Posted By Norm van Maastricht on July 12, 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…
As I said in other missives, it got so blues bands just didn’t cut it at The Bar.
There were, of course, certain blues bands The Mark Ford Band, for one that did do well, or Mark’s second band The Blue Meanies. But that was largely due to Mark’s charm and his ability to make people get up and move. He played good harmonica and perhaps his voice might have been a bit easier to listen to… his was more of a tenor but I’m not really sure that was it.
Some bands, like Stu Blank and His Nasty Habits depended heavily on the blues format although Stu did not feature a harmonica in his ever changing band lineup. But he, too, got people to get up and dance. Stu’s music was almost perfect as an example of a great saloon band with his earthy delivery.
Here are things we all know. Blues is an art form. A genre. It is stylized, rooted in the music of slaves developed and refined over the years and is largely done in a twelve bar format. We know all that.
I don’t want to get into a deep discussion of blues music here because I really don’t know that much about it and it would serve no purpose in this narrative. I had a mild dislike for blues because so many blues bands strove for ‘authenticity’ and in so doing tended to sound a lot alike. Some seemed to go on forever in the heavily accented “BUNK-ka BUNK-ka two-four beat while a singer rehashed how bad it was to get up in the morning or complain because he’s on drugs or his woman left him etc. etc.
One of my friends, K.J., was a legendary local guitarist and owner of a successful music store. He liked playing blues occasionally in a mixed set list but refused to let his bands play slow blues.
I found out why when I recently overheard him talking to another guitar playing friend at a local club as they listened to the band play. The leader called for a slow blues and K.J. turned to his friend and said:
“They really shouldn’t do a slow blues because, first of all the song’s tempo will be so slow that musicians like to do musical masturbation over it…………show off.
It takes so long to finish the 12 bars anyway but then soloists will often be so taken by their own playing they’ll want to go again and perhaps even again.
Simple math dictates that what should be a five minute song will now obviously stretch to about 10 minutes, which is too long to listen to…I mean Jeeze, enough already.”
K.J. went on. “Look. These guys are playin’ a little amped so I’ll say nine minutes… They’ll finish in nine minutes.”
So the two friends bet the next round on it.
The band finished the song at 8:55. Close enough for KJ to get his drink bought on that issue.
Even that would be tolerable except for the main thing and that was that blues bands just flat did not draw a crowd at The Bar.
No crowd, no money. Simple. It’s a business…
Still, you had to find a way to sort it all out.
In the modern world, with computers social sites and websites, most bands with any self-respect have a URL address that will take you to pictures, biographies and often have music clips or even video clips of the band in action. A smart live music saloon has a website in today’s world featuring a constantly updating band calendar.
In the seventies and eighties this magic was not available or widespread as today’s web is…
Some blues bands had demo tapes.
Most did not.
Some blues bands had promo pictures.
Most did not.
Some blues bands had mailing lists.
Most did not.
It sometimes seemed that they thought that just getting onstage would bring in the bucks and the babes through osmosis or some other magical voodoo. Or because they were more ‘authentic’…
I keep going back to the core reason for booking bands.
You play to the women!
Women like to dance. They want groove and they want some tempo and they want some variety. Get the ladies having a good time in a saloon and the male money will follow shortly.
The boys and girls want to engage in The Mating Dance and that is more fun with more people. More short songs are better for the Party Hearties than a few long ones because they can catch a break. Rest up. Schmooze a little..
But please… Make ‘em Dance.
When I did the band booking I had to be like Solomon and somehow be able to judge a band on the enthusiastic pitch of the Band Mouth (that being the talker for the band) as he or she yanked my sleeve begging me to ‘book my band’.
Eventually the word got out that I did not care for blues bands and avoided booking them.
I finally hit on a screening formula.
Let me digress a moment…
Some years later, after The Bar had gone away, I was in a bar watching a “jam” and was approached by a guy that I knew to be an exceptionally fine harmonica player. He got right to the point. “What do you have against harmonica players?” he asked.
“Nothing at all,” I said, “I like to hear a well played harp. In fact I think you’re one of the best I’ve heard in a long time!”
“Then how come you wouldn’t hire harmonica players?”
So I told him about how blues bands didn’t do well at The Bar and described my screening ploy. It was quite simple and went like this:
“Book my band” the Band Mouth would say.
“I don’t hire blues bands. Are you a blues band?”
“No, man, we’re not a blues band!”
“Do you have a harmonica player?” I would ask putting an interested inflection in my voice.
“Yeah! Yeah man, we do as a matter of fact!”
“You’re a blues band. No dice. Sorry!”
So there it was. It is one thing to have a band that possibly features a harmonica solo once or twice a night. It’s quite another to have the harmonica player be a Featured Instrument.
But lest you think I was a total wedgeass I could be talked into giving a band a try.
Some Band Mouths were very persistent and would relentlessly pressure me to hire their bands even if it was a blues band.
One guy sticks out in my mind. I had known him for a few years. I had had no real idea he had a band in all the time I knew him. He was a sack of a guy, going toward being fat and didn’t have any particular charisma that I could see. He claimed to be a singer and his band “packed them in…packed them in” everywhere they played according to him. He followed me around and nagged “Hire us and I guarantee we’ll pack ‘em in like sardines in this joint!”
“Based on what?” I asked.
“I’m a great singer!” he said.
This was news to me because as long as I had known him I never was aware he had any musical abilities at all, certainly not as a singer.
“Do you have a demo tape?”
“Uh, no… we’re working on one but we don’t have one yet.”
So, against my better judgment, I booked them for one night the next month.
Then I had to put up with this guy stopping by every other night or so telling me “Pack ‘em in! Like sardines!” until I was ready to throttle the bum.
Finally the Great Night arrived.
I had booked him on a Friday which is always the primo night for booking a group. Friday is the Primary Hunt night for those looking to hook up with the opposite sex. You tend to get a better house on a Friday than on a Saturday because of this.
Well, they bombed.
The guy was unattractive to begin with and didn’t try to improve his visual by maybe dressing up a bit. I can still see it…an old looking green tee shirt and faded blue jeans. The band, as well as his singing voice was really unremarkable and worse of all, only twenty five or thirty people showed up. At last call there were only ten people sitting at tables and six or seven people at the bar proper.
The next day I got a call from the guy with a list of reasons why he had no house.
It was a fairly impressive list but none of the reasons cited made much sense. He even tried to tell me he was coming down with a cold although he hadn’t mentioned it the night before.
He asked for a rebook to show me he and his band could really pack them in.
“I think not.” said I. “Let me give you a word of advice.”
“Next time you go to ‘pack them in like sardines’ ..Use a smaller can.”
Then there was the blues guy we shall call Johnny Norbert (not his real name). Another one of those guys who was relentless in his efforts to book his blues band. He had played The Bar once before to a mediocre house but he claimed his following had improved.
So, after much pressure and nagging, I booked him.
He wanted me to book him as Johnny “Harmonica” Norbert but I refused on the basis that I had heard him play and I had heard others play harmonica and to my ear his skill level did not strike me as befitting such a billing.
So we booked him as the Johnny Norbert Blues Band.
We not only got a lame house but the guy’s singing was off.
The next day he called and wondered what I thought. I told him. “You need singing lessons.”
Remarkably I saw this guy some ten years after The Bar closed. He told me that was the best advice he’d ever gotten and he had acted on it. Big improvement.
Still, I don’t think anyone ever booked him as “Harmonica Johnny Norbert” though.
Did I miss some good opportunities? Probably. But sometimes even seasoned performers bringing in some of the hottest hired guns of the local music scene couldn’t get a house as a blues band.
The late Vala Cupp and some of her bandmates come to mind… She was a beautiful lady with great legs and a great blues voice. She brought in some mighty fine musicians with her but the crowds were up and down even with her great combinations.
She was the first person I called if a band cancelled on me. She would get on the phone and bring in the best musicians she could find and she would deliver for me but book a night under her own name and we’d seldom get even half a house most times.
It’s a tough life, particularly for the bands on the circuit reaching for the brass ring….
“If you have to tell people how cool you is…
The Write Down Book