Sunday, February 26, 2006

Sunday Night Blues

Cigarette and cigar smoke mingle with the distinctive incense of a pit barbeque, hanging over the crowd like a blanket of fog. The drummer onstage growls into the microphone, “I’m tore down. I’m almost level to the ground,” and one can’t help but believe him. It’s Sunday night at eight o’clock, and Parker’s is packed with a motley crew. Bikers and yuppies, barflies, lovers, and drunks ensure that it’s standing room only tonight. They’re all here for the same reason: the Sunday night jam session.

The Bobs and Williams of Monday through Friday become Hambone and Buffalo Bill on Sunday night. A sign-up list for would-be jammers is clamped to a cracked clip board, resting on top of the neglected jukebox. Behind it, the wall is covered with photographs of regulars, past and present. Musicians sit along the walls, both in the crowd and of it, warming up while they wait for their turn on the stage. Any other night of the week, that jukebox would be spouting the latest top forties pop, but not on Sunday. Sunday night is sacred. Sunday night is reserved for the Blues.

Neon red from the “Parker’s” sign out front flickers through the window, tapping out its staccato rhythm in time with the driving backbeat. The host band, a local “Rockin’ Blues” quad from Kansas City, has dragged the Sunday night jam session from site to site for five years. It’s to the point now that the regular jammers have been playing together so long the music is seamless. This isn’t a bunch of wanna-be rock-star types getting together and hiccupping out a song or two; these are professional-grade musicians who, for one reason or another, can’t quit their day jobs, so they wind up here, putting on a show anybody on the floor would gladly pay to see.

The host band’s vocalist, a short, plain woman with a voice reminiscent of Janis Joplin, wails into the microphone as she shakes her crimped hair. The bassist plucks out a heartbeat designed to draw a man’s soul straight through his chest, stretching long, strong fingers over the neck of a customized eight-string. A guitar solo kicks in, and the crowd is enraptured by the talent of fingers over strings and the sheer intensity and energy flowing through man and instrument. The guitarist’s stringy, unkempt hair and beard frame his long face, hanging down onto clothes that appear to have been slept in two nights already. Were they anywhere but in this bar, on that stage, with those instruments, this rag-tag group would be shown the door.

The song ends, signaling the conclusion of the host band’s set, and the beginning of the jam. Among the whistles and applause, a crowd member jeers, “Man, my grandmamma can rip a better lick than that!”

The singer, grinning and leaning into the microphone, jokes back, “Yeah, well, at least I don’t think the lyrics to Texas Flood are, ‘Well back home I know floods and tomatoes, baby the sun shines in the hay!’” The audience explodes into hysterical laughter. It’s just as likely for the stage group to initiate the provocation, and it’s all in good fun; no egos are bruised by the light-hearted banter.

The night wears on, each musician taking the stage in turn, slowly cycling out the group of performers so that roughly every forth song, there’s a whole new band up front. As jammers come offstage, they’re met with hearty slaps on the back, good-natured ribbing, and frosty mugs of beer. The line to the bathrooms start to creep out through the swinging saloon doors and across the front of the stage. The restrooms, which are designated “male” and “female” by paper sign printouts stuck to the doors with box tape, are tucked down a back hallway stuffed with instrument cases. In a place with plastic-coated table cloths where smoked meat is sold by the pound and beer flows freely from the tap, both male and female customers cycle through whichever stall becomes available first, without regard to gender.

The waitresses are petite and young, but quick on their feet, and quicker with a smile. They know how to work this crowd, casually leaning on tables, cracking jokes and calling everybody “Darlin’”. They tend to ignore the clusters of new folks that bunch around the “Please Wait to be Seated” sign at the front door. Eventually, the customers figure it out and seat themselves. Without fail, at least one person in the party will trip over the uneven flooring in the entranceway. The regulars never cease to be entertained by this, and they watch in glowing anticipation for the moment a toe catches on the raised board. Everybody trips the first time. It’s almost an initiation rite.

Parker’s isn’t much to look at. It’s a cheap, run-down place snugged in between a fading Mexican restaurant and a gas station in a small town a lot of people from the city have never heard of, despite the fact that it’s a mere fifteen miles away. Part of what makes it so special, though, is that “gem in the rough” quality. Not many can guess that a place with faded, second-hand theater drapes hanging in the windows and corrugated sheet metal lining half the inside walls would be a place one could find their soul. It isn’t the location that makes Parker’s so special. It isn’t the d├ęcor. It isn’t their A-list clientele. Parker’s is special because for a few hours every Sunday night, a broken-down old smoke-shack becomes home to every stranger that walks through its doors. Black and white, old and young, day laborer and CEO can sit side-by-side in genuine friendship, bound together by the music pouring out into the parking lot and down a quiet country highway.

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