Rhythm Alley Redux - 05 - October 1985
"Small change, big deals - it doesn't seem to make it real" - The Fabulous Knobs, "Next Big Thing"
03 - Claudia Schmidt
04 - Jack and the Cadillacs
05 - Blast Crisis
10 - Jesse Winchester
11 - The Pressure Boys
12 - Bo Diddley
17 - Lo Jai
18 - Uncle Bonsai
19 - Shakin' Sherman and the Blazers
23 - Playgroup w/ Thrift Bakery
24 - Blue Sparks from Hell
25 - The Hipmovers
26 - Bluegrass Experience
30 - Relativity
31 - Terminal Mouse
Paste-up for Triangle Spectator ad for October - obviously there were a few changes after this was done
I don’t know whether it was naive, or just us being nice guys, or some other reasons, but we kept the schedule Judy had put together for October mostly intact. Some were shows with touring acts that involved guarantees and in a few cases, accommodations. Others played for a percentage of the door. The standard in the latter case was 80% of the door for out-of-town bands, 70% for local bands (partly because they had lower travel expenses, partly because they often had extensive guest lists - I’m looking at YOU, Pressure Boys!). Cover most nights was around $3 unless it was a big touring act. So even on a sell-out night with a local band, we weren’t going to make more than $150-$175 from the door. But on a hot night with lots of dancing, we might clear $400-$500 on beer sales.
We opened with a Thursday night Claudia Schmidt show that Judy had booked. Despite the fact that we’d been regularly working at the bar for years, that night was a complete fog for me in my new role as owner. It was probably a good show for us to start with, a laid-back older audience and a wonderfully nice solo artist with a fairly small guarantee (as I recall). I think we did okay on the night - not huge beer sales but decent door. But I’ll be honest with you - as big a deal as this was for me, I barely remember it.
Paste-up for Claudia Schmidt poster
Friday night’s show was Jack and the Cadillacs, an R&B bar band of a type that Judy used to book fairly often and that I had already decided I wanted to get away from. They drew a decent-sized crowd of 30-somethings that would at least drink a few beers but I was much more interested in getting away from much of the R&B, blues and pub rock that Judy had favored (with a couple of exceptions to be named later) and towards what I found to be much more interesting music that was establishing Chapel Hill/Raleigh as the next new music scene (something that was to happen on a regular 5 year cadence afterwards). That being said, I was absolutely interested in continuing to bring in an eclectic mix of rock, trad, bluegrass, folk, jazz and whatever else struck our fancy.
Saturday was Blast Crisis, a local R&B (again) band that seemed to draw half the staff from Duke Med and UNC Hospitals. They were another band that was one of Judy’s favorites but frankly drew an obnoxious (and badly-tipping) crowd and were not someone that we planned to book nearly as often.
I’m going to say again that in almost all cases, the bands themselves were all very nice people with no real control over what kinds of crowds they drew. And I will also not apologize for my personal taste in music - but my preferences shouldn’t be taken as a reflection of the musicianship or seriousness of the performers that I didn’t care for.
Phew, okay, that’s out of the way...
Phew, okay, that’s out of the way...
So, first week under our belts - three fairly easy shows to start with. Not too crowded, but frankly not all that interesting musically either. The second weekend was going to be different, although it didn’t start out all that differently. If you’d asked me before I started pulling together calendars for this writing experiment if we’d ever booked Jesse Winchester, I would have scratched my head and told you that I was sure we hadn’t. Yet there he is on my calendar for Thursday October 10. Maybe he played and I don’t remember it. Maybe I took that night off and Jeannette ran the show (although she doesn’t remember it either). Maybe he canceled and I didn’t mark him off the calendar. Sorry, it was a long damn time ago.
Friday night was our first night with the Pressure Boys. At that time, local headliners booked (and paid) their own opening bands, which sometimes led to some interesting pairings. I have no idea who opened that night but John was always interested in giving new bands a chance (the first time I saw Fetchin’ Bones I was working the door for Judy and they were opening for a joke cover band that was opening for the P-Boys). I saw the Pressure Boys so many times over so many years in so many venues that I have no idea which show was which, so I’ll throw in a random anecdote or two without regard to which show it actually was. They tell the story of Greg writing “Pressure Boys Guest List” in Sharpie on the cover of the Chapel Hill phone book at the Alley after one too many lectures on how many freebies they were letting in (all the while Stafford was bitching about the cover being too low for them to make any money). But my favorite was the huge roll of craft paper that they taped to the wall behind me at the door with made-up, vaguely Scandinavian names written in foot-high letters as their guests. Or maybe they’d actually invited the Swedish Bikini Team. I’m sure it was a huge night. I’m sure we had to arm-wrestle them onto the stage to get them on before it was tomorrow. I’m sure everyone danced their asses off, including myself when I could take a break from the door. I’m sure we sold a buttload of beer. And I’m sure on Saturday morning we were in there sweeping that weird black crap off the floor made up of dried beer, dirt, sweat, smoke and shed skin. That was generally the indication of a great show the night before and the Pressure Boys never put on a mediocre show.
That Saturday was the show I’d been both looking forward to and dreading - Bo Diddley. The Bo Diddley. This was just a couple of years after George Thorogood’s “Bad to the Bone” video had brought him to the attention of a younger crowd and he’d capitalized on that by non-stop touring (he told me that night that he was on the road over 300 nights a year). He was traveling solo so I’d arranged with Lee Gildersleeve and friends in their incarnation as the Socks to back him up. I was waiting for Bo just after noon at RDU when he came off the plane with an overnight bag and the heaviest fucking guitar I’ve ever carried. I took him by the Holiday Inn then picked him up around 5 to head over to the club to work things out with the band and do a sound check, which took all of about 30 minutes. He gave Gil and Brian the beat he wanted (no surprise what it was), told Lee what he wanted on rhythm guitar and they worked out a couple of lead-ins and that was that.
The show was a sell-out for us and a pretty damn good show for the crowd. I think the biggest disappointment for Bo was that it was guys that were crowding back to the dressing room for autographs when it was pretty clear that he was hoping for some sweet young thing or two to accompany him back to the motel. Instead it was me driving him down Franklin Street at 2am to his room to catch a couple of hours sleep before he finally headed home after two straight months on the road. There was no way for us to get back to Greensboro that night so we’d arranged to crash at a friend’s house in Carrboro for a nap before I went back to pick Mr. Diddley up at 5am to take him to the airport.
Those first couple of weeks pointed out some big problems that we were going to have to overcome. For one, taking care of all those arrangements, acting as chauffeur, finding a backing band, etc was not going to be possible very often while I was holding down a day job, so we were going to have to think long and hard about what types of acts we were going to book. For another, running the club in Chapel Hill while driving home to Greensboro at 3am was going to get us killed - it was completely unsustainable. We may have realized that previously (it had actually happened to a Chapel Hill club owner a few years before) but it was brought home in our first weekend as owners.
Lo Jai was a French trad band from Lyon that drew a small but enthusiastic crowd for a Thursday night. There were (and still are) a large number of bluegrass, old-timey and Celtic music fans around the area but we weren’t sure how Lo Jai would draw, so I recall being pleasantly surprised. Not so much the next night with Uncle Bonsai, a quirky (and I don’t use that word often) folk trio from Seattle that pulled up in a clapped out car towing an old caravan that they were sleeping in. I honestly don’t think we had more than 10 paid covers that night, so being open cost us much more than being closed. I felt bad for the band, they felt bad for us but they put on their show and crashed in their trailer and that was the last we heard of them.
Saturday night was one of those long-standing traditions that I had every intention of continuing to book - Shakin’ Sherman and the Blazers had been an on-going Chapel Hill party for years and always put on a fun show that was well-attended by heavy drinkers (and good tippers since lots of them were waits and bartenders themselves). Jeannette still has an unopened copy of their LP with the cover photo from the old Record Bar on Franklin Street back when they had a bong display in the front counter. Long-time Chapel Hillians will know exactly the one I’m talking about. They’d gone through a number of personnel changes over the years (I think Sherman and Ronnie Taylor were the only original members by then) but they were talented and tight and Sherman was a great showman.
I don’t remember what caused the schedule changes but the Wednesday and Thursday shows the next week were last minute fill-ins. I vaguely remember Playgroup but I definitely remember Thrift Bakery, a fun synth-pop band from Winston-Salem that appears to actually have an active Facebook page now. I still pull out their demo tape from time to time.
Blue Sparks from Hell are another band that I only vaguely remember. In researching this essay or history or memoir or whatever the hell it is I’m doing, I was reminded that they had a single on a compilation LP called “Epic Presents the Unsigned”, which also included the Pressure Boys “Cowboys”. That’s all I got.
The Hipmovers played on Friday night. That was not a good night. I shall say no more.
Saturday night was Bluegrass Experience, who had already been around for over a dozen years (and who still occasionally play out after 40 years together). I remember them as having a weekly gig at the Cradle for awhile (some of you guys correct me if I’m imagining that) but I think this was the first time I’d actually seen them play. Very good musicians and a fun show!
Our first month as club owners ended on a high note (no pun intended). Wednesday night, we had Relativity, featuring our friend Triona Ni Dhomhnaill from Touchstone (and the Bothy Band), her brother Michael O’Dhomhnaill and Johnny and Phil Cunningham from Silly Wizard. I’d become a huge fan of Celtic music over the previous couple of years through Jeannette’s influence and I vividly remember the Relativity show as completely blowing me away. Great crowd despite it being a weeknight and just an incredible show.
There’s a bit of a story behind the Halloween show that ended the month. Judy had booked Terminal Mouse, which included some good friends of ours and was a perfect fit for the night, even though I believe this was before Wendy adopted her Taz Halloween persona. This was long before Halloween in Chapel Hill had become such a huge event, eventually drawing more people downtown that a basketball national championship before the town decided it could no longer afford to provide security. It was, however, a night that people did a lot of bar-hopping in costume so a low-cover door was perfect and Terminal Mouse’s mix of originals and clever takes on covers was exactly right for the night. However, a couple of weeks before, I got a call from the booking agency handling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins - apparently his Halloween show had fallen through and they were looking for a new venue for him. Fucking Screamin’ Jay “I Put a Spell on You” Hawkins. On Halloween of all nights. I kid you not.
It’s obvious from the schedule above that we didn’t do it. As dumb as that might sound, there were a lot of reasons not to. After some big tickets show earlier in the month and with some of the acts coming up in November, I was worried about taking on another guarantee (although I could have gotten a pretty good deal at that late date). With only a couple of weeks to publicize it, I wasn’t sure we’d get a lot of people there and as I said, it was more a night to go from bar to bar than to pay a cover of more than a couple of bucks. But more than anything, we were not going to screw over our friends.
As Peter Cashwell has mentioned elsewhere, this was likely the night of the unveiling of Terminal Mouse’s much-celebrated “Cows From Hell” (I think there’s still a copy posted out on Reverbnation). That was just one highlight - I remember that night as one of the reasons I’d wanted to do this whole thing, but I have no idea how the hell I made it into work in Greensboro the next morning.