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The Blue Dogs return to the Richmond stage with a polished sound and a new CD.

The Persistence of Music

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The Blue Dogs may be based in Charleston, S.C., but singer Bobby Houck and the band played their earliest shows in the '80s Richmond bar scene. And now, with last summer's completion of a new CD "Letters From Round 0" at Richmond's Sound of Music studio, and a stint in a nearby Virginia farmhouse during recording, the guys feel a renewed kinship to the city.

"Talk about full circle," says 34-year-old guitarist Houck as he recalls this past summer over a recent breakfast at the 3rd Street Diner. "For the band to live here, run the streets of the Fan, eat spaghetti at Joe's ..."

Of course, the Blue Dogs, which return to Richmond again to play Alley Katz Thursday, Jan. 6, is a far more established and rocking band than the one that played Stonewall and the Shockoe Slip Café in the late '80s. Through years of personal and personnel changes, the group established a solid fan base in the Southeast, particularly in Charleston where a vibrant scene welcomed them. Through the early '90s, the Blue Dogs played primarily on weekends in Charlotte, N.C., Columbia, S.C., and Charleston while holding down day jobs to help pay the bills.

Houck taught school in Charlotte and at Woodberry Forest in Virginia and earned a masters in English from the University of Virginia. He says it was a hectic lifestyle with lots of travel time to meet the others for gigs at venues around the Southeast.

But during the past three years, the group members quit their day jobs and committed themselves to a serious run in search of the big break. They've started playing Chicago and New York venues, and their latest efforts to support "Round 0" are encouraging, Houck says. With this recent recording — the band's sixth — Houck says the band has hung onto the guitar-based sound that older fans want but has also stretched out stylistically to attract new listeners.

The group chose to record at Sound of Music and asked studio owner and Cracker frontman David Lowery to produce the project because, Houck says, they felt Lowery would understand the band's homegrown rock and country-soul mix. Houck is clearly pleased with the outcome that finds the band rolling from contemporary rock to a country blues groove to simmering, mid-tempo ballads.

In addition to band members Houck, Hank Futch, David Stewart and Greg Walker, past band members and friends contribute to "Round 0." Lowery also adds vocals and a fine electric slide guitar on the Taj Mahal-flavored "Pay the Man."

"I feel like with this record we've definitely made a big step in the right direction," Houck says.

He admits the big-time is no certainty but knows the band has come a long way from playing acoustic gigs on Broad Street in '88. Through the years, the Blue Dogs have developed a loyal regional following and Houck sums up this key to longevity in three words: "Persistence, persistence,

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