Last Sunday at Johnny D’s, the afternoon Blues Jam ended early to make room for our Grammy Awards party. (I actually enjoy the Grammy’s — yes, it’s an awards show, but there’s a lot of great music with performers I might never see otherwise.)
So this week I decided to write about the Grammy winners we’ve had at the club . . . looking especially at the way they influence what it’s like to tend bar here.
Take the Dixie Chicks (who came to Johnny D’s every year before they won their first Grammy.)
When the Dixie Chicks played you would have thought it was New Year’s Eve — everyone was in such a wildly festive mood. This was a chance to see one of their favorite bands, the musicians on stage only an arms length away.
(I have to digress for a moment to retell one of my favorite stories about the Dixie Chicks at the club. Just before one particular show, I was walking downstairs to the club’s business offices on the right, when the door on the left at the bottom of the stairs opened slowly. I expected to see Dana or Charlie, one of our scruffy-looking booking agents coming out of the band room — but as I got to the last steps, Martie Mcguire walked out.
I stopped in my tracks. She’d taken me by surprise, and she was so beautiful.
“Hi,” she said smiling, “How you all doin’ . . . ?”
My mouth was open, but no words were coming out.
“Ahhh . . . Umm . . . Ahhhh,” I said.
She smiled again and walked past me up the stairs. I felt like I was twelve years old.)
Anyway, back to my main point.
When the Dixie Chicks played (it struck me then, and again today as I’m writing), everyone was always in such a great mood at these shows, it was surreal. When do you have 300 people in the same room so united in their enthusiasm?
I began thinking . . . it actually starts at the door, with the cover charge. Every customer pays $10, and for national acts sometimes as much as $15 or $20 just to get in . . . who does that with a smile on their face? Not someone with a chip on their shoulder, only looking for a place to start trouble. Not someone who just wants to get totally fucked-up. Not someone who wants to wallow in their misery, crying in their beer.
At Johnny D’s, the cover charge effectively filters these people out. For shows like the Dixie Chicks, our crowd is here specifically to see that band, and 99.99% of them walk into the place in a celebratory, over-the-top mood.
I remember when Alison Krauss used to play at the club. (We lost her, too, when she won her first Grammy; she’s up to twenty-six of them now.)
Alison Krauss made her first recording when she was fourteen, signing with Rounder Records (which was right down the street from Johnny D’s.) The first time she played at the club, she was 19 years old, but she still looked so childlike on stage.
When she sang “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” . . . you could have heard a pin drop. Then the place exploded with applause and cheering.
It was the same for every year for Irma Thomas. People would come up and order their drinks as though they’d been invited to the Royal Ball. Customers would gush, “Oh, I’ve waited all year to see her! I LOVE her!”
(Some of you might not know that the Rolling Stones hit “Time Is On My Side” was actually a cover of the original R&B recording by Irma in 1964.)
The point I’m trying to make is that between the ticket charge acting as a filter, and the crowd’s enthusiasm for the bands performing, it’s not your typical bartending experience.
You know what it sometimes feels like working behind the bar — like you’re surrounded by tiny, swarming one-inch piranhas, and each of them wants to take a little nip out of your skin. (Tales From A Bar recently had two nice posts on bartender burn-out.)
This is just the opposite. Imaging working in an environment where everyone is not just in a good mood, but in a fantastic mood. They’re so glad to be there, so happy to be enjoying the show that they treat us behind the bar like we’re their best friends. (Which is the way it should be, isn‘t it?)
With shows like that, you’d rather be working than not. I don’t know how many times Jeremy Newcomer (one of our best bartenders) has asked to switch a shift because there’s a band playing that he wants to see anyway. He figures if he’s going to be here, he might as well pick up some extra cash while enjoying the show.
There are some shows where I think half the staff might work for free.
I remember when Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Bruce Cockburn played at the club for a Landmine Free World benefit. Tickets started at $50 each, and there were also $200 tickets that included a five course meal and seats right in front of the stage. I heard that there were $1000 tickets (donations) that included some personal face-to-face time with the performers.
Some of the regulars at the club were local musicians who couldn’t otherwise afford to see the show, so they volunteered to work.
They bussed tables, carried food out, and one even ran the glass washing machine in the bar back station . . . just to be there. (It was strange to see local singer-songwriting icon Tim Gearan in a white shirt and bow tie, picking up glasses.)
It’s like this . . . at Johnny D’s a couple of weeks ago, Booty Vortex was playing. In the middle of a rush I found myself caught up in the song they were performing, “Funky Town.”
“Won’t you take me to . . . Funky Town? Won’t you take me to . . . Funky town.”
I stopped in the middle of the round of drinks I was making.
The original “Funky Town” starts out sort of techno, the vocals are light and translucent — but that night, Kit Holliday (her red hair swinging wildly) was belting out the tune with such a big, ballsy R&B style that it grabbed you by the shirt collar, lifted you up in the air with both hands, and swung you back and forth to the beat.
I stopped and listened in the middle of the rush, thinking how lucky I was to be working.
Grammy winners like Luther “Guitar JR” Johnson and Asleep at the Wheel, Maceo Parker, Lonnie Mack. Local bands like Sarah Borges, Beatlejuice, and of course Booty Vortex — I have to thank them not only for their great performances, but for their effect on the crowd. Their music can soothe that otherwise sometimes savage beast.