Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Nashville Blowout

One of the most memorable nights for me, both as a music aficionado and a rock and roll fan, was when I happened to be in Nashville back in about the year 2000.  I, as most people visiting that city, ended up on Music Row one night, excited to see the new and upcoming performers.  I went into one venue, which was larger than I expected, a boxy room with a raised stage and a stairway that led to a second level where food was served at semi-formal tables.  The building was in good condition with wood grain bannisters and a flavorful décor of music acts.  However on this night, no act was performing.

So I continued down the street, peeking inside pubs and music joints.  The next one I found had a stage that was along the left side of the room, directly opposite a long bar.  There was a young man in a black cowboy hat singing his own songs as he strummed his acoustic guitar.  He was lanky and looked like he seldom got any sunshine on his skin, but I immediately respected him in having the balls to get up there and just push his music during whatever fifteen minutes they allotted to him.  For that’s how Nashville is.  You just have to get yourself out there on the floor and perform with confidence.  Until you can do that, you have not hope for anything.  It takes a lot of practice and experience to get comfortable doing your thing.

As his set ended, and chairs and microphone stands began being moved, I finished my rum and Coke and decided to wander out and down the street some more.  This time, I found a gritty bar; the hole in the wall you might find on Sunset Strip on Hollywood.  The decor here; there was none.  Just a bar that curved away from the dark green wall about a quarter way into the pub, and then took the rest of the length of the left wall all the way to the back.  On the right side of the room were chairs and tables with a slightly elevated black stage, maybe a foot high, that was set in front of the front windows of the room and slightly to the right wall.  At the back of the room was a very narrow stairway that led up and back, then across the back wall to a loft area, that probably housed storage supplies for the bar.  Under the loft was a short hallway that had a back service entrance.

The room was maybe about a third full and there was a country band finishing up their first set bringing energy to the room with a guitar, bass, drums, fiddle and singer.  It was a Thursday night, so though it wasn’t a weekend evening, there were enough people looking to start the end of the week early.  The music ended and I got myself another rum and Coke and settled in at a small table near the front of the place adjacent to the beginning of the bar with people walking in and out of the place behind me.  I listened to people talking, mostly about work and about people in the community.  Then there were others who talked about having played places and gigs.  It seemed like a mix of blue-collar workers and semi-professional musicians hanging out there that night to take some stress off.

I looked around my surroundings and noticed that the windows in front of me that lead out to the street were part way opened.  They tilted in on hinges and let the cool air from outside ventilate the place nicely.  I hate stuffy places, so I felt content to sit here a while for the band to come back and start another set.  It was about 9:30pm.  I looked around more, and I noticed plastic safety floor coverings that covered cables and ran from where the stage hit the right wall of the pub, around the inside perimeter, under the staircase, and out the back entrance.  I thought to myself, “Man, they must have some bad fuse boxes in this place if they had to get electrical from outside every time a band plays.  What a pain in the ass!”  It seems like either bad planning, or like an owner who never felt like upgrading the place.

About half way through my rum and Coke, I watched as the instruments on stage were taken off by staff leaving large covered cabinets behind that I had not noticed until this point.  “So was that the end of this band?  Did I just miss it all?” I asked myself.  In a few minutes, a few new amps were brought up, along with a new, larger drum kit and extra microphone stands.  “Oh, maybe just a new band then.  That’s fine.”  I had a good seat and had found a lively pub.  I would just wait.

More minutes went by, and I talked with a couple of guys at a table near me about Nashville being such a good music town.  They seemed nice, and I could tell that they were local.  I watched as a large man, and I mean a very large, muscular man, came up from the back of the establishment and closed the front door.  They weren’t at capacity.  Nowhere near.  That was strange.  Were they going to charge for the next band, and would I need to get my wallet out or would they think I had snuck in or something?  I didn’t know how it worked in Nashville.

There was a bit of chatter back and forth between this front door man and some other bouncers who had suddenly appeared from the back entrance. They were all huge, tall, muscle-bound, with blue jeans on and back short-sleeved shirts, which accentuated their upper body width and rock solid biceps.  Then the front door man pulled out a hand counter from his pocket and opened the front door back up.  It appeared as if they had counted everyone in the room, and then had again allowed people to wander in as before, but this time counting.  Maybe Thursday nights were more popular than I had reckoned.  The room was still only about a third full as I called it.

Another ten minutes went by and another rum and Coke appeared in my hand when two roadies, band workers, whatever you want to call them, came up to the stage and pulled a black tarp off of the cabinets that had been sitting against the back of the low stage against the right wall and against the front windows of the joint.  As the tarps fell, there appeared four Trace Elliot amp stacks on the left by the wall, and four Hi-Watt amps in front of the window.  The sight of these instantly gave me chills as they would anytime, because my favorite rock band, The Who, used just this configuration of amps for John Entwistle and Pete Townshend respectively.  On top of the each stack of cabinets were sets of lighted compressors and tuners of sorts…I don’t know what they were exactly, except that they brought a beautiful technical lighting into a room that was as plain a pub as pubs can be.

So what exactly was happening?  Was there a well-known country star dropping in to play that night?  It had to be someone who could afford such gear I thought to myself.  Well, however it would go, I had picked just the right spot to sit with a clear view of the stage, near the bar and not far from the window for fresh air.  I wasn’t going anywhere.  My barhopping was done for the night.

So I sat for just a few more minutes, bantering back and forth with the guys near me and some other people about who could be coming onto the stage.  Several stars were brought up by the locals who could be touring just then, and I thought to myself, it really could be anyone just wanting to get out and play.  It didn’t have to be someone directly on tour just at that moment.  But guessing was useless.  We’d soon find out.

Now three rum and Cokes into it, I was feeling a bit of a buzz and slowed down.  I enjoyed the feeling of being out on the Nashville town on Music Row on a night that was now starting to sprinkle a little outside.  Here I was, comfy inside and ready to see a show of some sort.

Just then, a short man came out with jeans and a simple t-shirt, walked right past me and hopped on stage.  I immediately felt light-headed and dizzy, as I looked straight at Roger Daltry grabbing the main mic from the mic stand.  I couldn’t believe it.  It was him.  Before I could think of a reason why he might be here tonight, he said, “Hi there.  I’m Roger.  We’ve been a bit secluded lately and we like to get out here and there and play a little music with friends.”  I was dumbfounded.  “We?”  What was he talking about?

Behind me came another man carrying a bass guitar.  I didn’t recognize him, but I did recognize the guitar.  It was a black Status Buzzard bass. As that was registering in my head, John Entwistle walked behind that man and up to the left side of the stage to claim his bass from him.  Entwistle plugged in and hit a note or two that sounded like monstrous electric guitars.  One of the guys at the table to my side had to grab his glass as it started vibrating it’s way off of his table.  I didn’t need to see my own face to know that it was flush.  Everyone else in the room was looking at these two people wondering what was happening.  And then from behind me, Pete Townshend walked in and up to the stage with a plump bald man carrying two Fender Eric Clapton Signature Stratocasters; one red and one white.  Pete put on the red Strat and went to the other mic and said, “Hello everyone.  We’re just going to play a few songs tonight.  These old men don’t want to get rusty….” And then I didn’t catch the rest of what he said as he pitched it in some sort of faux cockney accent.  He then strummed his guitar in pre-performance preparation with quick struts.  John Rabbit Bundrick, the keyboardist they often used, walked up to the stage and stood behind two keyboards that had been squeezed onto the rear right of the stage behind Townshend.

Zak Starkey, the drummer, then walked from the other side of the room up to the stage, put a drink down behind the drum kit, adjusted his seat and hit the snare drum and his hi-hat with loose, yet persnickety precision.

Everyone was sitting up straight in their seats, and some stood momentarily, not knowing if it was appropriate for such a small venue, then sat back down.  I looked to the back of the room and people were standing.  I also saw people whipping out their cell phones to take photos and to text people, presumably letting them know that The Who was in their local pub.  And that’s what all of the cables running the pub’s cement floor were about.  Extra voltage.

My head whipped back around just in time to see John Entwistle take a sip from his liquor glass with nimble fingers setting it down on his cabinet, and then over to Pete Townshend counted off, “two, three, four,” and the sound of their instruments blasted the room.  They opened with, “My Generation,” those big chords and busy rhythms rumbling through us.  A room that was just a few moments ago, vacuous enough to let the various specific noses of bottles and chairs moving, was now barely able to contain the thunderous noise of the band.

They apparently had guessed right for what equipment was needed for the room, because thought it was loud and earth-moving, it was not overloaded or too hot.  We could hear the various colors of each of the instruments.  Townshend’s guitar was sharp and crisp sounding, the individual drums’ intonation clear, and Entwistle’s electric blue shimmering bass separated very nicely.

They went onto play songs from their early days, such as, “I Can’t Explain,” “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “Kids Are Alright,” and then onto songs from, “Tommy,” “Who’s Next,” "Quadrophenia,” and "It’s Hard.”  Pretty much after the first few measures of, “My Generation” having started, everyone stood up and pushed towards the front row of tables near the stage.  How could they not?  Once in a lifetime. And as the songs went on, the door quickly got a steady stream of people being counted by the door guard, and then shooting in to grab a drink from the bar and watch, “The Who.”  It was a pretty funny looking crowd in my eyes, having come from visiting venues near where I live in Los Angeles.  There were lots of guys and ladies in blue jeans and cowboy hats, and then a mix of more slick industry people started to mix in as word got out about who was playing.

To my surprise, both Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney, the country superstars, came in, likely through the back entrance since I would have seen them come in to my right if they had entered the front door.  By the time I spotted them, they both had beers in their hands (obviously well before McGraw went sober), and they were already getting blasted and singing with the Who songs.  It was good to know that two friends could just have a good old time watching some music together.  They got progressively trashed throughout the night, and later I would see Faith Hill with a girlfriend in the back of the room briefly.  I don’t know if she ever successfully found her husband.

The front doors locked as the place got filled to capacity, and then there appeared at the front window a wall of people looking in and listening through the opened portions of the window plates.  It was raining lightly outside when Roger sang, “Love, Reign O’er Me.”  And even though that’s a different kind of rain/reign, it felt well timed.

I could see that The Who was enjoying this small venue.  And it occurred to me that a few months earlier, perhaps six months ago, I had read that The Who had played a small pub back in the U.K. that they used to play when they were young, and so I presumed that perhaps they enjoyed popping into a small venue to play to a smaller group of people.  This was just fantastic on every level.  We could all watch their hands playing guitar and drums and see their facial reactions to the audiences’ reactions.  It was a relationship that fed on itself.

I looked back to see that two bartenders also looking somewhat sloshed.  I thought they weren’t allowed to drink when working?  Maybe for special occasions when The Who plays your pub.  There was someone standing on the bar at one point during, “Who Are You.”  He was completely off balance and eventually slumped onto the bar and was removed to a corner of the bar to sleep it off.  “I remember throwing punches around and preaching from my chair. Well, who are you?”

The night was magical and ended at about Midnight with The Who finishing with “Eminence Front,” and then Pete, John, Rabbit and Ray all making their way to the bar to refresh their drinks.  People were shouting and applauding while the band refilled.  Then, as Pete walked past me, he shouted out, “Okay, there’ll be a couple more and then we’ll be too pissed to see our own feet!”

They got back on stage and played, “Naked Eye,” “Guitar and your Pen,” “Young Man Blues,” and “Pure and Easy,” as their encore set.  The people in the pub were so into it, so mesmerized, all sharing this moment together with The Who.  I think the band enjoyed it just as much.