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.