(Archive.)

Friday, June 3, 2016

Here we are, folks — the dream we all dream of. Man versus butterflies. Prince is dead, and I’m not feeling so well myself. It’s showtime.

There’s a phrase that’s been running through my head in the weeks leading up to this gig — a two-set “Happy Hour” at Rochester’s renowned dive the Bug Jar — and that phrase is: proof of concept.

It’s a term borrowed from engineering, defined as evidence derived from an experiment or pilot project showing that a concept or design element has practical potential. It’s my way of managing expectations for the show, I suppose. “Proof of concept” means that the show doesn’t have to be great, or even necessarily good. It just has to demonstrate that this incarnation of Roscoe’s Basement is a viable group. A band plays shows. Some will be better than others, but they will all fulfill the requirements for a rock show: a list of songs that all the performers know, performed competently to completion, with talking in between, and an audience of some kind who must be entertained — or at least not actively hostile.

If you can make it through a show — even a mediocre one — then you can, with hard work and experience, ramp up to a good one. You may not be there yet, but you’re on the right track. If you can’t make it through the first gig, though, there will be no second gig. So there’s our goal. Proof of concept. Demonstrate potential.

Potential energy becomes kinetic energy. Photo by Janice Hanson.

Engineers typically construct proof-of-concept experiments as small, low-stakes scenarios. And this gig is certainly that. The Bug Jar is — and I say this after careful consideration — a pestilential shambles, a rinky-dink corner bar of the type that They Just Don’t Make ‘Em Like Anymore, presumably because They belatedly suffered a sudden and life-changing attack of good sense.

There are two rooms. In the back, there’s a stage — small, but quite high up — plus a sound booth, lights, and full PA. Four or five nights a week, there’s music back there. Occasionally you’ll get a DJ set, but usually it’s live bands, both local and touring acts, all original music. It’s a great bargain — three or four bands for just $10 — and that draws the college kids and the scenesters.

The front room is for the serious drinkers. The afternoon sun cuts in slantwise through the glass front. There’s no stage as such; the room is sort of a split level, with a raised area for a couple of booths and a pool table. The walls are a gaudy red and green, hung with bric-a-brac and work by local artists. Rococo as hell. Lurid sculpted houseflies adorn the two blades of a ceiling fan spinning slowly over the bar. Everything is grimy and faintly sticky. This is where we will play, soundtracking discounted well drinks and free pizza for two hours in the early evening, 5:00 to 7:00 PM on a Friday, two hours of (mostly) covers for tips for a homeward-bound post-work crowd; then we’ll pack up our shit and clear out before the real bands get there for a 9:00 quadruple bill in the back.

The stakes could not be lower. So I’m free to worry about stupid stuff, like my hat.

See, I’m a big guy — thick in the middle, thin on top — and I sweat something fierce when I exert myself. I almost always wear a hat, just to keep the sweat out of my eyes. A ballcap is fine for everyday, but it looks dumb onstage; it’s too hot for my tweed scally; a pirate-style bandanna only works if you commit to the whole biker look, and it’s far too late in the game for me to be getting tattooed. So I slap on my Cuban-style straw fedora with a button-up shirt — short sleeves, but dressy — and head out, still with very little idea of what kind of frontman I want to be.

Mike digs in and makes it greasy. Photo by Janice Hanson.

I remember one time — I was in college, I think — a stranger told me I could never be a rock star because I smile too much. And it’s true. You look at pictures of most rock ‘n’ roll dudes onstage, and they’re all so intense. I have fun onstage; I can’t do a scary glower to save my life. But a good frontman needs a commanding presence. I don’t think in terms of a persona — I have no interest in playing make-believe or doing a “character” — but whereas a solo performer can pitch himself to a human scale because he and his solo guitar are making only a small-scaled noise, a man in front of a roaring five-piece band must perforce himself be larger than life to compensate.

So I’m sweating this stuff as we set up; and then it’s go time, and Tom lays into the backbeat of our opener, “10 AM Automatic,” and it’s just me and the drums. And I open my mouth and say something like:

Good evening, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors; the name of this organization is Roscoe’s Basement — we are the rock ‘n’ roll band that practices underneath a dog. And we are here tonight for your dining and dancing pleasure, playing the songs you know and love, the closet classics from deep in the underground, and all your favorite songs you’ve never heard. So get comfortable, buy me a drink, and make yourself ready to rock — steady — because we’re about to kick it off.

Fellas, uh, don’t leave me standin’ up here all by myself — I feel like I’m sellin’ something…

It all tumbles out of me in a singsong drawl, this stream of doubletalk and catchphrases, with a cadence somewhere between that of a soap box preacher and of a boardwalk pitchman who’s been huffing ether.

And then Mike comes in with those shattering opening chords, and we’re off to the races.

We head into “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” like a house afire, tambourine jangling like my nerves. I’m singing hard. Not too hard, not yet. The sound of “Surrender,” and that long triumphant ending spiraling upwards, actually draws a random pedestrian in from the street. (“I had no idea anybody covered Cheap Trick these days,” he marvels to me later.) And on. The Who, the Ramones, the Pixies. I hit it too hard; I’m short of breath on the Beatles tune, and the notes get away from me. Suck it up.

We’re up on the little rise, set up right in front of the can. Guys are literally walking between me and Mike to get the men’s room. I don’t care. Chuck plays a hot solo on “Summertime Blues,” and I fan myself theatrically with my fedora. Danielle stops in, though she can’t stay long; I wave from the stage. I do a long freestyle on “Roadhouse Blues,” introducing the band one by one. The carnival-barker flimflam rolls easily: this is me now, the Jack o’ Diamonds, emcee and ringmaster of this rock ‘n’ roll circus. And then we’re into “Friction,” and at some point a voice from the back of the room screams, “Who even DOES that?!?

Things get rocky as we wind down the first set, though. “Starry Eyes” starts off at a crawling tempo; I windmill my fist and glare daggers at Tom, but the pace never picks up to a satisfactory degree, and the song — and the set — limp to a close. Hit the head, down some water — my shirt is soaked already — get buttonholed by the Cheap Trick guy (who is REALLY into Cheap Trick, and would happily spend all night telling me so), say goodbye to Danielle. Then it’s back in the ring to take another swing.

We make a strong start, but things start going south mid-set. I flub a bunch of words; the false ending of “Destroyer” gets away from us, abruptly turning into a real ending; the mix slowly becomes unbalanced as various parties turn up incrementally. We close with “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”, played at a breakneck clip. Too fast. Everything’s a blur. I don’t handle it well. I let my exasperation show.

And then it’s over. We have proof of concept.

We start the teardown. Tom apologizes profusely for various little fuck-ups. I shrug it off — what’s done is done. That’s the way my temper operates: a swift flare-up of annoyance, an outburst, and then I’m fine, all forgiven as far as I’m concerned.

But it’s not forgiven. Deanna takes me aside and tactfully tells me I acted like a dick up there. And, y’know, I did. The looks I was giving Tom — Jesus Christ, he must’ve thought I wanted to kill him. I am blowing this, blowing it.

I go back to Tom and apologize for, basically, calling him out in front the crowd. It was stupid and cruel and pointless. It didn’t help matters; it only made them worse. I promise — not aloud — that I will do better in future gigs. Because there will be future gigs; after all, we have proof of concept.

Craig’s wife calls us outside so she can get a group photo. I’m bent slightly forward, as if about to double over with laughter, although I forget the joke. I look nothing at all like a rock star; I am smiling far, far too much.

The classic brick wall shot. L–R: Mike Mann, the author, Chuck Romano, Craig Hanson, Tom Finn, Deanna Finn. Photo by Janice Hanson. Special thanks to Deanna for Photoshopping the worst of the sweat stains out of my shirt.

Next month: The Woodshed