Shadowboxing with the Blues

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Dave was the one that more or less shoved me onstage when I first got to Detroit. I’m not sure if he’ll ever own up to taking the credit, but I still remember him telling me I needed to start taking my guitar to some of these jam sessions and making my ‘in’ with the local scene. If I was serious about doing this thing, then I needed to get out there and take my skills out for a test drive with the big boys. And when it comes to music, Detroit is definitely Home of the Big Boys.

Here’s the thing, though. Prior to my arriving here in Detroit back in 1993, my only recent band experience had been playing with some good buddies of mine who worked at the same newspaper with me in South Florida. We loved what we did, and got to be pretty decent, but playing in a pretty decent just-for-fun band with some fellow journalist pals in South Florida and going toe-to-toe with the cats in Detroit are two radically different experiences. Kind of like the difference between shadow boxing and then going a few rounds with Muhammad Ali.

If I remember right, the first time I got up to jam with some of the locals was at a joint on the East Side that’s been gone for awhile now. I don’t even remember the name, but I think it was later called the Post Bar for awhile. It was near Alter Road and Warren, I think. They kept a good crowd, a blues crowd, and fortunately the crowd on this particular night was pretty friendly. Actually, most Detroit crowds I’ve come across over the years are generally pretty cool so long as you know what the hell you’re doing. The thing about Detroit crowds is they’ve already seen and grown up with so many of the best, they can tell fairly quick whether or not you have any business occupying the stage.

The stage in this joint was, well, small. Like a lot of bars that decide to have bands in this city, the concept of performance space usually comes as an afterthought. It’s like someone says, “Hey! Let’s hire a band. Folks will love it!” So then they hire a band. Then, probably a few hours before the band is scheduled to show up, somebody realizes “Damn. We don’t have anywhere for that band to play. Let’s stick ’em over there. They’re musicians. They’ll figure out a way to make it work.”

And musicians normally do, mainly because we need the money and have long since accepted the fact that most club owners know nothing about music or musicians. All they know is did you or did you not bring in a whole lot of folks and make me a lot of money?

Anyway, I’m rambling. So Dave is sitting there next to me and we’re both firing up cigarettes while Dave is trying to talk the fear out of me. The band is on break and the lead guitarist, a chubby kinda guy who looks somewhat like a close relative of the Pillsbury Doughboy just came over to where I was sitting and asked if I wanted to sit in for a few tunes during the next set. Dave started nodding even before I did. Me, I spent the first few moments  trying to figure out why the hell he was asking me this until I remembered I was cradling a guitar between my knees and this was supposed to be a jam session.

“Yeah. All right,” I said.

Just that quick he gets this look in his eyes letting me know he already has me sized up. Musicians can usually smell a rookie. Smells something like blood in shark-infested waters.

“Know what you’re gonna play?” he asks.

“Red House,” I said, referring to the Jimi Hendrix tune.

He grins, looking kinda like “this is gonna be fun”.

“Anything else?” he asks.

I shook my head, not wanting him to know that was about the only blues tune I knew.

“Naw. Just the one.”

He slaps me on the shoulder.

“Cool. We’ll do a few numbers, then I’ll call you up. Relax. You’ll do fine.”

Damn. Cold-busted.

“Hang in there youngster,” says Dave. “You’re better than you think you are.”

Yeah. Ok. Anyway, that’s pretty much how it all began.

What’s that? Oh. Well, all things considered, not bad at all. I even got asked to do a couple more, so I had to fake it through a couple of jams. But I made it, and that’s the thing, right?

I started to think maybe Dave’s little pep talk was a good lesson for life; “You’re better than you think you are.”

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~ by Keith A. Owens on March 17, 2007.

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