Get Tom Gary on stage, and the passion for the music pours out. He and his bandmates rip through classic blues and tight, original stuff with a jumping beat.
Away from the footlights, the resident bluesman is so laid back you can hardly stand it.
He claims to have formed his latest group, the Tom Gary Blues Band, out of "boredom," and says the foursome isn't big on a lot of rehearsal - in fact, their performance schedule is structured mainly by the agrarian calendar - bass player Don Demers farms near Truesdale.
The guys may play blues, but they don't live it. "Everybody is pretty relaxed in this band, there's no drama. We just show up and do the gig, and try to have some fun with it," Gary says.
The music takes shape rapidly - among them, the bandmates have over 100 collective years of experience on stage. All four contribute vocals with their various styles matched to favorite tunes.
Storm Lake's own blues crew will again be featured at the Cherokee Blues & Jazz Festival - one of Iowa's premier celebrations of the genre.
Catch the Tom Gary Blues Band at the Pub Crawl Friday, January 2, 9 p.m.-midnight at The Gathering Place. Admission is $10, and covers five acts that night at Corvo's, The Copper Cup, Cherokee Bowl, The Other Place and The Gathering Place.
Other Festival Events include a Jam Session Sat., Jan. 3, noon-3 p.m. at The Gathering Place, another Pub Crawl Saturday night 9-midnight; the Grand Concert Saturday night at 6:30 at the WIT Convention Center with pianist/vocalist Kelley Hunt and The Erick Hovey Band; a Brunch Buffet Sunday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. at The Gathering Place; and a Music Clinic for students on January 16 at Cherokee Middle School.
The Festival is a favorite of Gary's. "No matter how cold or snowy it is, people come out. And the great people who do this festival not only take care of the music fans, they treat the musicians just wonderfully."
In fact, the band might not exist if it wasn't for the festival.
When Gary made the move from the urban scene to come to Storm Lake to teach, the pianist/vocalist was invited to a jam at the festival. Jim Adamson, festival booster, was impressed and realized how much Gary missed performing. "He was the one who kind of hooked me up with the guys who became the band," Gary said.
They stepped to the forefront with a well-regarded concert during the last Star Spangled Spectacular, and one at the Buena Vista University Blues Concert Series, which ties in with an interim class Gary teaches on the roots of the musical genre.
The band has been together about a year and a half - a long shelf life in a genre where musicians' collaboration commonly comes and goes. "I'm pretty sure this is the longest I've ever been together with the same band," Gary says.
When he isn't performing, the bluesman teaches art at Laurens-Marathon school and is an adjunct professor of history at BVU. He is a historian of the blues, with an in-depth blog site and articles published delving such subjects as the musical activity in the African American population of Des Moines in the era of Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. He launched an internet radio station, too.
The Tom Gary Blues Band recently released its first full-length CD, "Yesterday and Today, with 15 tracks written by Gary, including local favorites like, "Sings Like an Angel," "Iowa," "Court Ave" and "Holly Golightly Blues." He says it is the culmination of 13 years of songwriting labors.
While live music is struggling in general, the blues is eternal, Gary feels.
"I guess it is the history of the music partially, and the stories it tells. Blues music isn't really sad, it actually tends to be up-tempo. Everybody has a different reason for liking it," he says. "Although people in northwest Iowa haven't had a whole lot of contact with African American culture in the past, people seem to be pretty happy with the music."
Nearly everything in popular music today has its roots in blues, he suggests - not just rock, but also modern jazz, country, even hip hop. "Cab Calloway was doing rap music in the 1930s, they just hadn't invented the name for it yet," Gary says.
The band has no huge aspirations. All members have their day jobs, and their goal isn't fame - just helping to keep their brand of music alive and local audiences nodding their heads and tapping their feet to the beat.
They would like to expand their repertoire and their performing range a bit, and probably tackle another CD project, Gary says.
"We don't have to play for a living, luckily," he says. "Personally, I need to play."
Gary is in the process of arranging his next Blues Series, and will soon announce three public concerts to be held with some of the region's top talent later in January.
A CD launch party will also be scheduled soon for the "Yesterday and Today" disk, which is available at cdbaby.com. The band will also be appearing in the Iowa Great Lakes region next month with final details of that show still being worked out.