The Leslie speaker surged and recessed, pushing out the sounds of the Hammond B3 like a rip current in a hurricane. Swan walked a funk-line with his left hand and peppered Jackson’s guitar riffs with the acrobatics of his right. He was surprised to hear DeeDee’s brushes on the drums, what with the firepower coming out of the rest of the gear. They fought about her bringing a mic, but only because he didn’t want to sing over her drums in the only PA at the gig. The crowd was telling him he didn’t have to worry. A glance at DeeDee was telling him she couldn’t hear herself and was playing by wire. She’d have to get a bigger slice of the night’s tips if he wanted to keep her next week.
The Bleecker Café was a political hangout in Albany. It was a quiet spot, where the music was no more than live background to deals struck in the shadows of the Capital building. Swan sometimes wondered, on a big tip night, what he was being paid to forget he’d heard. But that night was the night that the legislature took summer recess. It was the last night out in the city before they went home to their districts. Their mouths were open for drinks and gossip and off-season Auld Lang Syne, and they were on the floor, dancing like they knew how to, and throwing smiles, requests, and most importantly, tips around.
Swan turned over and aimed his voice low, “C sharp.” MacAvoy was a new pick up. He came in to a biker bar down by the river during one of the open mics Swan subbed for. He liked the cat’s blues lead, but maybe more the fact that, at the open mic, they seemed to be the only two musicians that gave a fuck. Going by MacAvoy’s inability to follow a chord progression or key change, he had quite a few fucks left to give. But at least he turned down when he was off in the weeds. Jackson had a spoon on his strings, improvising a slide. The crowd dug it, marveling at the ingenuity. They didn’t know Jackson couldn’t keep his hands on a real slide to save his life.
They played out the set and took a break around eight. Swan knew the waves of the gig, no matter what was happening down the road. The nine-to-twelve crowd was going to be crazier, but their requests were going to be closer to the songs a player has to put in their starter kit. Early crowds around there had a “let’s stump the band” feel. Swan wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Swan, MacAvoy and DeeDee were outside on the open patio. A penetrating rain was infusing the night air with the smell of ozone and the rejuvenation of an arriving cold-front. Swan even wondered if he had a sweater in the van.
“I’m trying to catch you, Swan, I really am,” MacAvoy said. “Can you play a few more blues tunes? Give me something I can go off on?”
“I could, but you can’t just go around being Stevie Ray Vaughan all day. You need to know the changes.”
“I know. I just don’t want to let anyone down.”
“Don’t worry. No one’s listening to you.”
“Oh, Swan, that’s rough,” DeeDee turned to MacAvoy. “Don’t listen to him. You’re doing good.”
Swan took out a cherry cigar. “When you get good, when you know the progressions and you know those songs, those deep cuts, you’ll play louder, and people will hear you. I’m not trashing you, it’s good that you play low. You don’t know a song and you step back. That’s what you’re supposed to do. But learn the songs.”
MacAvoy pulled the cellophane off a fresh pack of cigarettes. “I’m not used to these crazy chord-change songs,” he said. “Everyone I know rocks the one-four-five.”
“And that’s good when your set-list is five songs long, like those shows you guys set up. But doing a set like tonight, we’re going to go through sixty-, seventy songs. You can’t just sit there and jive out a one-four-five sixty-times, you know?”
Swan reached in his pocket for his black, plastic film canister and flipped aside the lid with his thumb. He pulled out a bowl made from threaded pipe, washers and the only piece he had to buy, the piece that right then was packed with sticky skunk bud. Even the screen came from the bathroom faucet of his boarding house.
“Mac’, go get Jackson. He’ll be a motherfucker if he don’t get any of this.” MacAvoy flicked his embers to the road and tucked the butt into his pocket before he dipped back in to pull Jackson off the two-for-ones.
“I’m gonna make him eat those cigarette butts.”
“Why does he do it?” DeeDee held her own smoke up to the glow from the streetlamp. “Put ‘em in his pocket?”
“He said he’s trying not to litter.” Swan leaned in and nudged DeeDee with his shoulder. “After the next set we’ll take him to the landfill and leave him there.”
They laughed. “You’re terrible,” DeeDee said.
“He’s a good cat,” Swan said. “He’s young. “When I was his age, I was in L.A., playing at a club that Pablo Escobar owned. I ever tell you that one?”
“I’ve heard it,” she said. “Not from you, though.”
“Oh yeah, Jackson showed up back—” Swan turned as the door opened and Jackson came out, trailed by MacAvoy. “Jackson, when did you show up in Escobar’s place?”
“I think it was around what, ’90? ’91? I just got divorced from Sandy, so, about then.”
“The place had iron bars on every window and cameras everywhere,” Swan said. “And you couldn’t take pictures.” He took a hit and paused his remembrance. “They paid us to
play Colombian music. I remember I had to go out and learn it. The owner gave me five hundred bucks when I showed up and told me to give it to a guy down the street. I spent a couple days with that cat learning folk rhythms. There were a thousand and twenty-four, and they wanted them all. But then they paid me good, man, real good. They were getting me whatever I wanted—drinks, drugs, girls—I just asked. And you showed up.”
“That owner was going to shoot me, I thought,” Jackson said.
“He told me he was going to shoot us both,” Swan said. “Me for bringing you. Fuckin’ Pablo Escobar’s joint.”
They stood out and watched the rain, and the voices that assumed themselves to be whispers were revealing themselves to be voices and gregarious shouts inside. The cabs were stopping more frequently, letting out new patrons in pairs. The nine o’clock crowd shook the rain off their umbrellas as Swan and the crew passed the plumber’s pipe, blowing the smoke toward the outside kitchen vent to let it mix with the smell of fried onion rings and chicken tenders.
Swan glanced down the street, exhaled, and passed the pipe to MacAvoy.
“That’s why ya gotta know all the songs.”