Pulling up to the Emergency Room Lounge on Spring Mountain and Decatur around eight o'clock Saturday night, the first thing you notice are the motorcycles. Dozens of bikes populate a roped-off area to the side of the building, an early clue to what is going on inside—a farewell to the Sand Dollar Blues Lounge, the recently closed bar that for 15 years was the premier home of the blues in Las Vegas.
Inside, some of the crowd are clad in leather from head to toe; others look like they're made of leather from head to toe. There's a warning posted on the door against gang colors and insignias, and despite the presence of a few T-shirts advertising the infamous Laughlin River Run, the atmosphere is friendly and upbeat. This is clearly a wake, not a funeral, a celebration of everything that made the Sand Dollar what it was.
Tops on that list is John Earl and the Boogieman Band, led by Sand Dollar founder and local blues icon John Earl Williams. They're on stage, running through "Crossroads," dedicated to Biker Bill and Wheelchair Bob. Biker dudes and chicks fill the dance floor, grooving to the band's thick sound. Stormy Davis takes to the stage to sing "Stormy Monday" and the bikers start to slow-dance. "From a woman's point of view, when the guys were letting me into the blues world, if you will, that was cool," Davis says afterward, underscoring the tolerance the bar was known to foster.
Williams' wife, Shirley, who managed the club for almost a decade, echoes Davis' sentiments. "It was a home for everybody, and the women who came down on their own felt safe, because nobody was hassled, and the police liked us because there were very few fights," she says later, standing beside her husband outside. Getting outside was difficult for Williams, swarmed by admirers on his way from the stage.
"My favorite memory would be that we realized we had so much support from the local community," Williams says. Over the years, the blues scene grew from just Williams' own Boogieman Band to more than a dozen groups that now regularly play around town, most of which got their start at the Sand Dollar. But even with the Sand Dollar gone, places like the Emergency Room will keep the Vegas blues alive; judging by the evening's turnout, it's a no-brainer.
The Boogieman Band goes off a little after 9 and Brian Bissell and Las Vagrants get ready to go up next. There are at least four more acts to come and the celebration will go late into the night. Despite the loss of a spiritual home, it's clear the blues will go on for a long time.