"He's got to learn the names of chords, instead of just playing them at me and assuming that I'll be able to figure it out," I say at the IHOP.
"Yeah, but you always manage it. That's why he keeps doing it," says Belle.
It's been almost six months since I darkened the concrete stoop of Stacy's Coffee Shop for their open mike, and the event has evolved somewhat since then. An older man named John is running the show now, and he's a bit more organized, I guess. The old system was pretty much hit-or-miss, orchestrated through shouting back and forth with the barista. But in turn, most of the people that I used to see there are gone now--including almost all of the younger musicians. Have they been driven off? Did they go back to school? Like me, has work pulled them away? I don't know enough to say.
I end up on stage three times--once early on to waste some time, once with the white-boy bluesman who asked me to come (the same one I cut some basslines for a couple weeks ago), and last when the keyboardist finally shows up. There's an old joke: why was the keyboard player onstage with three bands in one night? Because it took the first two for him to set up! I am not sure that it's a joke anymore.
How does an open mike survive? It strikes me that they're like any organization. Some of them are strongarmed along by the charismatic and the insane, and without that person they fall apart. Others might be communal affairs, created and maintained by a fluid group. In both cases, the makeup changes, either through subtle selection ("This isn't really my kind of crowd") or the interpersonal equivalent of genetic drift. If I ever go back to school for a higher Communication degree, there's a paper in this.
This weekend, I went over to record some bass tracks for a friend I met at the Stacy's open mike. He's a good kid, a singer/songwriter type who mostly plays white-boy blues. We tracked something like 12 songs in 3 hours, which is screaming--but since all he was usually asking for was root-5 lines, it was pretty easy work.
Really, it couldn't be more different from what I'm doing now, something that became clear when I played a couple of my sketchpads for him. Whereas all of my stuff is spare loops layered with distortion, he was looking for that acoustic folk vibe--to the point of asking me if I could sound like an upright. But while it's not the same sound, it's nice to know that I can still play a traditional rock bass role when I need to. Sometimes I miss the idea of being in a full band. And then I remember the hassle of practice, paying for equipment, searching for gigs, and having to play second fiddle to a guitarist again, and I feel pretty good about what I've chosen to do.
In other solo bassist news, one of my acquaintances from the Lowdown, Steve Lawson, has a new gig. He's still playing his looping bass, but now he's doing it with a jazz vocalist and covering everything from Slipknot to the Cure. They're calling themselves "The New Standard." It's interesting stuff, and very different from the way I loop. You can check it out here.
"Good job with that Black Keys song," says the impressively inoffensive young man who preceded me. (It's important to understand, at this point, that the eight songs before I got up to play had been acoustic numbers. And not just any acoustic, because it's not like that's a rarity at open mikes, but songs that were guaranteed to leave your pulse at a comfortable resting rate without alteration or acceleration. If there is a beneficent deity, may he save us from acoustic singer-songwriters. After that, I could have played a heavily distorted Mary Had A Little Lamb and still rocked the joint. But that's an entirely different parenthetical discussion.)
"Thanks," I say. "It's a good song."
"I've seen you do it before," he says. "At Iota a couple months ago." Which stuns me. I didn't think anyone was watching me at Iota--there weren't that many people there, and I thought I bombed completely. I say as much now.
"Well," he replies, "you're the guy with the bass guitar and the looper. You kind of stand out, you know?"
Oh. Right. Good point.
Let's call him Bentley, names changed to protect and all that. Every week, he's at the coffeehouse open mike playing originals on an old, slightly out-of-tune acoustic. Bentley's about sixty, maybe as young as fifty, but it's hard to tell. His white hair is cut close, with a carefully trimmed beard. When he plays, his hands and his voice both shake. He never smiles. Instead he stares straight ahead and sings in a voice that is thin and urgent. Some people have a stage presence, but Bentley doesn't, and you feel uncomfortable with him while he performs.
Bentley's dad comes with him each week, in a polo shirt, white tennis shoes and a grey meshback cap. He is every little old man I've ever seen, and where Bentley always seems like a bitter ball of shame his dad has a blast. When I finish my three songs and sit down, he taps me on the leg and says: "You done good. That's what the sergeant use to say. That was the highest praise that sergeant ever had to give you. You done good."
Bentley doesn't know what to play for his third song. His dad rasps out: "Play 'Doo-wah-diddy'" and then cackles to himself. "It's my favorite song," he confides to us. Bentley looks at the back wall and begins the song. He sings:
"Pickin' and a-hittin'/I'm playin' my guitar/Hopin' and a-dreamin'/that one day I'll be a star."
When he repeats this at the end of the song, Bentley's father (who has been singing along during the chorus) calls out, "You are a star, Bentley!" with a total lack of self-consciousness. His son does not react.