(Photo by Julian Parker-Burns)
By Johnny Memphis
The doors of the club are locked. This is not good. I peer in past the posters in the floor-to-ceiling windows hoping to see a soundman moving around, but it’s just chairs and tables, bar and stage. The booking agent had emailed me that load-in was 4:30 to 5:00 and it is now 4:45. You can’t load-in if no one lets you in. We pile amps and instruments outside the front door as a few sketchy dudes tack along the sidewalks of Greenfield. It is a hot and humid Friday afternoon. May 4, 2018.
The Johnny Memphis Band has a mixed history with this venue. The first time we played here in April of 2015, a big crowd filled the dance floor. Attendance was boosted by a favorable preview by Sheryl Hunter in the Greenfield Recorderabout our recently released debut CD. Plus it helped that Greenfield people knew the name “Johnny Memphis” because I worked for many years in town as a deejay. But five months later we returned to the venue and no one came out to see the show. Maybe four people. It was painful for all concerned.
When we played our first show here, the venue was called the Arts Block Café. It was owned by Ed Wierzbowski, who had transformed a beautiful, old, four-story brick building into an appealing performance space with lots of potential. Ed was a visionary but unconventional businessman, who didn’t return emails and eventually went bankrupt. The place was bought by my periodontist, Steven Goldsher, who played Pat Metheny CDs in his office while fixing my gums. In 2017 Goldsher renamed the venue Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in honor of a 19thcentury clothing store that had been at that address. Now the venue was being run by his sons- Jeremy and Ben Goldsher.
Just before 5:00, Jeremy pulls up in his pick-up truck and apologizes for running late. When the Goldshers bought the building I met with Jeremy and his dad to discuss their ideas. There was even some thought at that point that I might be their talent booker. Still no sign of the sound-man, but Jeremy tells us it will be Brian Bender, an ace trombone player who played on my radio show years ago. Jeremy says Brian always runs late, not to worry. “Just at the point where people wonder where he is, Brian shows up.”
I have been worried about this gig all week. The venue has not been focused on promoting us because they have big reggae shows coming up with The Wailers and Third World. Plus, I did not do a great job on my end getting the word out via facebook, email and posters. I have been concentrating on getting our new backyard, music studio up and running. In fact, we rehearsed in the new studio for the first time on Tuesday.
Increasing my concern about attendance, the listing in the Valley Advocate said that The Winterpills and The Fawns were playing Friday, May 4th at Hawks & Reed but made no mention of us. What?! Indeed, those two fine Northampton bands were playing that night in the fourth floor space of Hawks & Reed, which was news to me until I read it in the paper. This is a train-wreck. Anybody, who was considering coming to see us, would certainly be thrown off track. The final dispiriting blow came yesterday, the day before the gig, when I got a desperate email from the club saying no one had bought an advance ticket and could I make a last-ditch promo push. I did not sleep well last night.
Kate Lorenz and the Constellations are the opening act and it is a tonic to see Kate when she shows up for sound-check. In her jean jacket and big sunglasses, Kate is cool and fun, upbeat and down-home. She is a pre-school teacher who was part of Rusty Belle with her brother Matt, aka Suitcase Junket. Kate and I played together in a band that backed up the kids in the Sunderland Elementary School Music Night program when I was teaching at Frontier. She sets out her merch on a little table, including a vinyl record of her new album. I am envious of the vinyl. I put out my merch in my father’s old leather briefcase with little hope of making a sale. I’ve got good stuff- our two CDs, my book about the Green River Festival and Carolina blue “wabi sabi baby” tee shirts- but nobody is buying. Maybe I should just sell the merch online.
Eventually Brian the soundman shows up and I invite him to join us onstage at the finale- a tribute to the late Charles Neville. Brian says he has his trombone in his car and would be happy to play. After wrangling some pesky feedback, he does our sound check using a laptop, which is the new, improved way to set the sound. The monitors sound crisp and clear, which is so helpful when you are singing. In general, the Goldshers have done a really good job fixing up this main performance space on the first floor. There are new sound absorption panels on the brick wall behind the stage, a circular metal sculpture of a hawk in reeds and a swell bar in the adjoining room. The place is looking good.
Kate goes on at 7:00 and we go on at 8:00, so after sound-check we have time to get a bite. Mesa Verde is mucho crowded so we go to Plan B- pick up pizza from Magpie. Friday night is always pizza night at home, so this fits right into my culinary schedule. We head back to Hawks and Reed to have a beer and wait for the pizza, when Jason Smith, our drummer, says, “I want to take advantage of being in the big city and go over to Seymour for a beer.” Genius idea. Seymour is a hip, cozy bar right across the common.
Once we are ensconced in Seymour, I share my worries with Jason and Katherine First, our fiddler. It’s not just this gig. It’s the whole idea of starting a rock and roll quintet when you are 60. We are a good band with no audience. Not surprisingly, our friends and and contemporaries have no interest in leaving their comfortable homes and their Netflix to venture out to see what the hell we are up to. We also lack the right regular venue, a home base. My goal is to find a cool place with good sound and a full bar near Florence where we could flourish and grow an audience.
As the sun goes down, Greenfield is glowing with golden light and I am buzzed on one glass of potent Brick and Feathers IPA. Sometimes I think I should live in this town. I pick up a thin-crust, wood-fired, pepperoni and mushroom pizza from Magpie and bring it to the spacious green-room on the second floor of Hawks & Reed overlooking the common. Kate Lorenz and her band have already started and there is a decent crowd. Thank god for that. Kate is sounding good. Soulful originals and a great cover of “Do Right Woman.” I chat in the adjoining bar with my friends Charlie Braun and Phoebe Sheldon. This week I have been out at Charlie’s studio in Westhampton recording an audio book written by Phoebe based on her great-great grandfather’s amazing Civil War diaries. On Wednesday I helped Phoebe at a book-reading event by projecting Civil War photos as she read from the book. This event took place next to the waterfall in the Old Mill building in Hatfield where the Valley Advocate offices used to be.
When Kate’s band finishes their set I talk with a long-time WRSI fan who fondly remembers the poem I wrote for the station’s 20thanniversary. I always liked that poem but I am amazed that anyone else even remembers it. Our band takes the stage and tunes up quickly. I am playing an Eastman mandolin with Dave Pinkerton on a hollow-body electric Gibson guitar, Katherine First on a handmade fiddle from Stamell Strings, Paul Hartshorne on a Fender Precision electric bass and Jason playing his vintage Ludwig drum-kit. We start as usual with “Murphy Bed.” “Got some beer and I got some wine, got some vodka too/ Loaf of bread and a hunk of cheese, we could make fondue.” Looking through the fridge and cupboard in the first lines of the song is like taking inventory of our repertoire to see what songs we might play. At the end of “Murphy Bed” we launch into a medley of fiddle tunes featuring Katherine and get the audience clapping along. This looks like it’s actually going to be a fun gig.
I have a few performance goals for this gig. First, I am trying to lower the microphone so that it does not block the crowd’s view of my mouth. I recently went to see Amy Helm at the Parlor Room and I did not like how the mike blocked my view of her singing. It seemed crazy that the audience couldn’t see the central, most expressive part of the lead-singer’s face. My second goal is to bunch songs together so that we don’t stop the momentum by talking after every song. That is working well, except for when the humid weather is making our strings go out and we have to stop to retune. Thirdly, I am drinking more water so I don’t dehydrate like I did at the Luthier’s Co-op show a couple of weeks ago when my hand started to cramp up. Beer is not water.
“Shang-a-lang, shang-a-lang, shang-a-lang, shang-a-la-ang.” I get the audience singing the background vocals to “Buddy” while snapping their fingers. I love playing this song in Greenfield because it is all about the legendary Oldies Show my friend Buddy Rubbish hosted right up the street on Memory Lane. Buddy loved Louis Prima so we follow with “Angelina” (“I eat antipasto twice, just because she is so nice”) which segues dramatically into our version of “The Tarantella.” When we played “The Tarantella” at Bread Euphoria in February I sprained my knee doing an Italian jig, so I am careful not to get too carried away by the trance-like powers of that song.
The set is running long so I cut out “Old New York Hotel” and “Somebody Stole My Kielbasa” and go right into the double guitar segment where I play bass. I am still trying to find the perfect tempo for “Truck Eating Bridge,” one of our oldest songs, but we are getting close to the right groove with Paul starting it up on guitar. “Never Been to Memphis” is sounding good with two guitars and someday we are going to play that song and it is going to blow everyone away, just like someday I am going to go to Memphis. We are starting to get some people dancing. I see teacher-friends from Frontier in the crowd.
At the end of the show we dedicate “Mardi Gras Mambo” to the late saxophonist Charles Neville who lived in Huntington for the last twenty years. You never met a more fully realized human being. What a beautiful man. The soundman Brian Bender bounds on stage to play trombone and we get Kate Lorenz to come on stage to sing with us. I have been singing “Mardi Gras Mambo” for so long it is like a favorite pair of blue jeans. We always find the right groove on this song. Paul is now playing sax and he and Brian’s trombone sound fantastic together. Now you’re talking! The dance-floor is filled with people having a ball. Paul harmonizes on the verse with me. “Down in New Orleans where the blues was born, it takes a cool cat to blow a horn.” That is Charles Neville in a nutshell.
We play “Mardi Gras Mambo” to a fare-thee-well and I figure that is the end of the show but Greenfield stalwart Michael Pattavina is on the dance-floor yelling in his Boston accent, “One mo-ah, Jawnny, one mo-ah!” On the fly I go with “You Left the Water Running” for an encore. Brian the trombonist raises his eyebrows at me like, “Should I play on this one?” I nod a definite yes. We wring every last ounce of fun out of this old Dan Penn soul tune and the crowd is right with us, dancing up a storm. Solos for everyone, a cappella, you name it. Jason the drummer is playing his ass off. I look over at Dave the guitar player and we end it just like we planned, going to the E minor one last time and then put it down nice and smooth on the runway. Check the overhead compartment for any personal belongings.
That’s the show. Time to say goodbye and pack it up. Before we leave I go over to Jeremy the club manager to see how we did. Tickets were $10 and we got 46 paying customers. Considering how worried I was about this gig, I am pleased. Outside the wind and rain is slapping the night around. I pack up the Prius and head south on 91 back to Florence. When I get home I steer my car down the driveway right up to the new studio. I look in the window of the studio and see my 17 year-old son Chris with six friends, three boys and three girls. Now I have something new to worry about.