Holes In The Wall.
I travel around the country with a small case of harmonicas. It’s a Seydel case I carry and it holds about 23 harps. I have 20 diatonics, and two tremolos and a chromatic. I sit in on jams and bask in the culture of shared music and sometimes I share my observations and try to have a conversation and a forum to help people succeed at jams.
One ineluctable fact about blues jams are that they are mostly attended by people who live of very modest means. This is no indictment by any means. If it is an indictment, it is about the dissolution of the American dream, and the disappointment watching people my parent’s age barely make it. Blues musicians generally don’t drive start up their Cadillacs or Teslas with a key fob in the parking lot. They drive 11 year old Honda Civics and 10 year old Jeeps, and their uncle’s Pontiacs who were too old to drive them anyway. They shamble. They limp. They take twenty minutes just to extract their guitar from the trunk and head inside looking for the sign up sheet.
Because the clientelle isn’t rich, the revenues aren’t rich. Because the revenues aren’t rich, the venues tend to be in areas of town that are in decline. The sidewalk is broken. The or they just happen to be rent protected because they are cultural icons. The bathrooms need cleaning. Pieces of the mirror are missing. The bars are all old and sag with the memories of 20 million sets of elbows bearing down on them for thirty years.
The first time I pulled up to Shaws in St. Paul, Minnesota, there was a man asleep on the ground in front of the place. I couldn’t rouse him, so I called an ambulance, and waited until a cop and an EMT collected him. The walls at Shaws are festooned with old posters, head sheets of bands long gone, faded photographs, posters of blues players big and small. No two picture frames match. There are holes where old nails once held something and the flaking paint of walls that haven’t been attended to for decades.
Illuminated mostly by lamps, the effect at Shaw’s is cozy. Not crowded. Just intimate. Like all music venues that that have to adapt to an ever increasing amp technology, the corners are crammed with cords and cables and plug adapters. The faces are familiar and so is the music.
The Prior Lake VFW is populated with ancient Americans still wearing their colors, windbreakers that say Vietnam, 2/5 Marines, or 25th Infantry Division “Tropic Lightning”. These folks are on thin pensions and are counting on two dollar beers. They play Bargo, a kind of Bingo that rhymes with Fargo, and they put on a great jam.
Wilebskis is a beautiful theater style bar that hosts legendary Tuesday night jam. Jimmy Prime Time runs the jam and plays amazing blues guitar. The dance floor is inundated with young couples, beautiful and lithe, all dancing to the blues. They are adapting swing and samba and rumba and old Arthur Murray routines for a new day. These are Millennials inventing their own fashionable ways of cutting a rug.
It is the very fact that a place isn’t overly curated that makes it welcoming. A place with doors that have the marks of every arm or elbow or hand that ever opened them feel familiar. It is in the wonderful imperfections that we feel we are forgiven our own imperfections.
Jazz is a different story. Jazz venues are all the rage. They are beautiful and well appointed affairs with heavy taffeta curtains and polished stamped metal ceilings. Jazz musicians don’t drive Pontiacs. They drive BMWs and Mercedes and their tote their $2,000 saxophones in $400 leather cases.
I played with the famous Austin guitar player Ted Hall at the Poodle Dog Lounge. The beer was all Lonestar and it was cash only and the bar tender was too bothered to make eye contact or have a conversation.
But man, the music was great and the sound in that old hole was wonderful.
The Minnesota Music Cafe sits at the end of downtown Minneapolis. It is old but lush with nightclub colors. It features a retail area where you can by its kitschy collectibles. The stage is impossibly high up and you feel like you are playing all thew way across an auditorium. But the sound is very good. Jonny Lang hangs out there and it’s wonderful to hear him play.
Fiery Rons Hometeam BarbeQue is always packed. It is in an old neighborhood known as West Ashley in historic Charleston. It has a huge car garage door on it that it lifts up and expands into a courtyard where folks mingle during the jam.
The food is amazing and the players are all familiar faces who play wonderfully. It is a comfortable, comfort food dive and life in Charelston is made better for this little place.
The venues are crowded. The patrons all know each other, The band members all know each other. The food is bad for you. (Except for the collards in Charleston). These are the Holes In The Wall I frequent. Proudly.