Brian Dunning and his lovingly crafted pompadour swaggered into a biker bar full of strangers one sleepy night in southwest Oklahoma City.
Stalling just long enough for a handful of fans to arrive, he donned his cocky, Elvis-styled persona, stepped onstage with his trusty Rock ’n’ Roll Trio, and set out to spread the gospel of rockabilly to regulars still grumbling about the $5 cover charge.
“When you play in a bar, people see you who might not know what you’re about or even heard of your type of music, especially being in a rockabilly band,” he said. “At the end of the night, after a couple beers, they are up dancing around. Whether they like our music or not, it’s upbeat and fun. We have a pretty good biker following, which means the badasses are on our side, so we always come out OK.”
Dunning, who described his band’s sound as straight off Southern radio waves circa 1956, has been a fixture of Oklahoma rockabilly since the early ’90s. That scene isn’t developed enough for a dedicated venue, so groups like his play gigs wherever they find ears.
It’s a familiar tune for any musician taking a stab at kick-starting a professional career. Just as not every act is a good fit for the cozy hipster haven of Opolis; the warm, rootsy ambience of The Blue Door; or the massive Diamond Ballroom, not every electric guitarist can swim in the rough waters of the bar scene.
“You have to simultaneously have a desire to engage whoever happens to be in the crowd and a disregard for the outcome,” said John Manson, a veteran of the scene as both promoter and frontman of Billy Joe Winghead. “You can’t just look at a crowd and tailor what you do. You can’t be led by the polls, basically. That happy-hour crowd is different than the crowd that came to see the band, and as you’re setting up, it’s a fun game to look over the people who’ve stayed late and figure out exactly how many tables you are going to run off when you start playing.”
LIQUOR AND LYRICS
Manson witnessed the scene develop since booking The Flaming Lips to The Blue Note during the ’80s, working as a barback for The Bowery, and starting up another club, the Velvet Underground. Having worked the scene from both sides, he acknowledged how difficult it is to house live music in a drinking establishment.
“It is important for the underground music scene to have bar owners with the sense of doing what they need to keep the bar open, but also realizing that, in some respects, they are like museum curators,” Manson said. “Walking that balance between booking bands solely based on drawing and selling booze, and then booking bands that you are trying to develop because the scene is better for having them.”
Bars are critical because they often are the best chance for bands playing original music to nab precious stage time and steadily build a following, according to Sid Seymour, bassist for The Revival Drive. He said the Oklahoma outfit is heavy on skilled musicianship and rift-driven blues-rock, and can be found haunting the Belle Isle Brewery at 1900 Northwest Expressway about once a month. As important as it is to have a stage to call home, Seymour admitted bars do come with their drawbacks.
“We only have an hour and half of material, and we need someone to open up for us, but that puts us on at midnight,” Seymour said. “There are a lot of people who can’t stay out that long, so that diminishes our crowd. We are starting to write new material to lengthen our set, so we can just play on our own.”
Cover bands have it a little easier, since pop music is a bottomless trove of potential crowd-winners. According to Todd Lynch, guitarist for The Recliners, cover bands are more than living jukeboxes; they need a personality that will stick in the minds of venue owners and audiences. He said that The Recliners wear sports jerseys and adopt goofy stage banter, all while reworking songs into other genres, touching on everything from rock to hip-hop.
“Any given cover band that wants to sell themselves to local clubs, they should strive to stand apart,” Lynch said. “No one cares about your lame merch; it’s what goes down onstage that counts. It should be very easy to succeed in this realm for someone who wants to.”
Lynch, who has played two to six nights a week for 17 years, said that as long as a cover band is solid musically with a deep catalog of audience-pleasers, winning over an inattentive crowd isn’t that difficult.
“We tend to choose songs that most other local OKC groups are not playing — strategy, play your cards where you can,” he said. “But also it comes down to the tune. ‘Hotel California’? If you butcher the solo, I’m going to throw something at you. Learn it, know it, live it. ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ ‘Sweet Home Alabama’? Play whatever you want on that one; no one’s listening anyway.”
Just because you’ve plugged into an amp to rock out after investing hundreds of hours perfecting your craft, the crowd might grant it with the same indifference toward whatever might be playing on the bar’s television. Classically trained harpist Jessica Tate actually thrives in that setting when she plucks out surprisingly emotive and vital pop songs Friday nights at the Prohibition Room at 1112 N.W. 23rd.
“There is way less pressure on me in a bar situation like this, opposed to people sitting quietly in their seat waiting for brilliance,” she said. “I have played a few concerts like that, and backstage, I sweat. I’m a nervous wreck, chain-smoking and am less likely to be experimental. In a place like this, which is more casual and relaxed, I will take more risks.”
Tate estimated she’s reworked roughly 400 songs on the harp that she can recall at a moment’s notice, ranging from Tom Waits rarities to Top 40 pop songs packing every jukebox in America.
She loves when patrons cringe at the sight of her instrument, imagining sterile reproductions of Pachelbel’s “Canon in D major,” but instead get soulful jazz coupled with a sexy, breathy purr.
“I love making the harp cool, making it fun,” Tate said. “I enjoy people’s misconceptions because I get to break them.”
Playing at the Prohibition Room also usually means hipper audiences and limited requests for Lynyrd Skynyrd, but she said she’s no different than any other cover band willing to play anything, anywhere, anytime.
“As long as they are paying me — hell, yes,” Tate said with a laugh. “Musicians are the biggest hoes on the planet. As long as it’s not amoral, I’ll do it. You want me to play a rinky-tink blues riff on the harp? Fine, but get me a cold beer and a couple hundred dollars. As long as there aren’t a lot of stairs involved, I’ll do it.”
Worst. Gig. Ever.
John Manson, Billy Joe Winghead
“We were on tour in California and played a place called Tio Leo’s, which serves dynamite fish tacos. We were opening for a swing, rockabilly-ish outfit called Hot Rod Lincoln. We got there, and the people running the club were giving swing dance lessons. We realized this was going to suck. Volume has always been an issue, and we liked playing places where you could play loud. This was not one of those places.”
“I dunno if this is the worst, but I once played ‘Turkey in the Straw’ on a harp for $200 because a Texas oil exec who looked like Yosemite Sam demanded it. I also played a Christmas party where a woman fully expected me to wear the giant fluffy angel wings that she had rented. I said ‘no.’”
Todd Lynch, The Recliners
“There was the time, as I was waiting for my pay at the end of the night, I was told, ‘Oh, sorry, dude, this gig was booked for all the beer you could drink.’ I was 19 at that time. Or how ’bout the time I was sound-checking my rig and was told not to ‘show up’ the lead singer by his wife? The lead singer caught me as I was backing my truck out, apologized, told me he’d called off his wife and doubled my pay to stay and play the show. I took the bread.”