Rob always plays fantastic; I can never say enough good things about him. There’s something about how his Gretsch hollow body guitar rings out when he’s standing on stage alone. It’s like his voice melds perfectly with the guitar’s sound and carries through the bar, entrancing anyone who steps through the door. While he’s playing, I see a guy standing at the front, cash in hand to pay the cover for tonight’s show, and he’s just frozen, staring at the front where Rob’s performing. The guy working the door doesn’t seem to mind: he’s just as entranced as the guy with the money. I don’t think he even realizes that ten dollar bill is for him.
Tonight’s show is a little different. Where normally each performer gets thirty to forty-five minutes to play through as many songs as he knows before the next performer comes on, tonight there are three of us alternating every three songs. Joe’s on first tonight: an energetic classic bluegrass kind of guy with the dirty flannel shirt and thick mustache hiding his top lip to go along with all the other genre clichés. The thing is Joe knows how to nail it. Between each song he reaches into his back pocket to pull out his comb and adjust his pompadour and he taps his steel guitar to count himself in at the start of each song. It’s like he’s possessed by the spirit of Woodie Gutherie himself, the way he commands the audience and gets people on their feet dancing. I’ve seen full jazz symphonies playing old Louie Armstrong songs with the most swing who can’t get that kind of reaction out of people.
Joe blasts through his three songs in a frenzy, making Rob’s set right after a little awkward at first because of the tempo change, but a welcome change to all the out of breath dancers in the bar. Rob’s dark eyes peer out into the audience, always looking like he just spotted the prettiest girl in the bar and he doesn’t want to take his eyes off her. His low, humble voice sneaks out between his lips, lined with a dark mustache and goatee. His black hair is combed back, but a small strand always hangs in front of his face. His black hair matches the black vest and tie he wore over top his pressed white shirt; and, all those neutral tones make his sharp blue guitar pop and glow like it’s a gem he just found and he’s presenting it to the love of his life.
I stand behind the stage during Rob’s first set, trying to remember all the words to my songs. I keep the chords easy enough to remember, but it’s always those damn words that never seem to stick in my head. I stretch my arms and crack my knuckles, reciting the words over and over again. I don’t know why I still do that before every show I play; I always wind up adlibbing lyrics with whatever I see in the bar and, if I’m lucky, am able to go back into the choruses smoothly. I wonder if Joe and Rob run into this same problem that I do. Every time they play, they just nail it, every word seems perfect. I just don’t have that kind of attention to small details.
Robs thanks the audience and steps off the stage, patting me on the shoulder as I put the final fine-tuning to my guitar and get ready to go. I stand in the middle of the stage and stare out into the audience, staring back at me. For a moment, I completely forget where I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. I look down at my guitar and a bright stage light illuminates me, standing alone on a stage. I raise my hand to cover my eyes and think to myself, “Fuck I hate stage lights.”
I walk up to the microphone. “My name is Chester, I haven’t changed my Bob Dylan shirt for three days and I really hate stage lights. So I’m going to try something different today.”
I hop off the stage and start strumming my acoustic guitar. Wandering around the bar, I start singing as loud as I can whatever words I remember. For the first song I stand in the middle of the dance floor, hoping people will stand up and stand around me; I wound up just standing in the middle of the floor looking like a bigger idiot than I would have on stage. If people aren’t going to come to me then I’m going to have to go to them.
For my second song, I walk over to the bar. The first line of the song has something to do with having a crush on a girl working in a hardware store, but I can’t remember that. On to adlibbing.
“Hey Mister Bartender/Can you pour me a pint of Keith’s/I’m feeling awfully dry here/and I can’t remember any of my words.”
This got a few laughs out of the audience while I keep playing through the songs. When the bartender hands me the pint I stop of a moment and let my strings sings out.
“That’s four-fifty for the pint, right?”
“Cool,” I hand the bartender a five and pop another two dollars into the tip jar before taking a sip of the pint and continuing my song.
I stand at the bar for the rest of my first set, tapping my boot against the bar to the rhythm of my songs. I finish the first set covering Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” knowing if I forget the words I better adlib a damn fine verse otherwise some folk purist is going to throw his beer at me.
Crap, what’s the second verse again?
“The bar looks awfully full tonight/And I hope you’re all having a good time/Make sure to tip your bartender/He’s a really really nice guy.” I turn and give the bartender a high five. “Joe and Rob are playing next/They put on a great show/Please don’t kill me/For not remembering this song.”
I kick back into the chorus and I spot a few people singing along, so I walk up to them and invite them to take over the verses. Some are too shy and kind of just left me strumming and negotiating, but one young lady wearing thick rimmed glasses and a bright purple hoodie stands up on her table and sings the last verse for me and joined me for the last chorus.
Ok, I’m winning them over, but what are Joe and Rob going to do to try and one up me?
Joe takes the stage and it’s like bluegrass in red heat. He strums frantically, faster and faster, giving me an idea what it would be like if Slayer tried to cover Robert Johnson songs. The audience claps along with Joe’s boot stomp and the harder he stomps, the harder they clap. Worse though, the faster Joe plays, the faster everyone drinks. Now the room is full of drunk college-aged adults who arrived with a false sense of irony in mind in liking a style of music that would normally have been reserved for their farmer grandfathers, and they’re all screaming and hollering along.
Joe finishes his third song and Rob stands on the side of the stage, mouth hanging open and arms hanging on his side, with a look on his face that only says, “What the fuck am I supposed to do now?” Rob coming on stage is like following trying to follow up a cocaine filled, pre-born-again-Christian Megadeth set with Joan Baez: people are either going to fall asleep, throw things, or attack poor Rob. The energy in the room is still too high for bedroom-eyed-ballads. But once Rob starts playing again, the energy did drop, but people are in that trance again, like those bedroom-eyes have the power to settle a rabid pack of hyenas. I stare at Rob and suddenly realize that three songs have passed and it’s my turn.
And I have no fucking idea what I’m supposed to play.
I give my six strings a slow strum to make sure everything’s still in tune. Then I pick a random chord. I strum it for a minute, not having any clue what chord I’m playing (I can’t read music, I make it up as I go) before picking another random chord and strumming it to the same tempo. It was sounding alright, I only know a couple of positions that I’ve given odd nicknames to (two-top-two-bottom, middle-string-magic, pretty-high, a-lot-of-open, and so on) and lucky for me, as long as I play these chords on the lowest frets of my guitar they generally sound good together no matter what order I play them in.
Strum… strum… strum…
Shit, I need words.
“It’s snowing again outside/The winter keeps me cold/Could we keep warm together tonight/If I could be so bold.”
Did I just sing a line about using snow as an excuse to get into a girl’s pants? People are giggling, keep going with it.
I keep this up for the entire set and I don’t know how I was able to pull this off. Whatever I see coming through the room, walking around, and even outside with the smokers, I just keep singing whatever pops into my head. I keep turning my surroundings into poetry.
Towards the end of my last set, I start strumming this one riff, and I keep strumming it over and over again, walking around the room. I stop beside a girl and I give her a nod and she nods back.
“How are you liking the show?” I ask whilst I keep strumming.
“Good,” she replies.
“Has it actually been good?” I stare into her green eyes, keep strumming. My eyes wander down her floral sundress, keep strumming. Down to her black ballet-style shoes, keep strumming. I look back up and she adjusts her thick rimmed glasses.
“Actually good,” she continues. “It’s been interesting.”
I nod. “It has been interesting hasn’t it?”
I keep strumming.
“Probably time to end the song, isn’t it?” I ask.
“Probably,” she giggles.
“When should I stop?”
“I don’t know,” she shrugs.
I keep strumming.
“K, I have an idea,” still strumming. “Pick a number.”
“Okay, uh, twenty-one.”
“Okay, we’re going to count down from twenty-one, ready?”
“Twenty-one,” she begins.
“Twenty,” I join in.
“Nineteen, eighteen, seventeen,” I listen and I hear it getting louder behind me.
“Sixteen, fifteen, fourteen,” even louder behind me.
“Thirteen, twelve, eleven,” the whole bar’s counting along.
“Ten, nine, eight, seven,” they’re stomping and clapping and pounding the tables along.
“Six, five, four,” wait, what do I say when I’m done?
“Three, two, one,” and I stop strumming.
“I’m Chester, I have no idea what just happened, and I hope you weren’t bored tonight, thank you.”