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O Bar Bands, Where Art Thou?

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In hotel lounges and bars across North America, from cheap honkey tonks to upscale joints, you used to find musicians plying their trade. The range in material was about as diverse as the range in quality — country, blues, rock, folk, you could find almost any type of music being played on any night in spots every night of the week.

Some of the bands were young with stars in their eyes; but for the most part they were seasoned pros of the road doing what they loved to do for a few hundred bucks a week if they had a steady gig, or a few bucks and their share of the band beer for a weekend show.

Some of them were good, just as tight and energetic as anything you’d hear anywhere, and it made you wonder why they were still playing in bars. Others, well you wonder how it is they even got that gig, and hope for their sakes they were just having a bad night.

I always wanted them to sound good for their own sakes; maybe as an ex-performer I have a certain empathy for anybody up on stage, but I think part of it is the hope we all have for the underdog. The record companies aren’t rushing to hand out contracts to roadhouse rock and roll/blues bands anymore. They don’t sell records in large numbers and they’re expensive to maintain.

Hip-hop and rap must have seemed like manna from heaven for record moguls. Gone are the days of having to pay freight for a band and all its equipment when it goes on tour. All you need now is to be able to plug in a few microphones and install some computer software into the house system and you’re good to go.

What started out as an inexpensive way for musicians to perform and communicate has been latched onto by the record companies as a means to wring more dollars out of their potential market. Gone are the days of the big bands blasting out rowdy, bar room brawl, music that is the life blood of rock and roll.

They might get an occasional CD put out on one of the smaller specialty labels, but their bread and butter is playing live gigs four or five nights a week across North America in bars of various degrees of repute. For every class establishment like the House of Blues, there are 30 where you have to play behind chicken wire so the flying beer bottles don’t connect with your head.

For those who saw the original Blues Brothers movie and thought the scene where they played behind wire was a figment of the filmmaker’s fancy haven’t been in bars near lumber camps where they guys only get paid once every two weeks, and have worked for 14 days straight. Adding alcohol to that mix gives new meaning to the phrase ‘putting out fires with gasoline.’

But even in the bars, technology is starting to take its toll on live performances. For a couple hundred bucks a bar owner can hire some guy with a karaoke setup. Who needs live musicians when you can have a band in a box that offers you more opportunity to sell booze as your clientele buy “courage” to get up on stage and sing along.

What gets me are the bars and clubs that still charge a cover for the privilege of watching untalented drunks mangle the tunes to their favourite songs. I really fail to find any enjoyment in those events, and wonder what it is that attracts so many people to them.

Singing your favourite song to the accompaniment of cheesy sounding electronic music while reading off a teleprompter is the ultimate in professionalism. Now you too know what it’s like to be a rock star. Yeah, well, maybe in today’s plastic pop music world that is seemingly made up of glorified karaoke singers, but not in the world of rock and roll.

I remember reading something that Hunter S. Thompson wrote years ago. He talked about sitting in some bar and he was watching your average bar band when the drummer started off a Credence Clearwater Revival song. Hunter described watching the drummer as he went “to that clear high space where the eagles fly and mortals don’t often get to ascend to.”

The drummer had found the groove of the song and was experiencing something that only comes with a real performance, where it’s just you and the song and your reasons for performing have nothing to do with ego or money, but the sheer joy of being able to perform.

You’re not going to witness that in the self-conscious world of karaoke, or from most of today’s pop automatons. That’s something that’s only seen when the people are playing for the sheer love of the music. As the opportunities for these musicians and bands are slowly evaporating it will become a sight less often seen outside of obvious centres for music.

In the mid-1970s my father-in-law was on the road. His circuit was North Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec. He was paid enough that he was able to hire the musicians he played with, own the equipment for their gigs, and buy himself a house up in North Eastern Ontario. But it’s a hard life and takes its toll, so he moved back to Kingston, got a job and started a second family.

When I first met him in 1996 he was still playing in and around Kingston, just him, his lead player, and eventually my wife joined them to sing harmonies and play percussion. The only places that he could get gigs by then were the Canadian Legions, since they were still hiring bands for each night of the weekend and Sunday afternoons.

With the number of Legions in our vicinity and the fact that he is a great performer, he was usually guaranteed work every other weekend. But times have changed even there and live bands are no longer in demand when you can hire a karaoke machine for half the price. People have become so wrapped up in themselves that they don’t realize that they are in danger of losing a precious commodity.

My father-in-law grew up in a family that played music, so even before he was playing he was absorbing all the old songs. Those were the songs he first learned, and he’s never forgotten them, and he and his banjo-playing brother can still sit down and play them all at the drop of a hat (and the raising of a beer or two). He’s been learning new material with each passing decade, including some of his own. But he can play everything from Hank Williams to Santana without missing a beat.

Standards, blues, country, folk, or rock and roll are all grist for his mill. The thing is, he’s not unique. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians out there who can do that, but we have discarded them in favour of stroking our own egos. These people we have tossed aside are our links to our musical past. If it hadn’t been for people like them, so many people would have never experienced the joy of seeing this music performed live.

Perhaps the cycle will come around again to live music in all the small bars across North America, and real music performed by real musicians will be in demand. The recent interest in Johnny Cash and movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? has rekindled people’s appreciation for the sound of fingers on strings.

I only hope that the roots rock revival that people talk about with such reverence will actually have some wide-ranging effects and not just be confined the a few centres. I’d love to be able to go into a bar again and hear a band play classic blues, vintage rock and roll, and real country all in the same set.

We all have our vision of what components are needed to make up an ideal world. Mine includes bars where bands play real music for real people.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://www.utopia2000.org Barry Stoller

    ‘The recent interest in Johnny Cash and movies like O Brother, Where Art Thou? has rekindled people’s appreciation for the sound of fingers on strings.’

    Let’s remember the OTHER type of strings, too. The big bands and the orchestras got zapped by the rock outfits you’re eulogizing. Replacing 20-piece orchestras comprised of literate musicians with 5-piece bands comprised of untrained teens was another cost-cutter for bars and record companies alike. Unfortunately for art, all labor-saving technologies set in eventually.

  • Bennett

    Well written! Thanks for speaking to this fading bit of our culture.

    Yo Barry, when’s the last time a 20-piece orchestra (comprised of literate musicians) EVER played in a roadhouse, punk bar, or Haight Street dive?

    I remember Santana, Credence, and The Who when they were “bands comprised of untrained teens”.

    Rock on!

  • http://www.utopia2000.org Barry Stoller

    Many places now associated with Santana, CCR, Who, etc. were former ballrooms – featuring ballroom orchestras. My point is that cultures move with technologies. (I could care less about your particular set of fave bands, as I’m sure you could care less about mine.)

  • http://blogcritics.org Joanie

    The bands are out there, Richard. You just have to know where to look and you have to be willing to go out to see them.

    I’m wonderfully blessed to have many MANY locations around me where I can listen to quality music for a small fee, or sometimes even free.

  • http://www.buzzuniverse.com Greg

    That is a great article, and funny enough, it reminds me of my own band which is primarily original, but on a really good night (only a great night), we sometimes launch in to Credence’s Born on the Bayou, and our Drummer sings it with absolute heart and soul, riding the wave of life to its fullest….

  • http://www.buzzuniverse.com Greg
  • Scott Butki

    I go every Thursday and Friday nite to Port City Java, a local coffeehouse, where they have open mike nite on Thursday and a performer on Friday.

    Invariably some will sing country, some rock, some both.
    Its not unusual to hear acoustic covers of everything from Skynard, Cash and Oasis in the same set.

    I know it’s not a bar but it is free and, to me at least, thrilling and fun.

    Keep hope alive.

  • John

    I am trying to find out what ever happened to an awesome bar band that came to Edmonton, AB in the mid to late 80’s. They were called “Sweet Lucy” and their album was titled “Taste It” I actually wore the cassette out and have never been able to replace it. The lead singer was awesome! he sounded like a cross between Robert Plant and David Coverdale.
    Signed
    HELP!

  • Lori

    In reply to John,

    I remember Sweet Lucy! I have a couple pictures of and with them. Unfortunately I don’t have their tape. If you’re on facebook, we have a group “Memories of Rock Central Station and Cheers at the Beverly Crest”. I’ve put up pictures of Sweet Lucy, Electric (which later became the Age of Electric), Smask LA, Slick Toxik, Black Diamond, Big House etc…..

    Lori Lynn

  • tjmusic

    go to songsoflove.org and give us a facebook vote to help terminally and chronically ill children with music, thanks. tom

  • Larry Blom

    Beautifully said! As much as I hated it then, I miss the nightly grinding out of the “honkytonk hundred”—and making a living at it! Sigh.