Posted By Norm van Maastricht on July 4, 2009
Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon In The Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…
“I like trumpet players but if all I hired was trumpet players my show would fold”
T.O. had a soft spot for country music. There’s nothing wrong with that except it was difficult to get a house at The Bar with a country offering.
There were exceptions of course. Back In The Saddle, a seven piece ensemble that delivered smooth Western Swing and Chuck Wagon and The Wheels whose brand of Western Swing was a bit more irreverent but every bit as much fun. Shagbark Hickory was another of the groups that did well carrying a pedal steel it the mix. Tom Rigney’s ‘Sundogs’ did consistently well with their brand of Cajun Zydeco music.
But what brought in the girls was rock and roll.
Uncle Rainbow, any of Mark Ford’s bands (and there were several) Daddy-O and such like. You really couldn’t go wrong with bands like that. Stu Blank rocked the old upright piano so hard he broke strings on it! There was Merlin, featuring a guy named Carlos playing a harp of all things
There was System 9, one of those “wedding bands” that made up for lack of original tunes by delivering accurate covers of just about any rock or pop song you could think of.
The bands on that list were, at a local level anyway, truly great bands. But those bands were not available at all times so you had to try other local groups hoping to find a new, emerging group that might catch the public eye. That was always a risky business because there are just so many low draw nights a saloon can take and still survive over the long run.
Some bands did better than others of course but it was a gamble when you ran a new group since few new bands really drew all that well on their first few appearances at The Bar.
Still, the idea was to draw women and to do that the band you book had better make the girls dance.
However, T.O. was not a dancer. Music did not move him like it moved the ladies and their lusting beaux. There is nothing wrong with that, either, so long as you realize who you are trying to please and hire what your patrons like.
There were some bands he did not like. He did not like them “because what they played was not music.” He had the normal human failing of thinking that if he liked or disliked a certain type of music, why, he was providing the world with an example of excellent musical taste. We all feel that way to a degree. For most of us we are thankfully limited to controlling just our own CD and TV fare. When running a saloon however you have to try to figure out what brings in customers and your own brand of music may not be it.
One of the music forms T.O. hated was Fusion, that admixture of rock and jazz. Another band type he disliked was any band that played “metal” or “alternative” rock.
There was one such band we shall call “Razed Cain” (although that was not the band’s name) that we shall use as an extreme example of Saloonkeeping Gone Wrong.
Here is where the Jackie Gleason quote mentioned at the start of this writing comes in.
You cannot hire bands as if you were buying CD’s for your stereo. Your saloon is not your living room. Sometimes you have to hire what you don’t like if it brings you money.
I didn’t particularly care for the music of Razed Cain either. They played too damn loud and their vocals were unremarkable (to me). But their front man and lead guitarist was a darkly handsome, obnoxiously arrogant, young man who played a style of guitar that did not interest me but the girls just loved. They would flock to see that band and dance to their music.
The leader of Razed Cain offered us a deal. He wanted us to charge a seven dollar cover for one of his shows. This was an unheard of high price for The Day. The normal cover fee was 3.00, sometimes 4.00. Along with this high cover charge the band would just work for the door. I had to ask T.O. since Razed Cain was one of his least favorite groups. He OK’d the deal figuring he’d be getting a band for free and Razed Cain would be cutting their own throat.
Razed Cain absolutely packed the place that night!
T.O. sat by the side door darkly, drinking beer after beer after beer…
Finally he could stand it no more.
He made his way through the crowd and got up on the stage.
The crowd grew quiet. Many of the patrons had no idea who he was. The musicians, however, knew T.O. by reputation had an inkling of what was to come and those of us that were crew knew what was going to happen and could only watch helplessly…
He was brief. I’ll give him that.
He proceeded to tell the patrons (in a packed venue, mind you) what he thought of Razed Cain and their music. He also made a point to tell the patrons that they had terrible taste in music to even listen to this kind of thing to begin with….
He finally finished his rant and got off the stage glowering pugnaciously at any and all as he went to his seat and had the duty bartender call him a cab.
Razed Cain tried to pick it up from where they were interrupted but never quite got off the runway for the rest of the evening.
Some patrons assured me they would never return as they left. I think most of those did return because of habit but some hardcore Razed Cain fans probably never returned.
The event described was probably the most extreme example of hosting at its worse. These incidents didn’t happen often but an inebriated owner publicly unhappy with the band du jour was a Loose Cannon in its most draconian form. Over the years there were a few more such incidents but none were quite as provocative.
On another tack there is always a problem of a creeping rise in volume in a live music club. It happens. You try to stay on top of it. Some bands are just difficult to deal with for that kind of thing.
Actually the crowds seem to like loud bands. Where it got to be a problem was with Crew. At a certain volume level the bartenders and waitresses could not hear each other well enough to get the orders right.
I would approach the sound man and tell him/her to get the band in hand and sometimes that worked.
Sometimes it did not.
So I would go to the head of the band, between songs, and give them the word. That usually worked. I wasn’t all soft and sweet with them but I wasn’t rude either. I had played in club bands and I knew how it was from the musician’s standpoint. They truly cannot hear how they sound to the patrons. On one of the nights Razed Cain was playing I asked him twice to turn down and he wouldn’t. Finally I went to him looking overjoyed and I said “You did it! You finally did it!”
“Your playing is so loud we can’t hear the singer at all! Thank you!”
T.O., if in his cups, sometimes thought it was better to just get in there and “help” the sound tech and sometimes actually tamper with the mix because, of course sound tech was an overrated skill that anyone could do. Alcohol never seemed to improve anyone’s attempts at controlling a soundboard but he felt he was capable of ‘fixing it’ after he’d had a few. One night he did this so “well” that the sax player in the band had to be restrained from packing up his instrument and quitting the gig.
Or he would stand in front of the band waving his arms down as if he were Johnny Carson telling and audience to quiet down. Letting the world know he thought the band was too loud. It probably was. But there are more effective, less public ways to get your point across.
Having played in bands I told him it’s too hard for a band to turn down in the middle of a song while they were playing. They had to do this between songs. He would look at me as if I were daft and pantomime a guitarist reaching behind himself and turning down an amp. “That’s all they got to do…”
T.O. certainly was not like that every night. However it must be said that it is a problem when that obnoxious drunk in the corner is the owner and not someone you can cut off or send home. Not everyone knew he was the owner which meant that some customers saw it as a Saloon that could not maintain order.
Even with bands he liked he could be a problem if he had too much to drink. Alcohol’s consumption past a certain limit seldom brings out the best in anyone.
It got so I had to avoid booking bands I would have liked to have booked again. Some I felt, if given a fairly regular opportunity, might build a following at The Bar but if T.O. didn’t like certain bands he discouraged me from hiring them. So the bands booked themselves elsewhere and their fans followed them.
Away from The Bar…
There is no way of knowing whether the bands I would like to have hired and could not would have fared better over time. Sometimes even a popular band would lose its edge and attendance will drop because people got bored with what was perceived as a same-o same-o lack of fresh material.
I can’t even say that the kind of embarrassing scenes I described here had that much of an affect on the overall business since, after all, it was just a drunk getting out of hand and who has not seen a drunk get out of hand in a saloon? There have been stories, tales actually, of bars that have brawls every weekend that still manage to stay open and apparently thrive although no local bar could make that claim. The Bar was not noted for having much in the way of fights. In that respect we did well.
Gleason’s adage still applied
“I like trumpet players but if all I hired was trumpet players my show would fold”
Hiring bands to suit your own taste will, in the long run, cripple your establishment because what you, as a saloonkeeper, like often has no connect to what the partying public likes.
As time went on it seemed like no matter what kind of band we hired the crowds were on a decline. The sure fire bands that always seemed to draw were getting very scarce. The video cassette, the rented movie and ordered in pizza was making a dent in the business. People found ways to stay home and have fun and avoid the risk of an alcohol related ticket. When they did go out they drank less because of the real fear of harsh fines if caught driving even a little over the legal limit. And finally, the clientele started to age. Some got married and became parents. Partying on weekends was curtailed because it was hard to budget and famly responsibility crowded the saloon life out.
… and the younger folks migrated elsewhere looking for the newest Hot Spot.
The nightclub business was losing its sparkle…