The blue of blues is mostly gray

by the Night Writer

Last night we mounted an expedition into Nordeast, with Son@Night, the Mall Diva (and the half-baked cupcake, of course) and her friend, Princess Flicker Feather. The girls were wanting to sing some blues at the open jam night at Shaw’s and Son@ and I were along for the ride. Driving up University Ave NE I mused outloud that the last time I’d been in a bar in Nordeast after dark someone had set my car on fire.

Reaallly?” came the response from the back seat.

Yes, indeedy, and I recounted the story. I was playing darts in a league and The Sun Saloon was one of our stops. I’d won three matches when someone shouted “There’s a car on fire outside!” I thought, “Cool – let’s go look!” Then they described my car and I thought “I can’t look.” Sure enough, someone had poured an accelerant on the hatchback and touched it off. I never did find out who did it, or why. As I told the tale I did the math and realized — with almost as much surprise and consternation as that long-ago night — that it had been 30 years since that incident. While I can refer to my college, or even high school, days without a jolt I am shocked when I hear myself saying, “Thirty years ago…”

We were still talking about the incident as we pulled up in front of Shaw’s and — dunh, dunh, DUNH! — it was the same building as that long-ago pyro. Whoa, deja vu all over again! We even parked at the curb not far from where I had left my erstwhile steed. Back when the place at been the Sun Saloon it was kind of a biker place; it’s much cleaner and more attractive now though it still has a comfortable “dive” feel and few heavy-set guys in leather vests and caps and gray ponytails. I refrained from asking any of them what they might have been doing on an October night in 1980.

The place has been Shaw’s for 10 years now and has a rep for live music, especially the blues. It appears that the open jam is a Monday night fixture with a house band and a lot of regulars getting on stage. A DJ from KFAI acts as emcee and impressario, signing up people who want to get on stage and then mixing and matching performers according to her own sense of how she wants the evening to go. The performers all appeared to be on a first-name or nickname basis and most of the men appeared to be about my age or older. It was interesting to watch and listen to the by-play between everyone, on and off stage. For some time now I’ve been more aware of not just the notion, but the reality, of community and I like to hang back and watch groups that are new to me but familiar with each other interact, whether it’s a group of old men on a centuries-old piazza in Tuscany, a MOB party…or a group of blues musicians and fans. The bunch last night was mostly a blue-jeans and tee-shirt or flannel shirt crowd with a few flashier touches. You had extroverts (mostly harmonica players) and introverts (mostly drummers) and the musicians were all very good and the vocalists were all very enthusiastic.

Most groups have their own initiations, some subtle and some not, but these generally require you to prove yourself in some way. The Mall Diva and Princess FF were the newbies here, unknown and much younger than everyone else. As such, even though they were among the first names on the sign-up sheet, they had to do some time listening attentively and applauding appropriately as others were called to the stage and mixed and remixed. It was good experience, though, as their young lives and musical background haven’t included a lot of blues music (I know, I’m a horrible parent) so they had a great chance to absorb some of the musical jargon, so to speak, of different rhythms and riffs, as well as getting a chance to observe jam etiquette for leaving room for everyone to take the lead.

Well into the evening an entire band showed up. These were much younger guys, with their jeans very snug and their “I don’t care” hair just a little too carefully done and a bit more attitude than the rest of the people in the bar. The lead singer and lead guitarist looked like younger versions of a slumming Keith Richards and Ron Wood and the emcee worked them onto the stage bit by bit but fairly quickly. The singer then became more like Mick Jagger with his vocal style and his prancing and posing but everyone on stage and in the audience was enjoying themselves as there was quite a bit of skill on display. After a couple of songs the emcee decided it was time for the Princess to make her debut, singing with the young guys. PFF wanted to do her version of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Leave My Girl (Man) Alone.” She and the band conferred briefly on the tune and then the guitars started to wail into the introduction. I believe I detected a bit of boredom on their faces and the bare minimum of graciousness as this young woman, looking like a lily in a bed of ragweed, leaned into the microphone. Perhaps they expected she would be nervous, that her voice would be tight and that she’d rush through the lyrics.

And then she opened her mouth. “You better leave, you better leave, my man alooone…” and their eyes and faces opened as if they’d been tased. Within six bars, “Mick” was bowing and doing little salaams next to PFF as she belted out the tune with power and timbre that hadn’t been heard yet that evening. Like a seasoned pro, PFF left them wanting more, floating off the stage to enthusiastic applause after just one song, followed by the guitar player who asked her for her card so they could get in touch with her. A little later in the evening the Mall Diva received her summons and did a soulful version of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” followed by “He Called Me Baby” (most recently covered by Candi Staton) … appropriately enough since, as the emcee pointed out, she was singing for two! MD was also well received by the band and the audience but since it had gone past midnight it was time to head for our pumpkin.

Fortunately, this time it wasn’t on fire and the only thing smokin’ was the Diva and PFF!

3 thoughts on “The blue of blues is mostly gray

  1. So the real question–did you try the new Grainbelt Nordeast beer? I think it is available in Nordeast now and everwhere else later this week.

  2. Great story, NW. PFF can really sing it; I have no doubt that she, like Paul Simon once sang, blew that room away.

  3. You’re right, Mr. D – but I can assure you that she didn’t first step outside and smoke herself a J. It was pretty late in the evening, though.

    It was fun to watch the reactions when she started to sing. Those people had no idea what was coming…or that when she was 7 she hardly needed a microphone to be heard throughout the auditorium at church when she sang. I don’t think the crowd was quite as surprised when the Mall Diva got her turn; they weren’t going to let themselves be fooled again.

    It will be interesting to see what happens the next time they go to Shaw’s. There’s also some talk of hitting the Sunday night open mic at Famous Dave’s in Calhoun Square. We’ll try to get the word out via FB when future appearances are planned.

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