A schooner of Guinness, please.”
The blackboard-open-mike-night had been going since six o'clock. Now seven, Andy, peering at the handwritten chalk list, worked out that the duo on stage must be Sid and Margaret. Margaret had a wash board hanging round her neck, metal thimbles on her fingers and a voice that would frighten small children. Sid strummed a dreadnought steel acoustic guitar with thick and calloused fingers. Oh my God, I hope this isn’t folk night, thought Andy.
Not that he hated folk, he had even written some of it himself, but a whole night of three chord renditions covering Woody Guthrie, Pete Seegar and the likes would dictate one quick beer and a surreptitious exit.
Andy looked around the room and the tension in his shoulders eased. Phew – it was obviously not folk night. The room contained a sufficient quota of people under sixty to dismiss the horror of a night of endless working class angst belted out in fake stateside twang. One patron, probably in his early thirties, sported dreadlocks and a beard and had a guitar case propped up next to his seat. His girlfriend, dressed in nuevo-rockabilly style, sat next to him holding his hand and looking fashionably disinterested in the world. Andy thought they wouldn’t have even heard of Woody Guthrie, let alone understood the concept of “power in a union”.
According to the list, following the aging folk duo would be Dan B, then Full Circle, then Sally Springer, then Funk Park. Under that was an unfilled blank slot and then below that, down the bottom in differentiating blue chalk, was Purple Craze. Andy knew of them. They were a young trio that did all Hendrix covers. After cutting their teeth, in white chalk on previous open-mike nights, they had been invited back to fill the final slot, a forty five minute set that would close the night. Knowing he would most likely be home watching television by the time Purple Haze had their feedback howling, Andy was nonetheless happy that a group of young locals were getting a go.
Andy felt uncomfortable and conspicuous in places like this. At home, or in the library, or even in a shopping centre, he had begun to enjoy his own company. After the decades of playing husband and family man came to a sudden end, solitude had been more difficult to adjust to than he ever imagined. At first it was so confronting that he even tried his hand at internet dating. A long and tedious string of once only coffee dates compelled Andy to take himself off the singles market. He accepted that he may be single for a long time - maybe that was just what he needed. The one downfall was going out at night. Even if it was just to the movies, but more so at nightspots, Andy felt self-conscious and out of place. People hung out in couples or groups and never invited lone strangers into their company. The few solo specimens that did venture out, were more often than not of the “bit odd” variety – certainly not the sort you wanted to make new friends with. After dark a low profile was needed, a quiet corner and a mobile phone to casually stare into and disappear.
Andy managed not to wince visibly at Sid's and Margaret’s amateurish performance. Every song was the standard twelve bar format, and every song was in the key of G. Margaret’s washboard was way too loud but it still didn’t manage to drown out Sid’s lack of rhythm on the guitar. The entertainment value, if any, was in the comedy of the whole affair. Margaret's efforts to get Sid back on beat included some serious foot stomping, accompanied by an hilariously exaggerated swaying of her rather large hips, and a death stare that no doubt implied, “you old fool, don’t you dare think you’re getting sex tonight.” Not that that was on the cards - Margaret had dried up many years ago, when the hot flushes and mood swings obliterated her once healthy libido. Sid, to his credit, had mastered the art of being celibate and pussy whipped, and unperturbed was having a ball up there on the stage.
“Put your hands together one more time for Sid and Margaret.” The patrons politely clapped. One person, surely glad it was over, let out a four-fingers-in-the-mouth whistle. “Hang around folks and thank you all for coming along tonight. We’ll only be a few minutes for our next guest.” The hyped up MC looked at his clipboard and in full show business voice announced: “All the way from Brisbane, Australia, the one and only uber-cool...Dan B.” Uber? Who in their right minds says uber?
It was clear now that the man with the dreadlocks and the nonchalant girlfriend, that Andy had spotted earlier, was the one and only Dan B himself. At the sound of his name, his heavily tattooed offsider, who actually looked a lot like Betty Boop, broke out of her carefully manufactured coolness and let rip an embarrassing whoop.
In the short break between acts Andy slid up to the bar for another schooner. The drink provided euphoria and anxiety alleviation, but most importantly it was another object, like the phone, to distract one from engagement with the seemingly hostile crowd. Having a glass in front of you, to caress with idle hands and to half hide your face when raised to the mouth, was perfect for remaining incognito in the corner.
Dan B opened his guitar case to reveal one of those now ubiquitous lap steel guitars. As he set himself up on the stage, the not yet used didgeridoo, set up on a stand, divulged its purpose. After getting himself prepped, with a sound check of his stomp box, a few blows into the didge and some final open G tuning of the guitar, Dan B launched into his set. Andy wanted Sid and Margaret back. This guy was a pretentious clone, the type that was cropping up all over the place these days. The riffs, song structures and lyrical ideas were all blatant rip-offs of the trendy roots style made famous by Xavier Rudd and John Butler. Already “so yesterday”, and boring, it didn’t stop his girlfriend and a few other hipsters, that had come just for Dan, from whistling and hollering “Dan the man” at the end of each of his songs. Andy sat steadfast even though the second schooner was gone well before the end of Dan B's first song.
At the twenty minute mark, the MC edged up onto stage left with a clip board positioned prominently on his hip. He looked at his watch and then held it out towards centre stage. Dan got the signal and finished off his last song - if you could call it a song that is. It was more like a self indulgent seven minute masturbation around one chord, littered with irritating white man cockatoo calls screamed through the didgeridoo. To cap it off, his entourage rudely shouted over the MC demanding more. Surely these people know there are no encores on an open-mike night? Andy considered going home there and then.
Dan B exited the stage to bathe in the glory lavished on him by his BYO cronies.
Full Circle began their set up. The sight of a bass, a simple drum kit and a trumpet put an end to Andy’s urge to run away. He loved bass guitar when it was played well, and a trumpet certainly added some curiosity factor - so let’s just see. Schooner number three was soothing Andy’s solo man self consciousness, and the effect of alcohol on the rest of the joint was nurturing a more congenial buzz. You could disappear now. You could even put away the mobile phone and look around without fear.
Full Circle were a hoot. They played five energy packed funky covers. Their Earth Wind and Fire cover got four women up onto the dance floor, and those still seated were tapping feet, clapping hands and rocking away to the infectious grooves. Andy smiled, closed his eyes, and let the music enter his soul. It was these moments that reminded him of the power of music to soothe, to emote, to change in a heartbeat the coldness of the world. When the band moved seamlessly into a Red Hot Chili Peppers number, which Andy surmised would be their last, he felt so relaxed and light he even contemplated getting up from the corner and mingling.
“Well, well, well, now that got you rocking eh?” The MC requested another round of applause for the band and pre-empted the imminence of the next act, Sally Springer. Scanning the room Andy couldn’t spot a Sally and with a full bladder headed off to the toilet. After enjoying the unique pleasure of urination, he walked to the outdoor smoking area provided by the club for the nicotine addicts who still defied society's relentless pressures to quit. Andy hadn't smoked for ten years but he still enjoyed the odd whiff of tobacco and usually found smokers to be a more welcoming mob. You never know he might actually talk to someone tonight. Nothing like some funk and soul to boost one's outlook on life.
The smoking area was occupied by one wrinkled and crumpled man who was talking to his beer and several hundred fag ends overflowing from the single ashtray. Andy turned around quickly before he got caught up in a conversation that would require a lie, or worse, to extract himself from. He headed back to his corner table, giving up on the brief fantasy of any social interaction tonight. That was fine, he was settled enough now to relax and simply enjoy the music. He didn’t even need another beer.
The MC, himself loosened up now by several bourbon and cokes, introduced: “...all the way from Bundaberg Queeeeeensland ... Sally ... Springaaa!” The plainly dressed woman in her mid forties, plus or minus a decade, it was hard to tell, stepped up to the microphone and said one word, “Lost”. She took a step back and, on her nylon stringed classical guitar, strummed a full barre F sharp minor and let it ring. Andy felt the rush of neurotransmitters. Before he could make sense of what was happening Sally launched into a song that started tearing him apart. The minor key, the haunting chord sequence and the heartfelt story of lost love, dreams and children leaving home, raised goosebumps and mixed feelings simultaneously. The middle eight's venture into the painful search for the self only added to the disturbing aura created by this unpretentious songstress.
Andy sat motionless at his dimly lit station. The wreckage of his life was being exhumed and laid bare for all to hear by a woman he had never met. The melancholy in her voice, the way she stood, the long skilful fingers on the neck of the guitar, her eyes and wild hair, mesmerised and scared him at the same time. At the end of her second song, she laughed and with genuine warmth thanked the crowd.
“Did she just look straight at me?” Andy thought to himself.
The room started to spin and, for the life of him, Andy could not get a grip. He had to get out of there. Head down he skirted around the back edges of the room and out into the night.
Dan B and his crew were smoking pot and wallowing in their own self importance on the footpath. They wouldn’t think twice about listening to anyone else, so Andy pushed passed them unconcerned, feeling no need for politeness with this self obsessed gang.
“Hey man, chill out.”
Andy didn't respond, his mind was awash with painful memories and visions of Sally Springer. “It was that bloody F sharp minor,” he said to himself, “it does it every time.”