Now or Never

Tuesday night I was in a small club downtown (such as it is in Burlington), listening to Luray, an indie-folk band from the DC area.  (Disclosure: I don’t have to disclose anything, this ain’t the Associated Press.)

I missed the top of the set and so found myself jammed next to coat rack in the back of the room.  Small room, even in a small town, maybe 30 people but crowded enough to feel full.

Two women at the front of the bandstand; banjo, keyboard and harmony, three guys – guitar, upright bass and drums – behind.  All in their mid-30s, but still clearly new to the road.  Looked like they’d had other lives, always keeping that instrument handy, playing out just enough, saying, “Y’know some day we really oughta….”  Now or never.

A break between songs.  Nervous banter with the audience.  Still in the mode of playing out at a bar, not yet developed into a show one takes from town to town.  Two tables leave.  Luray followed GuaGua, popular local funk fusion.  Perhaps now they were losing some of the holdovers.  General shuffling of feet, improving one’s real estate.  I snagged a stool at the end of the bar.

Radio Bean’s a coffee house with good beer.  Bare brick walls, red fringed lamps over the bar and an arc of primary-colored lights framing a bandstand backed into a bay window.  The crowd tended toward middle age (good camouflage for me).  The shift in the crowd brought a shift in mood, the band seemed to lose focus.  A few technical glitches, an awkward exchange with the audience (“Studded tigers?”) and suddenly the band was paying its road dues.

The studded tigers appeared as Shannon, the lead singer, explained they’d played Monday in Boston and were due Wednesday in Providence – not the best route for carbon footprints, but if you’re in an unknown band patching a tour together, you go where you can get an audience.

All afternoon the weather reports were of the storm moving in from the west, due sometime after midnight, Providence is a five-hour drive.  Oh, and they weren’t getting paid.  Selling CDs for ten bucks a pop and a tip jar (more of a tureen, really) out front.  Hoping to get enough to cover gas.  Playing for tips, and exposure (whatever that is).

Now or never.  In your 30s, some sort of life already behind you.  Forty-five minutes to fill in your set on a Tuesday night and just lost two tables from a tiny club up near the Canadian border and then drive all night and you might – might – make it to your next gig.

The band huddled for what seemed an overlong minute, heads together consulting, then like players breaking a huddle, the all gave a half nod and a sudden, simultaneous inspiration and launched into the next song.

It worked.  Maybe they’d said, “Screw it, let’s just play for ourselves,” maybe they reminded each other of the road musician’s oath to play your ass off, regardless of the audience size.  Street corner or concert hall, go big or stay home.

The singers recommenced their harmony, sweet and plaintive with a bit of Blue Ridge mist in the instruments.  I could feel the concentration in the room return.  The applause at each song’s end grew more pronounced, even a few white, middle-aged hoots.  (Kind of embarrassing, really.)

I woke up in my town the next morning and checked, for the hell of it, to learn they’d red-eyed into Providence just before the storm hit.  We got eight inches here.

Music has charms, not always associated with chords and percussion.  Nice to know that on a cold night in any of a hundred small northern cities, people are out there, unafraid to chase whatever they think might still be out there worth catching.  Going for it.  Now or never.

© Mark Floegel, 2014

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