Closing time and the end of an era for OFB

OFB has hosted a Thursday Blues Jam in Kalamazoo for almost all 11 years of its existence. Hosting the jam has had many impacts on the band – some good, some bad. For instance, there are bars in Kalamazoo that wouldn’t book OFB because of the regular gig. On the other hand, it’s made us more fearless on stage, which can be a lot of fun.

The closing of The 411 Club is a big blow for the blues community. There are all sorts of sayings you’ve heard a million times about doors closing and opening, endings and new beginnings, and though I don’t like being trite, the end of this Thursday Blues Jam is a new beginning for OFB. It’s an opportunity to move on to other things as a band. Our decision to walk away from the privilege and responsibility of running a blues jam is a really big deal for us. A really big, bittersweet deal…

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With OFB, we rotate the job of running the jam between the five of us…and it is a job. And when it’s your turn, you feel it. There’s a responsibility to try to get everyone who’s signed up on stage. There’s the organizational challenge of making sure all the necessary pieces are up there (drums, bass, guitars, vocals, etc.). Beyond that, there’s the notion that the music should be listenable, so you have to pay attention to the experience levels of the players a little bit.

That’s already a lot to think about. Add to that the one guy who doesn’t want to get up with the other guy, and the one guy who brought his buddy and really wants to get up with him, and the singer who doesn’t play any instruments but wants to get up to sing a couple. Now realize that you either make these people happy and compromise the quality, or say (to yourself), “screw it,” and run the stage how you want and piss those people off.

How many people have gotten mad in the last six years and stormed out of the bar? They’ve been waiting too long. They don’t want to get up with people. They’re not happy at my reaction when they say, “I just want to get up and do a couple of solo tunes on this acoustic guitar,” when there are 20 people ahead of them on the list.

So sometimes it’s annoying to run the jam.

Being on stage with the other guys in OFB is, hands down, the most fun I have. Period. There’s nothing else like it. When we’re at our best, playing with OFB is like all the good parts of a roller coaster back to back to back. It’s new love, over and over again. It’s driving just a little too fast to be safe. It’s the Ickey Shuffle, the Super Bowl Shuffle and Tebowing all rolled into one. (Do you see how I took it one step too far there?) My point is…it’s exhilarating. And while it’s not fair to compare anything to that…I do.

So sometimes it’s not musically rewarding to host the jam.

But…

Being a part of the Thursday Blues Jam has made me a much better musician. In the beginning, at Wonderful’s, I learned what it’s like being on stage. I hadn’t been playing guitar very long when I went down there for the first time and I learned about being a working musician right away. More recently, the jam has made me a stronger leader on stage. It’s made me a much better front man and singer. It’s made me think a lot more about what happens when I’ve got a guitar in my hands.

And the jam is a huge service to the blues community. It’s a place where musicians meet bands who need musicians. It creates situations where everyone plays UP to the level of the best musician on the stage. (You see that a lot when Bobby Wilson is up there.) It creates situations where people working in our favorite bands can get up and play with each other in ways they wouldn’t at their own shows. And when all of those things are happening at their best, it can be quite a show for the crowd.

OFB has grown from twenty-somethings who didn’t know anything, to a group of guys who have been at it for so long we somehow gained a little bit of status in the blues community. (Just a little.) I think we’ve each had conversations with less experienced players, encouraging and giving advice on one aspect or another of what has happened on stage. It’s like mentoring, but with booze. And I can’t overstate how rewarding that part of my experience running the jam has been.

Walking away from the jam is going to be a sad thing. There are things I’m not going to miss, like on Friday, when I wake up for work and I don’t have any sort of hangover and I will probably have had more than five hours of sleep. That’s going to be amazing.

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The closing of the bar means I won’t have seen a bunch of people I like. That’s something I’ll miss for sure. I’ll miss laughing with Katey and Kelsey while they hunt for bottles of Makers Mark and Traverse City Whiskey to keep the band in good shape. I’ll miss laughing outside with the Barkers and Ralph and Tim Miller.

The closing of the bar and OFB walking away from the jam have become one event for me, but one didn’t cause the other. We’ve been at it for a long time and the bar closing has given us an opportunity to make this decision. It’s not the end of the band by any means…just the end of a chapter for the band. A long, long chapter. I’m glad OFB got the opportunity to host the jam for so long. It made us better. And I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Just got to make it to Thursday

I know some people who don’t have anything outside of work and home. “Hobby” is too light a word, but that’s close to what I mean. “Passion” is closer. They don’t have an outlet. They don’t have any way to touch their own soul and set it free for a while.

And I don’t know how these people do it. How do they make it through a week or a month without…something.

18 years ago, I was still a very young man. I had only been playing guitar for a few years. I had no idea what it was to “play out” and I really had no business trying to do so. But I saw an ad somewhere for a place called Mr. Wonderful’s that had a blues jam on Thursdays. So I called and asked the scruff sounding man who answered about how it worked. “I’m not in a band or anything. Can I still come play?”

Jesus, I was young.

But I went. I stepped to the front of the room and played three songs with the Crossroads Blues Band. There were only about four people in the bar, but it was my first taste of playing for strangers and, for me, it was all about what was happening on stage. It was amazing. I had been happy to noodle in my apartment or play with friends, but to be on a stage and have people paying attention…that was life-changing.

And that was the beginning of my addiction. I would spend all week waiting for Thursday just so I could play my three or four songs with the band. Friday and Saturday were easy to get through. But after the weekend was over, I started to look ahead.

And I still do today. If Monday is a drag, I know that Thursday’s just a couple of days away. I know that if I can make it to Thursday morning at work, that it’s all downhill from there. Even if I only get to play that first set with the band…it’s enough to get me through the week.

So this blog has been about performing as a coping mechanism. I’m going to try to figure out how to write about performing and spiritual health without sounding like a new-age blues hippie. I don’t know if it can be done. Stay tuned…

Before the Bird

Well…tomorrow’s the big day, really. It’s my favorite holiday of the year. Birthday, Christmas, St. Patty’s Day…they all pale in comparison. It’s a day of family and food and football and almost any other f-words you can think of.

And if tomorrow’s the big day, then today is the big night. The alleged “Biggest Bar Night of the Year.”  That should mean a good crowd at the Before the Bird Blues Jam tonight.

Many years, the pre-Thanksgiving jam winds up being a sort of reunion for Kalamazoo’s finest. We usually see some long-lost friends who just can’t make it for one reason or another most weeks. Players from other bands in and around Kalamazoo. And of course the usual suspects. All sorts of players. It’s like a cornucopia of musicians. At least, I hope that’s how it is tonight.

Spending Thursday with my family will be a big part of what makes Thanksgiving my favorite. But spending Wednesday night with my friends is also a big part of what makes it so great.

Oh…and the food. I absolutely love the food…

Don’t let this happen to you this Thanksgiving

Show me some of that bread

So this is another busy weekend for the OFBs.

Of course, the weekend starts tonight with the Thursday Blues Jam at The 411 Club (www.the411club.com). Metro Kalamazoo’s finest blues musicians coming together to produce music that’s always new, usually good, sometimes really special, and always fun.

On Friday, we get to rest up for what follows.

Saturday, we have a private party. A wedding in Portage. There’s nothing more special that watching people declare their undying love for one another…and then throwing down to a little “Good Booty and Barbecue.” Touching… But it will be fun. Plus…it’s at the Celery Flats and I think the building is haunted. Or at least…that’s what I heard. Or at least…that’s what I’ve been telling the band to get them all spooked up.

Sunday is going to be awesome. First of all, we’re playing at Bell’s. Which, for some reason, is a rarity for this band. This will be the second time we’ve played there. And…we’re playing for free!

It’s a fundraiser for the Sarkozy Bakery. Maybe you remember what happened back in February. It was a big deal. This place had become a Kalamazoo institution. And now, they hope to do that again.

We usually play a couple of fundraisers each year. This one is different. It’s not for a non-profit organization. It’s not for a festival. It’s not for a new lung or a new pancreas for someone. But it’s for the community. It’s for a local employer. It’s for a producer of a local product that is beloved by local people.

I think that might mean that just by participating in this event, we’re doing more for the local economy than either presidential candidate can boast.

Anyway. Between our bipartisan bread braggery and our thirsty Thursday jammifications…this is shaping up to be a busy weekend.

Competing, against better judgement

So there’s the Kalamazoo Blues Challenge on Sunday (Sept. 23). In 2003, the first year we existed, we entered and won the Kalamazoo contest. We’ve entered a couple other times in Kalamazoo and not made the cut. We competed once in Detroit and made it to the finals, where we won the Fan Favorite award, but came in second in the competition.

Now there’s a lot unsaid up there. I could dog the winners of those contests that I thought we’d won. I could spew hate at the judges whose comments dealt with brand names and booze and not the music. None of it matters, though.

There’s a fundamental problem with contests like this. It’s five individuals subjecting bands to their biases. Five different rulers by which to measure the same bands. It doesn’t make sense. And when you look at judges’ comments, you see that five people are seeing five different things at one time. It’s maddening as a band to try to figure out how to compete in that landscape.

When we won in Kalamazoo, I feel like we played about all the songs we knew.  I think we only had two original tunes at that point and we did them both. The rest of that set seems very cliche to me. But…we won. Ever since then, our originals aren’t “blues” enough.

The last time we did the Kalamazoo contest, I think Tony did all the singing. When we competed in Detroit, I did all the singing. The thought was we would give the crowd one vocalist to focus on…to gain rapport with. Both times, the comments were, “why isn’t the other guy singing?”

My point is…it’s a crap shoot with the judges. If we play a funky blues, they’ll call it funk. If we play straight shuffles, they’ll say we were boring. Heh. You can’t win. So…after trying to present a particular flavor of OFB for a contest, we’ve decided to just do what we do. We’ve only been a band for 9 years, but I think we finally feel confident enough in who we are to just be that.

The good news for the other bands is that there’s a good chance the judges aren’t going to think we’re “blues” enough. And we’re not going to give the judges one person to focus on. The bad news is that there’s a chance we’ll be just the right amount of “blues.” And why focus? I think we’ve got the baddest rhythm section in the world…and Tony is unequaled in the realm of saxophonic hijinks.

For tonight, we have to be the opposite of contest-minded. It’s the blues jam. It’s about the music…not about the players. It’s about spontaneous collaboration…not out-doing the next guy. There’s no judges, just people. Just how it’s supposed to be.

Back to normal…such as it is

So we’re almost two weeks after the State Theatre show now and things are starting to get back to normal. The post ST jam with Tab Benoit is still lingering in my mind a little. And the late-night-early-morning talk with Tab still seems a bit surreal.

But it’s back to normal. We’re still hosting the Thursday Blues Jam at The 411 Club every Thursday. We’ve got some good stuff coming up. Gun Lake Casino, the UKC dog show and then, of course, all the usual summer fun. Even though it’s felt like summer lately, I really can’t wait until the usual summer parties start.

Are you tired of me, yet? You should go to our website and contact some other Out of Favor Boys and tell them to start blogging. They don’t listen to me…

Bring on the weekend

Enough of the snow already. Bring on the music.

I’m already looking forward to the weekend. Thursday Blues Jam at The 411 and then the unofficial Budweiser Blues Series after party on Friday night at The 411.  I’m not going to lie to you.  The best part might be that I can just leave my rig set up on Thursday night, saving me a few precious minutes I can spend with my head on my pillow.

Motor City Josh and Harper are at the State Theatre on Friday night. I’ve never met or seen either one of those bands play. I can’t believe I’ve never seen Harper. He was at Wonderful’s a couple of times and I think he’s even played The 411 before. I don’t know if it’s laziness or just inconvenient scheduling. Anyway…I hope they come down to the bar after the State Theatre show. I’ve heard a lot of good musical things about both of them.

We’re also looking forward to our own State Theatre gig later this spring. March 16 opening for Tab Benoit. AWESOME! We’re also playing at The 411 Club that night after the State Theatre. Tab’s come down there before…maybe he’ll come down again.  Hmm…