Rhythm Alley Redux - 07 - December 1985
"When the kids wake up Christmas morning, what will they find under the tree? This year surprise them... with rollercoasters!" - the Pressure Boys, intro to "Is This Normal?"
05 - After Hours
06 - The Connells with Antic Hay
07 - Terminal Mouse
08-12 - "King Mackerel and the Blues are Running"
13 - John Fahey
14 - Shakin' Sherman and the Blazers
19 - The Socks
20 - New Grass Revival
21 - The Woodpeckers
22 - Flat Duo-Jets (All-ages)
23 - Mike Cross
31 - The Pressure Boys
So, about that phone call from Bland. Bland, Don Dixon and Jim Wann were working on a new revue, this one focused on the North Carolina coast. Jim was well-known for “Pump Boys and Dinettes” and “Diamond Studs”, which Bland co-wrote with him and of course Don Dixon was already well-known locally as the leader of the band Arrogance and internationally as a producer of bands like R.E.M. Putting on “King Mackerel and the Blues are Running” would mean a lot more nights open for business and would likely bring in a lot of people that otherwise probably wouldn’t have ventured into the Alley. So the first week of December the guys started rehearsing and working on the set.
Before then we had a couple of shows to do, and we had some heating problems to get fixed. After the heavy rains of November, it got really, really cold for early December and there was something wrong with the heat. Our first show was a Thursday night show with a band from Raleigh called After Hours - a show that rivaled Uncle Bonsai for attendance. In fact, I don’t think there was anyone in the audience that wasn’t related to the band. The previous year I’d bought a 50’s era Swedish Army overcoat from Poor Richard’s army/navy surplus store that reached below my knees and weighed about 50 pounds and I never took it off that night. I just remember the band’s parents and girlfriends huddled together in their coats while the band played. They weren’t bad, but I don’t think they lasted very long.
Friday night was our first date featuring The Connells. “Darker Days” was their cut on “More Mondo”, which had been released that spring and was getting them some attention. Their first album had also come out a month or two before the show. Even then they drew a large crowd, many of them apparently co-eds from Meredith College. They were another band that we caught at exactly the right time, when you could see (and hear) them get better by orders of magnitude every time you saw them. They put on a terrific show and, along with the PBoys and the Checks, they could always be counted on to fill the place. The room might have been cold before the show started but coats were quickly shed by the time the room filled up.
Saturday night was the last night before King Mackerel and was our second date with Terminal Mouse. This might have been the night that the guy from one of the performing rights associations showed up (I won't mention the acronym for fear that a rep would appear in a flash of smoke demanding money). I should probably talk about that a bit. I’m not sure what Judy did but we did not pay performing rights association fees as almost all of the performers we booked were playing their own original compositions. However, the way the licensing worked then (I think it has now been amended), there was a question about whether we were required to pay fees to cover the fact that we played recorded music in the bar before and between sets. I absolutely, positively believe that artists should be fairly compensated for their work. However, to pay the ridiculously high fees that you know who were demanding for having tunes on between sets would have shut us down, meaning a lot of people would have one less space to perform (and be paid). We were not alone as The Cave had a sign posted on one of the speakers for years saying simply “No Covers!”. My apologies to my musician friends if you disagree. I bring this up here as I believe this was the night that the asskap guy came in and Terminal Mouse was one of the few bands we booked that played more than one or two covers. Jeannette recognized the guy and sent me up to the stage to get PC’s attention and ask him not to play any covers, which may well have resulted in them playing “Cows from Hell” 5 or 6 times.
Sunday was the world premier of “King Mackerel”, which really was a big deal. There was a tradition of musical theater in Chapel Hill which spawned the aforementioned “Diamond Studs” and “Pump Boys” among others, but it had died down for a few years and there were a LOT of folks that were hugely excited about the revival. The set was reassembled Sunday afternoon and the show was quite well attended. In fact, all five nights were near sell-outs (and I know there were some folks that were there for all five nights). Beer sales weren’t terrific but we were also open nights we normally wouldn’t have been, so it was still a win for us. And it was a win for the audience - it was quite a good show, although I’ll admit we got tired of it after a week. The guys still perform the show for benefits from time to time (as recently as this year) and I do feel pretty good about hosting the premiere and first run. I was right about it bringing in people who normally would not have been at the Alley, though, as many of them were somehow not aware that bringing in a picnic basket with wine was just not allowed by our alcohol license (thanks to Jeannette for reminding me of that). I doubt many of them came back for any other show.
Sleeve from the cassette for “King Mackerel”
After being open for eight straight nights, we were pretty burned out but we still had a couple more nights to go. John Fahey was a nice change of pace Saturday night - I’ve always enjoyed his style and I do remember it as a good night.
Saturday was a good night for us to end the long run with - Shakin’ Sherman and the Blazers was just a comfortable show to do. Old friends on stage, a lot of old friends in the audience, no fuss, no muss. I mean that only in the best way - those were fun nights to do, sort of like a house party.
We needed a break but we were surprisingly busy going into the holidays. Any break was not going to happen until Christmas itself. We did The Socks Thursday night - The Socks were a side project of Lee Gildersleeve from the Blazers, with Brian Barnes (also from the Blazers) on bass and Gil Templeton behind the drumkit instead of Ronnie Taylor (I can’t remember if there was anyone else). It was a good holiday get-together for Chapel Hill music scene regulars.
Friday night was one of those nights that everything just clicked. This incarnation of New Grass Revival included some of the best musicians I’d ever heard. Pat Flynn, Sam Bush and Bela Fleck were all past Frets Magazine award winners and John Cowan added some nice white gospel and soul vocals along with electric bass. I was used to seeing musicians at the top of their game but having four of them on stage at the same time was an amazing experience. It remains one of the best nights of music I can remember.
We had our first date with the Woodpeckers on Saturday - and our only one with them carrying the full name. The Fabulous Knobs had stopped performing a year or so before and Dave, Jack and Terry had teamed up with Dan Baird, the once and future member of the Georgia Satellites. That was probably the first time I heard Terry’s “Battleship Chains” before the Satellites had a minor hit with it a few months later. That date started a tradition of us pissing off Jack, Dave and Terry by not selling them beer after hours. We’d have been happy to sell them a couple of six packs between sets and hold them for them (there was no issue with us selling for off-premise consumption) but every show they played for us they’d wait until after last call and then try to buy their beer for the rest of the night. I guess they thought they'd eventually wear us down but it never worked.
Sunday afternoon/evening was one of the few all-ages shows we did, all I think with the Flat Duo-Jets. I think Dex had gotten screwed by the drinking age rise to 19, just barely missing out on being grandfathered in, so for a long time the all-ages shows were a way to get him in the club. So we sold Soho sodas by the caseload along with Cokes and Sprites and I tried to pick out the kids that were getting buzzed elsewhere before they got in the door. But hell, I’d have paid Dex and Crow out of my own pocket and thrown the doors open for free if that’s what it took. I had seen them while working the door for Judy a few months before and it had taken me about 2 minutes to realize that Dex was a one-of-a-kind talent (and was quite possibly possessed by the ghost of Gene Vincent).
We still had one more show to do before Christmas and it was another one I’d been looking forward to while at the same time dreading. I don’t think we can blame Judy for this one - I think we can only blame ourselves for being long-time Mike Cross fans and not wanting to miss an opportunity to do a show with him. On paper it sounded great - a few days before Christmas with folks back in town for the holidays and long-time local favorite Mike Cross for two shows on a Monday night. But the reality was that while he sold out two shows, he also got 95% of the door and we did squat for beer sales. If we sold 300 beers I’d be surprised. Of course none of that was Mike’s fault and he did two great shows and everyone had a great start to their holiday but while we didn’t lose money, it was another night that we didn’t make any and that was clearly happening way too often.
There was one more date before the end of the year and it was a much bigger deal to me than anyone else, as it turns out. New Years Eve had always been huge for me and I was really looking forward to throwing the biggest party of my life for this one. What I didn’t anticipate is that people that have worked every New Years Eve of their adult life might not be as interested. Jeannette wanted to be closed and stay home and the one band that I really wanted (The Pressure Boys, of course) were making noises about doing the same. They’d played NYE for Judy the year before and John at least was pretty adamant that he’d like to take the night off too. It took a lot of cajoling with both of them to get the show set. In the end it was probably not as bad for Jeannette and Zippy as they’d anticipated and not as wonderful for me as I’d hoped, since I spent most of the night trying to make sure everything went okay (it was my party!). It was a huge crowd, the Boys were terrific of course and we did manage to have some fun and end the year on a high note - which we desperately needed after a fairly tough start.