey Grouws Band in concert (photo by Michael Rolands)

“Dustin is one of our area’s top sound engineers, and as a result we can provide top-notch live sessions to the community,” Danner said. “These aren’t livestreams from an iPhone – these are fully mixed and produced sessions. We’re focusing on local bands, giving them the chance to build their audiences and stay active when there are very few gigs. The livestreams are totally free to watch – the whole thing is supported with tips to the band from viewers.”

The new series (without a set schedule but ideally once a week) lets RME continue its mission – as it has done for months with Curbside Concerts and the current Live@Five series outdoors in the RME courtyard (through September) — providing live music, even if it’s not in-person.

“It’s another step toward building our local music scene, supporting local musicians, and connecting community members with all the talent we have here in the QC region,” Danner said. “Our goal is to keep giving members of our community the chance to tune in to local music so we can keep up the momentum in our music scene. And, we hope that these audience members will come support these bands in person when they eventually are able to.”

Coming far in over three years

The Avey Grouws Band was formed Jan. 1, 2017, after a wild New Year’s Eve party in Decorah, three hours from the Q-C. Grouws – a 46-year-old native of Eau Claire, Wis. – ran a radio station for 16 years and first met Avey (singer and guitarist) and West (drummer) at a Bettendorf blues jam in 2015.

Within a year of forming, the band won the Iowa Blues Challenge and played its first IBC (sponsored by the Blues Foundation) in Memphis, Tenn., in January 2018. It also was back for the worldwide competition this past January, both times earning semi-finalist spot – in the top 40 of 250 bands. The guys in the band had participated in the IBC many times before.

The Avey Grouws Band is Randy Leasman, left, Jeni Grouws, Bryan West and Chris Avey (photo by Darren Schultz)

“It was amazing to see people coming in from all across the globe, with one purpose – to make some really great music,” Grouws said Monday, noting it’s not just about trying to win. “If you look at it in a different way – you’re there to make connections, show people what you’ve got, and meet and become music friends with people from all across the globe, then the competition and being in Memphis takes on a whole different level.

“We’re there to connect and build and form new relationships,” she said. “If you think of it that way, rather than, you’re there to win, then you get a whole lot more out of the event.”

Avey and Grouws literally share lead vocals and songwriting duties. They received a standing ovation at the end of their 2020 IBC performance.

“We learned a lot and made really good connections, and that’s what we needed,” Grouws said.

After the first time they won Iowa Blues Challenge in 2018, the band got free recording time Junior’s Motel in Otho, Iowa, for an EP. The second win, they haven’t been able to use the recording time because of the pandemic, but in between they recorded their first full-length album, “The Devil May Care,” at Catamount in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

It was released internationally March 20, and they had big plans for an album release party and tour. The Covid-19 pandemic completely obliterated their 2020 tour schedule.

“We understand why; it absolutely makes sense, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt,” Grouws said. “Because all our touring was completely canceled and because of our concerns with what’s happening with the pandemic, we’ve stayed pretty quiet in terms of being out in public.”

Last weekend, they did their first live show back as a full band and will do one this Sunday in Kellogg, Iowa, two hours west of the Q-C.

“We’re anxious,” she said. “We know we have a responsibility as musicians, that if we are bringing people together, we are doing so in a responsible way. We also are trying to find ways to continue an income and continue making music.”

The last live show they did before shutdown was March 13 in Prairie Du Chien, Wis.

On Aug. 29, they returned as a band in the Q-C outside the Meat Market in Davenport. “They really invested to have us there, to make sure people brought their lawn chairs, sat down and spread out,” Grouws said. “It was an incredibly successful evening. We played for four hours. We went crazy, we had a good time.”

Chris Avey with Jeni Grouws and Bryan West

On Aug. 30, Grouws, Avey and West went to Iowa City to join the 2018 International Blues Challenge solo winner, Kevin Burt, from Iowa City, to perform outside at Big Grove restaurant. “Two live shows this past weekend; it was very strange,” she said. “They had very spaced out tables, so it made us feel comfortable.”

“We don’t want anyone to die because we played music,” Grouws said. She’s comfortable playing with her bandmates, since the guys are super-cautious. Of Avey, she said: “This is the first time in his life that being a potential hypochondriac has been beneficial to all of us, ‘cause they don’t go anywhere.”

Nick stays home with his newborn baby and Randy is just as concerned. “We have a rule – when we’re talking to other people, we’re distanced and wear our masks, and ask other people when they come up to us to wear masks. We’re not trying to be insulting, we’re trying to be safe.”

Since March 20, they have been doing live streams as a trio from Brian and Chris’ Bettendorf apartment Fridays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at noon.

“We’re excited about this Friday, with Joy Avenue Media – Dustin and the RME – because it means all of us are getting together, to be together in one room, all five of us,” Grouws said. “Dustin is on the other side, in an entirely different room, listening to us, managing the sound, and we get to stream live Friday as a full band.”

Cobb “has been very cautious during the pandemic,” she said. “He makes sure when we come over, he keeps his distance for sure.”

Grouws quit her radio station job last September to do music full-time, after having worked as manager of KDEC-AM and FM in Decorah, formerly owned by her parents, for 16 years.

Of “The Devil May Care” (all originals), DownBeat magazine wrote: “Avey Grouws Band channels its pent-up enthusiasm and not slight musical ability toward an individuated brand of blues rock that recommends its first album.” The review said Jeni’s “limber voice rings with conviction, ratcheting up intensity on original tunes sans artifice.”

The cover of “The Devil May Care”

“Our album has had great success, because of the people who have supported us from the beginning,” Grouws said. “We hit the Billboard Blues Album chart, which is unheard of.”

The Blues Blast nomination in July was a total surprise, she said.

“When I was looking at becoming a musician, I was looking at, what are the goalposts I want to see as a musician, that I want to know I’m making the kind of steps we need to make as a band, to make sure we’re in the right direction?” Grouws said. “Blues Blast Music Awards, they were one of the awards I would look at to see who are the other women in blues, the other people making a name for themselves in music, and what are they landing on that shows growth?”

“I had no idea we would do it the first year, so the fact we’re up there for New Artist Debut Album, for me, is giant,” she said. “What people don’t understand, we do want fans to vote, but we were nominated by industry people. It wasn’t fan nominated. Enough people in the industry heard enough about us that they put us into that category. For me, that’s pretty rewarding.”

The band did a Kickstarter campaign to hire a Memphis publicist, raising over $5,000 online. People must vote for the Blues Blast awards by Saturday.

“The problem we have is that we’re blues-influenced, but we really don’t call ourselves a blues band,” Grouws said. “We are a roots rock band – our roots come from blues and country and folk and rock. When you listen to our album, some blues purists don’t love it because for them, it doesn’t hold what is the old tradition of the way blues should be. I understand what they’re feeling, but I don’t have to agree with it.

“We’re just trying to make good music,” she said. “Blues is a good category for us, but we’re not tying ourselves down by saying we’re only this one thing.”

Looking for new ways to connect

“I think in some strange way, I would never want to go through this pandemic again,” Grouws said. “But things have happened during this time that would not have happened if life were normal. Because people have been stuck at home and they’re looking for new ways to connect with humans and to find relationships.

“So our streams every week, they’re crazy,” she said. “People are watching consistently, from Germany, Wales, and Australia. Do you know what time it is in Wales when we go live at 6 o’clock on Fridays? Like 1 in the morning. They’re staying up to see us, because globally they’re bored too.”

They love to see the Facebook comments as they’re playing, but miss the thrill of in-person audiences.

“There are a lot of musicians putting out live streams, in a perfect studio and playing one or two songs, and they sound amazing,” Grouws said. “That is not for us. We have decided, we’re not just that kind of band. We’re a band that likes to interact with our audience, even if that means sometimes we totally suck it.”

Getting ready for an Avey Grouws livestream (photo by Ed Kempf)

“In some ways, the live stream is nice because we can see what they’re saying, but it will never make up for what it’s like to be in front of an audience of people that are smiling, or clapping, or showing a response of some sort,” she said. “The depth of human emotion comes out in a concert – sometimes you make people cry, sometimes you make people laugh and dance.”

“That’s why live music is so valuable – we can never bottle up and recreate what happens between an audience and a musician,” Grouws said. “It’s magic; it’s special.”

She and her husband David (who runs the student radio station at Luther College) have three daughters – ages 18, 17, and 15.

She doesn’t regret leaving the Decorah station, even though she’s left on her own to make a living during very challenging times.

“I wake up almost every day so grateful that I am, number one, doing what I love, and number two, with my family,” she said. “I’m going after something I want, and for my daughters to see it’s OK for a woman to do that is really cool.”

The band mostly does originals, with a few popular covers thrown in live shows. The new album hit the top 20 in the Roots Music Report for Top Contemporary Blues Album, and both “Come and Get this Love” and “The Devil May Care” are semi-finalists in the 2020 UnsignedOnly songwriting competition. Winners yet to be announced.

“Part of what we like about music is the ability to create,” Grouws said, noting she mainly writes the lyrics based on Avey’s music.

The pandemic (with its endless time for isolation) has not been very productive writing-wise, she said. “You can’t just tell yourself to feel inspired and creative,” Grouws said. “I have been 100 percent stuck for almost all this pandemic.”

After one night, when she couldn’t sleep, as she was driving and listening to a new Chris song, it just hit her. That’s a new song called “Daylight,” that will be on the next record they’re working on now. “It’s literally about daylight, that feeling of the stress and concern and fear around me, and I’m wondering when we’re gonna come down from this. It’s such a beautiful, positive song. I sing it to myself when I’m feeling stressed. I’m excited for it to be on an album.”

“I feel like I’m living that stress and I need to put something out in the world now,” Grouws said.

“When I write songs, that doesn’t mean those things happened to me,” she said. “They do come from an understanding of the collective experience.”

The Q-C band The Velies after playing last weekend’s Live@Five at RME.

She’s lived in Marshalltown, Iowa, went to high school in Fargo, N.D., and majored in religious studies at University of Iowa (where she met her husband).

“I learned how to write at the University of Iowa, how to be a better writer,” Grouws said. “I didn’t know I would apply it to music.”

The band appreciates tips of any amount, she said. “We rely on the tips, and even a dollar or two makes a difference.”

Danner said the revamped two-month Live@Five sessions outside the RME at 2nd and Main streets have been going very well.

“Audience members have been very respectful about using our social-distancing marking system and wearing masks,” he said. “The layout allows people to set their own comfort level. The attendance has been smaller than most years, of course, due to the capacity restriction.

“But everyone’s having a great time enjoying the local bands. The audiences have been very appreciative to have a live music opportunity that is considerate of the health concerns.”

The remaining concerts will be:

Sept. 4: Hal Reed & Mississippi Journey
Sept. 11: The Bobby Ray Bunch
Sept. 18: John Resch & Doggin’ Out
Sept. 25: The Dawn

You can tune in to JAM Sessions at www.facebook.com/Joy-Avenue-Media-358862057466026.

The next one will be Sunday, Sept. 6 at 5 p.m. with Jenny Lynn Stacy (who calls herself “blue trash”). The streams will be live on the Joy Avenue Media Facebook page, and will be available on YouTube afterwards.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.