BEATING BARTENDER BURN-OUT (with the Dixie Chicks)

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.

Martie Mcguire (Photo from

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.

Kit Holliday

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.

This entry was posted in Life on a Cocktail Napkin. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to BEATING BARTENDER BURN-OUT (with the Dixie Chicks)

  1. Debbie Morella says:

    It sounds like you have a blast. I waitressed at a place in the lounge and it was so much fun I felt like I was at a party every weekend, instead of at work. Nothing feels better than to be serving people who are, “so glad to be there…… they treat us….. like we’re their best friends.” Enjoyed your post. 🙂

  2. Case says:

    Good post. I enjoyed the music. Irma Thomas still owns the song ‘Time is on my side’. Nothing like the real thing.

  3. Ted says:

    You hit the nail on the head about a bad night. It feels like they all crowd the bar just take a bite out of you. I worked as a bartender many nights like that when I was in Denver. Now that I think of it we didn’t even have The Dixie Chicks on the jukebox much less up on stage. Good story.

  4. Starbucks8294 says:

    I love The Dixie Chicks! I can’t believe you didn’t get Martie to stop and talk! I saw the Dixie Chicks live once. It was a good show but we were like fifty rows away.

  5. Suzanne G. says:

    What contrast this week compared to your post about bartenders doing private functions, I can see why you much prefer your club. By the way, I am sooooo jealous you watched Alison Krauss perform in that intimate venue. Thank you for the early video of her.

  6. MikeQ says:

    Debbie: Nothing like bartending in the right place, with the right crowd. It’s not like work at all those nights, is it? Thanks for sharing that thought, Debbie.

    Case: I wholeheartedly agree, Case. It might not be rock-and-roll, but Irma’s version is more complex, multi-layered. It sure has soul.

    Ted: Sometimes you walk away from a shift strangely refreshed and on top of the world, while other times you feel pretty beat up by the crowd . . . you’re right about that, Ted. Thanks for your comment on this aspect of the business.

    Starbucks: What can I say, my friend, she took me by surprise. I felt like a dope. : )

    Suzanne: We were lucky because of our connections with Rounder Records, Suzanne . . . their offices were only a block or two away and we learned of Alison when she was just starting out. What a lucky break, huh?

  7. Joel says:

    I remember when Shelby Lynne played a few months ago – a beautiful acoustic set – no drums. The crowd was so captivated – I was stacking pints by the bar, trying to be quiet. I lost my focus for a split second and made a clanking sound with some of the glasses… Everyone around me sssshhhhhhed me at the same time and gave me a stern look as if to say ¨stack the pints later kid – let us enjoy the music¨ – Such an awesome moment.

  8. Llylak says:

    If I were to work in a nightclub, I’d choose to work in yours. Thank you for the videos, it’s lovely music. Irma Thomas is amazing.

  9. MikeQ says:

    Joel: Greetings, my friend! Thanks for stopping by and commenting from the southern hemisphere . . . sounds like you’re kicking some ass. (For any regulars reading these comments — Joel was a rising star on the bar at Johnny D’s until he ran off to South America to be with his lovely Chilean wife, and to work on his screen play. He’s bartending now in Quillota, Chili.)

    Llylak: We’d love to have you join us, Lly. : )

    • Joel says:

      YES – I am bartending now – We sell tons of Mojitos and dark/añejo rum with coke – YOU, Mike, are my number one life-line to the U.S. and bar/restaurant culture – if you posted every day, I would read it. I literally check your site every/other day. YOU are the man!!

  10. Carla says:

    Boy, I enjoy reading your blog. The great live music is the heart that keeps beating in this place, keeping us all alive and well. Thanks for capturing so many moments in time. Some shows I will never forget include Ted Hawkins, Ronnie Spector, Shelby Lynn and recently Will Hoge. My dream is to see Roberta Flack play the songs from her very first album back to back on this stage. How much would you pay for that?

  11. MikeQ says:

    Wow, a comment from my boss! (Carla DeLellis is owner of Johnny D’s; I don’t know how she does it. She’s there all the time, and she has four kids — two in grade school, two in high school. Now that I’m thinking about it, that might make a good post . . . married with kids, and running a top Boston music club/restaurant.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *