Every month I have the privilege of playing with a group of accomplished musicians in a band we call Los Train Wreck at El Rio, a venerable bar in San Francisco’s Mission District that boasts the motto “Your Dive” over the doorway. We are a fine band made up of gifted musicians, but our role in El Rio is to be the backup band for jammers—to “make you sound good,” as we say in our announcements.
We used to be called Train Wreck, but then one night the actor Jack Black played at San Francisco’s The Independent, and his band was called Train Wreck, so what could we do but change our band’s name? I suppose we could have challenged him to a Battle of the Bands, like the ones we used to have in high school gymnasiums. It’s too bad we didn’t think of that then, because in retrospect it seems like a good idea. But we bowed to Jack Black’s greater fame and changed our name to Los Train Wreck, which does have a certain Latin flair, if you are from Georgia.
I have performed music in many different settings, but a large percentage of the time I have found myself setting up my equipment in places like El Rio, a dive with the ambience of old stale beer smell, beat up furniture, half broken sound equipment, and an odd mix of patrons.
Last week I was in two towns that are renowned for music, Nashville and Austin, and although I was there on book business, I couldn’t help but think of the music that has been made and the musicians who have built their careers in these musical cities.
Both Nashville and Austin boast large, storied auditoriums, influential radio and television shows, major recording studios, and renowned music festivals—the larger events that drive the big money music industry. Both cities can claim to be the home base of major American stars.
But there is another side to Nashville and Austin, bars like The Continental Club in Austin and The Bluebird Café in Nashville. And there are many other joints, some gone and some still hopping, in New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Las Vegas, and so on, where musicians learn and hone their craft, or just make a living as hardworking, underpaid pros, some waiting for their big chance, and others doing it because they must. I’m not talking about symphony halls and amphitheaters—I mean the coffee houses, bookstores, school auditoriums, churches, synagogues, mosques, community theaters, sidewalks, but most of all, for my kind of music, the dives of America, home of the humble, struggling, low budget, aspiring musician, but also the birthplace of the strange, mystical energy that happens when live music starts cooking, when people give themselves over to the communal groove of the moment, of feeling the rhythm course through their bodies, letting their hearts swell with the joy of just being alive, knowing that this moment will pass in a twinkling, and dancing, swaying, and singing, because now’s the time and, well, why the hell not?
Dives are where the music I love was born, is born again, rising out of the hunger, anger, lust, and love of making music in the company of others, of people seeking their tribe by losing themselves in the glory of the moment. Sure it doesn’t work every time. Sure there are wild-eyed sorts on the fringes, drunks, fools, and failures. But when it clicks it is worship, only no one has to explain the religion, and everyone is welcome.