Oct 20, 2014

Bar-flys, Broken Strings, and The Best Of 'em

"I've seen'em... all of'em... right here," the boulder of a man never closed his mouth. When he wasn't talking he was breathing, but always a big open hole for words to come out and beer to go in. 

His lips were too thin to be seen under his two day salt and pepper. At once mesmerizing and hard to look at. Three thick busted fingers pushed against the bar with every one of his words, "I didn't even hav'ta leave... I live," his eyes seemed to drift apart like they couldn't decide where to look as he pointed first to the door then to the back wall, "I live, down the street... Just walk here and see the best, best shows, you could imagine... the best. Ya ever play somewhere like this 'ene?"
I didn't know what to tell him... I had, I mean I've played historic places, I've played bigger places, I've played nicer looking places, and smaller, uglier ones too. It was another stop. But you can't break a guys story like that, you just can't. He stands his life on his stories, we all do.

"...never man. This place is pretty great. Should be a good show."
"No, 'ene," I don't know if it was the beer or just the fact that he couldn't pronounce Rene completely, but it was kinda endearing, "this place is the best."

I couldn't imagine the best shows being in Minneapolis. Nothing against the city, just never imagined it. 
The stage was much smaller than clubs that hold half the number of people. Maybe it was all our stuff, but it seemed small even before we loaded in. It looked impossibly small when I was standing at the front of house looking at all the amps, guitars, two drums, congas, a giant open triangle, and the lights: 

These giant metal flower shaped lights, towered over our gear, blasting down waves of heat. We'd started the tour with two lines of l.e.d.'s, but high-powered lights mixed with a high-volume band had more than few audience members passing out during our sets; so somewhere along the way we picked up these giant flower shaped meat warmers, and I was sweating buckets every night, but at least they looked great, and the fainting stopped.

The rest of my band was off in the city; I finished an afternoon drink, paid my tab, and left my new friend to go explore the stage. I had seen this club in videos, but everything looks better on television. In person, there was no room to walk. I couldn't believe this was the same stage so many big names had played before. This was the same place the bar-fly came to night after night to see music.

And there amidst a tangle of wires, was my corner of it. My amp. My bass. My Mic. My moment. A slice of time where I would share apart of this. My chance to make a mark. 'How was I going to do anything worth seeing in this small space?' I could already feel this stage was going to affect me, and it didn't feel good.
Dan Auerbach and The Fast Five band from rene villanueva the word is a bell blog
That's me,  all blurry on the right trying not to fall*
A few feet off the stage from me was an old monitor console that looked like it had been through every single show, all of them manned by this same guy who was just as beat up. 

He was thinner than the bar fly. His long ponytail was white and streaked with black. His blue eyes circled by rings of milky grey. He carried a cigarette behind his ear, ready for his break, and his favorite tool, a roll of black gaff on his belt.

He moved quickly back and forth across the stage with a quick two-note whistle/wheeze every three steps. Without a second thought, he went about plugging in cables, positioning speakers around our gear, taping down loose wires. Never talking, especially to me, except for the occasionally grumble into his walkie-talkie.

The older crews don't really talk to the younger bands. They're some of the toughest critics, having seen too many shows to be fooled by cheap gimmicks and fads, it's not easy to impress the older guys. I can't blame them. It's also one of the biggest compliments to have one of them say they dug your set.

When it came time to play, I was on the side of the stage waiting to go on. Warming up my fingers, practicing a few bass runs,  watching the opening act. Maybe it was a little bit of adrenaline, or the drinks, or maybe it was a trick of the lights, but the club started looking a little different to me. This didn't look like the same empty club I saw early today. For one thing, I hadn't noticed how tall the stage was. I had only seen it as narrow and cluttered. Now that the crowd had filled in to just shy of capacity, and they were pushed together, right below stage level, I could see how they saw the show. They were all too low to see the mess of cables and power outlets, they only saw musicians, well us above our shins, the faces, the gear, the lights.
Second, the club dropped a curtain down between acts, adding to the mood. Even though everyone knows what's going on behind the curtain, it does have a Wizard of Oz -ness, making the show feel powerful. Cause when the lights are dark, the crowd goes quiet, and slowly the curtain rises, its about to happen.
And that gets me amped. 

Suddenly I felt this was not just another show, but a moment. A moment for me. And for the kids who have never seen a show before. And the ones who were on dates with would-be lovers, or friends trying to find a good time. And the barfly, and the sound guy, and all the old guards who've seen it a million times before and still come hoping to be delighted and moved with something new and creative. It does still happen. 
All those thoughts were in my head when inch by inch the curtain was raised. And to my right was the worn face looking down at his monitor board, with a new cigarette tucked in behind his ears for after the show, giving me a thumbs up. 

Higher up it went, and there were the bright faced teens, the men and women with arms around each other, all fighting for a better view.

The curtain was almost at the top, and somewhere in the back I knew there was the wobbly-eyed boulder knocking back the last of his drink before turning to the stage to watch. To see this moment. 

I was ready. Everything is silent. The lights flash. Drums. Guitars. Our singer is off, and with a snap at the bottom of my right hand, my string breaks.