In Praise of Bar Bands
In the winter of 1980 I moved to Ketchum, Idaho. How I ended up there is far too complicated to go into here. Let's just say I was aiming for Southern California, and missed.
Ketchum is the home of the Sun Valley ski resort. It is essentially one big party surrounded by mountains. I was able to enjoy both a very active social life and the Great Outdoors. I lived there for six years.
One thing Ketchum did not have, at least in 1980, was punk rock.
At first I found Ketchum to be a musical wasteland. There was one radio station in town (somewhat inevitably called KSKI), which tried to please everyone, and therefore ended up the blandest of the bland -- a lot of folk-pop and New Age music. (Later in the 80's cable radio came to the mountains, so we could also listen to a classic rock station out of Boise, and MTV.) True, the local record store (yes, singular) carried releases by the Clash and Elvis Costello, but there was no longer much possibility of discovering anything new.
Or so I thought. Eventually, I did find musical salvation, and in the most unlikely place -- bar bands.
I know. I hear you, “Bar bands? Isn't that the antithesis of originality? Cranking out cheesy covers of popular songs which were never that good to begin with? Yeah, that's the image.” But I quickly learned that there's more than that to being a good bar band.
First, let me try to define just what I mean by a “bar band.” It's kind of one of those “I know it when I see it” things, but here goes.
Not every band which plays in a bar is a bar band. After all, most bands start out playing in bars. But some of them just see this as a step in their career path. Other bands have accepted that entertaining a crowd in a bar is their lot in life. This is not to say that bar bands don't dream about the big time, they do. But they understand that their purpose, right now, is the crowd in front of them. They play to that crowd, not some supposed A&R man in the back of the room.
There are some easy ways to distinguish the bar band from what I will call the “career” band. The bar band plays mostly (though not exclusively) cover songs. The career band plays mostly originals. The career band plays a short set on a bill with three or four other bands. The bar band is the sole entertainment for the whole evening. The career band wants you to sit down and listen to their music; the bar band just wants you to dance.
Some bands maintain the approach of a bar band, even when they hit the (relatively) big time, that is, when they can sell a few albums, and book national tours. This is especially true of blues bands. These bands may play a big concert hall one night, and a small club the next. When they play the small club, they revert back to just trying to get the crowd to boogie. Some bands even prefer the small clubs for this very reason.
So what kind of talents are particular to a great bar band? And what did I find so appealing about them?
Of course, it takes technical talent to play the hits well enough that people will dance, rather than cringe. And there is no shortage of technical talent out there. There are a helluva lot more talented musicians in America than the Billboard Top 40 has room for. For that matter, even MySpace barely scratches the surface of the talent out there. I have seen musicianship in bar bands which rivals anything I've seen on larger stages.
Still, technical talent, impressive as it may be, has never been the main thing I search for in music. As you may recall from last month, my two criteria for judging music are originality and energy. As far as bar bands go, energy is easy. The first requirement of a bar band is to up the energy level of the bar. That's their job. The more the people dance, the more they drink. (And the more they drink, the more they dance. Funny how it works out that way.)
But what about originality? Does playing covers all night really stifle the original spirit of a band? Not necessarily. A really good bar band doesn't just play covers note for note, they tweak the songs, make them their own. And just because they're bar bands doesn't mean they can't play original songs. Most of my favorite bar bands sprinkle a few original tunes among the covers, tunes which the regulars grow to love.
But all of that still barely touches the true talent of a great bar band. And that is to entertain a crowd, night after night after night. The primary duty of a bar band is to make the audience have fun. And they usually do that by having fun themselves.
Back in Ketchum, it's not like I was looking for a new genre of music to enlighten me. I still had all my old punk records (and much else), back in my apartment. I was just looking for something to do. So I started hanging out in bars. A lot.
There wasn't a lot to do in Ketchum. Understand, this was a town with one radio station, one record store, and one movie theater. And that one movie theater had one (!) screen. But there were six bars in a single block of downtown. Bars were where the action was, where the alcohol was, where the women were. So they were where I was.
Hey, I was in my mid-twenties. Ready to have some fun in my life. Drinking and dancing seemed like a perfect way to spend Friday and Saturday night. Okay, and Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as well. Sundays there was usually no music, so we had to settle for just drinking.
Okay, I'm exaggerating. A little. But I was in those bars a lot, and I heard a lot of bar bands. In fact, bar bands served as a sort of radio for me. I heard many of the big hits of the 80's first not in their original version, but played by bar bands. Songs such as Tom Petty's “You Got Lucky,” John Cougar's “Hurt So Good,” Styx's “Too Much Time on My Hands,” and most of Billy Idol's hits evoke in my memory not the original artist, but some bar band (or, more accurately, some woman I danced with to each particular song).
Bar bands also seemed to have their own Top Forty, songs which every band played. While it mirrored the actual Top Forty of the day, there were some songs which particularly reflected the atmosphere of the bar, and the town, and which therefore got a lot of play. The Cars' “Shake It Up” (“Dance all night/ play all day...”), Commander Cody's ”Too Much Fun” (“Threw me in jail for having too much fun...”), Prince's “1999” (do I need to quote it for you?), and some song called “Party Town,” (“Sun comes up/ Sun goes down/ Doesn't really matter in party town”) which, to this day, I have no idea who played it originally.
Over time, I began to appreciate what these bands were doing, the particular challenges they faced, and which ones met those challenges.
My favorite bar, Silver Creek, was a pretty standard one, one room for the bands, another for the pool and pinball, with a decent sized dance floor, and plenty of young patrons to fill it. My favorite spot was at the end of the bar by the stage and the dance floor, where you could get a drink quickly, and not miss an opportunity to dance when the right woman and/or song came along. And where, if you cared to, you could actually watch the band play.
Silver Creek booked bands for six nights (Mon. - Sat.), three sets a night. The Mountain Northwest had a steady supply of bands which would tour around (often from resort to resort), playing a week here, a couple of days there. A week's gig was a good score, paying fairly well and giving the band a chance to settle down for a few days.
But it also presented certain challenges. Mainly, pulling the crowd in night after night. In the first place, you need to know a lot of songs. Some bands got away with playing the same tunes every night, but the best had a different set list for every evening. Sure, they would repeat the favorites a few times through the week, but you got a different show every night.
Then you have to arrange those songs into a coherent set, one which will get the crowd dancing and keep them dancing. Just like a good DJ, once you have a full dancefloor, you don't want to let up until the crowd is ready to take a break anyway; that is, until you have basically worn them out. And you need to know that too, when they are worn out, and will sit down for a moment whatever you play, so you give them a slow song or two, or take a brief break.
Not surprisingly, I soon had a favorite out of all the bands which came through regularly. They were from Bozeman, Montana, and started out as The Paradise Valley Band (there is an actual valley, between Yellowstone and Bozeman, which is called Paradise Valley). Then they broke up, shuffled their personnel, and became Lucky Fingers. A couple of years later, another shuffle, and they were called Shades.
What is, perhaps, surprising, is that PVB, and their later permutations, played music by the Grateful Dead, Little Feat, and other bands which would now be called jam bands. Bands which I was not a big fan of at the time. But it didn't matter, because whatever version came to town, they always put on a good show. They always entertained.
They had a huge repertoire, and were able to mix it up to produce a strong show every night. They could relate to their audience, bringing them in, making the show a communal experience. They took requests, they told bad jokes (I met a woman in the bar the other night. She told me she liked to talk during sex. She wasn't kidding either. That same night I got a call from her.”) They put on a great show. And, perhaps most important, they had fun doing.
Oh, and after the gig was over, they loved to party.
(One of the greatest parties I've ever been to was the PVB reunion. It was held in the actual Paradise Valley, in a town called called Emigrant, which consisted of a bar, a general store, a Post Office and a church -- what more do you need for a town? The show was held outside of the bar, and brought together all the former members of PVB and every band they mutated into, and every permutation played a set. All on a gorgeous August day, in the middle of nothing but mountain meadows.)
No discussion of bar bands would be complete without mentioning NRBQ. NRBQ (The New Rhythm and Blues Quartet) billed themselves as 'the greatest bar band on earth,' and they worked hard to live up that rep. Whatever venue they played, they treated it like it was a bar. They always played in a loose, almost ramshackle manner. They played whatever they felt like playing on a given night; you never knew what you'd hear. Mostly, they had fun playing, whether it was using a beer bottle for a guitar slide, physically abusing their equipment, or incorporating a belch into the chorus of a song.
And they took requests. They claimed to be able to play any song the audience could throw at them, and they usually did, at least for a verse or two.
I saw NRBQ three times. The first time I was in college, and, while I was impressed by their energy and versatility, I found them too mellow for my taste. This was in my heavy punk days, and before I had discovered bar bands -- that is, before I had a basis to appreciate what they were doing. I left before the show was over.
The second time they opened for R.E.M. at the Pacific Amphitheater, in Orange County CA. (Yes, it was the all acronym show.) They did treat the Pacific Amphitheater as if it was a bar, but their splendor still got lost in that place.
The third time was the charm -- I saw them at the Coach House (San Juan Capistrano, CA). It was the perfect venue, as it is essentially a large bar. They performed in all their glory, and blew away the friends (more true bar band aficionados) I had dragged to the show.
Back in the fall of 1980, when I was deciding where to move post-college, the choices in my mind were Southern California and New York City. As I said, I chose California, and ended up in Idaho. It's interesting to ponder where my musical taste might have gone if I had chosen New York instead. Judging from where it was (I was starting to get into The Contortions and the whole No Wave scene), I probably would have ended up at early Sonic Youth concerts, rather than listening to cover bands in dark bars.
That probably would have narrowed my musical taste, rather than expanding it. I could well have become a total musical snob, willing to listen to nothing that wasn't obscure or bizarre, certainly nothing that was commercial.
Moving to Idaho forced me to listen to a broad variety of music. I couldn't listen to only the stuff I really liked, because there just wasn't enough of it. And I was too much of a music fan to not listen to what was there. I grew to appreciate the bands which had influenced my favorite bar bands -- The Grateful Dead, Little Feat, Dave Mason, even a certain amount of country music.
But more, it broadened my whole perspective on music. I have always liked challenging, difficult music. Had I gone to New York, I well might have decided that the only music worth listening to was challenging music.
Instead, I moved to Idaho, and found myself listening to bar bands. Listening for the sake of pure, basic pleasure. Bar bands taught me (or reminded me) that music can provide pleasure without intellectualization or analysis. Music can be, simply, fun.