I can remember in college there were several kind of bars. There were pubs or taverns where you’d go to drink, talk loud and maybe shoot pool. These bars generally had juke boxes of varying quality. There were also “clubs” which typically had a dance floor, expensive drinks and music I considered awful. The third type of bar when I was younger, was a place with a stage or at least a cleared out part of the floor where a band could set up a drum kit and a few amps. The bands were like the juke boxes in the taverns, varying in quality, but I always loved going out to see a live band in a bar. My favorite type of bar in those days was probably a tie between the taverns with the juke boxes and the bars with live bands. Naturally most of the chicks were in the “clubs” dancing with sweaty dudes in polo shirts and a lot of Drakar Noir. At least I heard better music during this strange period of self-imposed celibacy.
As I’ve gotten older, I find myself drifting more toward dive bars with crusty bartenders, dark murky fluids and classic rock on the juke box or the house stereo. I’m not sure when it happened but I stopped going out for the express purpose of seeing a band. I’m not sure how this happened. I can still remember being on a road trip in college and walking into a bar just as the trio in the corner launched into “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin. I can tell you that’s not a tune you’re going to hear very often by a bar band. These guys nailed it. My friends and I just plopped down at the bar, drank all the beer they had (or at least tried to), and didn’t leave til the band did.
I spent my summer after college in Boston working in a liquor store, where the employees taught me that summah was for drinking with your friends. There was a rough and tumble, heavy metal bar close to where we lived, named (if memory serves me) Bunratty’s (or maybe Bonratty’s, the accent always threw me off). We’d put on our shittiest clothes, and head down to hear whoever that night’s headbangers happened to be. You had to be careful at Bunratty’s… we’d heard a guy had been stabbed there, which I still think is a story the Boston-ites told us Midwest guys to freak us out. I remember seeing a few bands there and thinking, I’m going to see these guys in arenas some day. I’m still not sure any of them made it, but it was summer and I was drinking beer with friends… my judgement can’t be trusted.
After I returned from my Arkansas exile, back to Kansas City, the blues became central to my evenings out. There was a legendary blues bar downtown, the Grand Emporium. They had a poster on the wall of a July 4th concert that Stevie Ray Vaughn had played there and the ticket price was like, $4. Had I only known. I saw Koko Taylor there one night, Blues Royalty. I think it was Wednesday nights when the Grand Emporium held “Reggae Night” and you could go down and see the best reggae north of Jamaica. I seem to remember being especially impressed by a group named The Bone Daddys. Nice name, guys. I even saw the famous Chicago blues harmonica player Sugar Blue there…but I might be confusing that with Kingston Mines in Chicago.
Before I met the Rock Chick I used to spend my Saturday afternoons in a bar named Harlings, that smelled like they had a plumbing problem, but they had a blues jam hosted by Big Mama Ray, a woman who could be 40 or could be 90… too hard to tell behind those Marlboro 100s. After the blues jam was over we’d wander down to the Hurricane and catch the locally famous Bon Ton Soul Accordion Band. I won’t even begin to attempt to describe the cajun gumbo of sounds those guys made. I was lucky if I made it to 10 pm on those nights…
Those days have quietly faded away. I don’t remember the last time I’d gone out in KC to expressly see a live band, which is weird because we have a great live music scene here, mostly blues based. Usually when I’m traveling with the Rock Chick we’ll end up in some bar listening to a band. We recently traveled to Austin with my friend Stormin and his lovely wife. We ended up in a blues bar for most the evening listening to a band that was fair. Finally the ladies had had enough and went back to the hotel and Stormin and I ducked into an Irish pub that had a 70s Glam Rock cover band and holy crap were they good. I wish I remembered the name of that band. They played Bowie and if memory serves a great Kiss cover. These guys all had make up on, they were truly committed to their genre. It was awesome. My only regret is we hadn’t checked that earlier, the Rock Chick would have loved that band.
I had the good fortune of meeting the drummer of a great regional band, Rockgarden, at a Black Sabbath concert last winter. As fate would have it, Rockgarden came to KC and played a show this weekend. I was pretty fried by the end of a long week of work and being over served bourbon the night before, but in deference to my newly minted friend, the Rock Chick and I hooked up with my pal The General, and headed out to the bar. Man, am I glad I did. Rockgarden plays a mix of great 90’s rock: the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Aeroplane, a personal fav), Lenny Kravitz, Foo Fighters and to my delight some Rage Against the Machine. If you get a chance and live around here, go see Rockgarden, they kick ass. But this isn’t a review of Rockgarden, I have to recuse myself as I know the drummer. This is about the forgotten joys of seeing a band live in a bar.
There is nothing like hearing the crack of the cymbal, the squealing feedback of a guitar while you watch the guys on stage play. When a band, like Rockgarden, lock into a groove, it’s simply magical. There was a chick celebrating something, I think a birthday, she had a tiara on and her and her friends were clearly having a blast. That spirit was infectious in the bar. Having once again been over served vodka, even I got swept up during the Rage cover, “Bulls On Parade” and attempted to create a pogo’ing mosh pit. Alas, due to the vodka I fear I looked more like I was doing off balance jumping jacks and nobody joined me on the dance floor. The Rock Chick was amused, so I get points there. That’s the magic of live music folks, even a guy like me who is usually rooted to the bar stool finds himself in the middle of the dance floor jumping up and down.
Wherever you live there is probably, within walking distance or a short cab/Uber ride, a bar that has on the marquee or website the words “Featuring Live Music,” or something like that. Maybe you live in a rural community and there’s a street fair going on. In Kansas City the KC Blues Society has a calendar of where and when certain blues acts are playing. I have to think that something like that exists anywhere in any town or hamlet. And if you’re like me, and you’ve let the joy of seeing a band in an intimate setting like a bar slip by, or if you only go see big name acts in arenas (and believe me, there’s nothing wrong with that!) do yourself a favor and find a band to see this weekend. It’s critically important that you support local bands and local artists. Your help could foster a whole “scene” and who knows, before you know it your town is the Seattle of the 90s. There is something quasi-mystical about convening in a dark room, surrounded by friends holding strong drink and listening to the sounds of a band play live. No matter what you’re into – blues, jazz, madrigals (yes, Richie Blackmore), country, metal, reggae, folk music – do yourself a favor and gather some friends and go out and support a local artist. I’m not saying you have to buy a CD after the show, just have a drink or two and if you feel inspired, get up and move your body around. It will do you good!! Trust me, it did me good after a long and awful week.