Okay, for a bit of levity …
In the late 80s to early 90s I was playing a lot in Santa Monica and I worked with some very talented musicians. We were a fairly tight group visiting each other at our various venues regularly during breaks. We traded licks, sat in with one another, borrowed strings ─ “Hey, you got a spare G string?” ─ which in my case was a bit absurd given that I was the only one playing a nylon string guitar and I got to carrying a set of steel strings in my case even though I don’t use them.
But this was the beach crowd and we worked places that were on Ocean Boulevard or The Pier ─ The Mucky Duck, the Crown, the Boathouse, couple of others that aren’t there anymore, and we were used to each other so nothing untoward ever really happened (at least not on stage.)
Harvels was a blues club on 4th Street twixt Broadway and Santa Monica. I like blues. I even play a little of it.
Okay, Harvels also counts as a bit of a hole in the wall dive. It isn’t very big; a long rectangular room with the stage at the far end. Restrooms are round back of the stage just to the alley entrance. This is not a high class clientele – they’re a little bit bashed and having a high old time – and would have without the band. It’s a neighborhood kind of joint without the neighborhood, since Harvels backs up to the Third Street Promenade where the Red Elvis’ at that time were a street band and just beginning to get people interested.
Well, that’s the sorta the place I like to wander into on occasion. I like a good dive ─ dark, smoky, with a grinding blues pulsing through the general hubub. So one evening I take it into my little noggin to wander in, have a beer, relax, soak up some ambience, and listen to some tunes. Unfortunately, I had my guitar.
This takes maybe five minutes, usually less. I’d forgotten about that, though I don’t know really why. After all, I’ve put a lot of miles under the shoe leather going into small towns where I’ve never been seen before (and plan to never be seen again), wandering in to the local dive with the guitar, ordering a beer and waiting for it and being asked, “Hey, son, you play that gitar or is that jes’ for looks?” Well, yeah I play a bit. “Well, why don’t you haul it on out here an’ do us a few tunes,” Several tunes (and free drinks) later I could wander out with more money in my pocket than I started with.
Side note: a bunch of drunken Irishmen singing Ghost Riders in the Sky is certainly worth hearing. (And, yes, when they asked what I was drinking I had made the mistake of saying “coffee.”)
Well, ditto Harvels. “Honey, why don’t you pull out that guitar and set up with the band?” I demurred – not my gig, not my stage, don’t know the band, the usual stuff, but the crowd got a bit insistent, “Hey, he’s got a guitar! Do us a tune – you guys on stage wouldn’t mind him sittin’ in with you?” “Well, get on up there, let’s hear what you got.”
And the band says, “Sure, why not, come on up.” That was awfully nice of ‘em. Of course – they’re playing electric guitars and doing rock-blues and I’ve got a classical (although, a guitar is a guitar and you can play anything you want on anything with 6 strings, so …)
Well, it’s a bit late, I’m a bit tired so I’m not really thinking all that well so I say, “Sure why not.” Whoops.
Well, I’ve got a smokin’ little version of St. Louis Blues, but at this point if you’ve never heard me play, you should understand something. Much as I enjoyed sitting in with the guys and gals around Santa Monica Beach, and much as I’ve enjoyed playing with other musicians here and there and here (have played with some nice folks here in Los Alamos), I am basically a solo act.
That means I need to get as much out of the guitar as I possibly can, since I don’t have a band. So most of my arrangements fall under the category of what has been called “orchestral guitar,” “piano style guitar” and “classicalized pop.” This translates easily enough – the guitar and I are pretty much self-contained.
Let’s turn the page back a few years to the Thursday Nite Gong Show at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.
The Thursday Nite Gong Show was just that – an open-mic night where all and sundry could sign up and do a tune. The audience was pretty much all and sundry waiting their turn to do their tune. It goes about four hours, then at the end of the night, a “winner” is declared by applause from the all and sundry who have done their tune and stayed long enough. Since most of them haven’t heard hardly anyone who played before they did, it’s pretty much weighted in favor of who ever went last.
Anyway, the Palomino has a house-band and you sign up on a sheet, “With House Band” or “Without House Band.” Being self-contained, I signed up for “Without House Band” – and got the House Band anyway. Whoops.
The tune was Ghost Riders – yeah, same as the one I did at the Quiet Man, which is not so quiet being full of slightly, or more than slightly, inebriated Irish tenors. Because I am self-contained there is my version – and, uhm, everyone else’s version and the House Band was playing the latest version of everyone else’s version, which was the rock country version, which was decidedly not my version.
We figured that out about two measures into it.
Back to Harvels and the St. Louis Blues. I do this as a straight solo instrumental – melody, chords, harmony, bass — because I don’t know the words. And I do it in E with a modulation to the parallel E minor at the bridge. I tell the band this. They say, “Fine, we’ll just follow you.”
This actually went reasonably well, or the audience was reasonably scotched enough to think it went reasonably well. The band leader, also the lead guitar, is standing right next to me, shoulder to shoulder, so he can watch what the heck it is I’m doing and then cue the rest of the band. That means he’s spinning like a top. They got a little lost for a bit when I went to that E minor, but they pretty much picked up on it. I did my schtick, they followed … sometimes “following” meaning they were pretty consistently a beat or two behind me so where ever I could I would stretch out a measure just a tad to give them an opportunity to catch up.
So, yeah, by and large it went reasonably well. Right up to the ending.
When I was playing clarinet at Cumbres Junior High (now the Middle School) we did a very strange little piece. It would have been a very short little piece except it was a gag piece and the gag was that it used every ending riff known to music kind.
Years and years later, ditto The St. Louis Blues at Harvels.
My ending is fairly short straightforward and finalizes on a long brush stroke (all 6 strings) tremolo. I hit that final chord with the tremolo and the drummer does a riff – pretty standard 40’s style bit. But then the bass player thinks of a neat little ending of his own and as long as we’ve got the long final chord and the drummer is still whackin’ away, hey why not – which gets the keyboard player going.
Next thing you know, we’re into a full repeat of the final chorus. Bring it on home – again. And sure enough … And, of course, the crowd loved it and kept calling for more.
It took five tries to finally bring the thing to a stuttering halt. And we all laughed ourselves silly, raised a glass to the audience, who were laughing themselves silly, and said, “Yes! It’s just the way we rehearsed it!”