“I’ll have the seasonal Schlafly pale ale,” I say to the bartender. Ann and I order our first round and head up to the balcony for a top view of tonight’s entertainment.
The steps are old and cut up from years of souls traversing the long wooden planks. As we ascend, our light summer ales flicker as the evening sun’s rays beam through the barred-up windows and into our clear glasses full of beer. Outside a train plods along in its lugubrious fashion cutting the suns beams in a strobe-light fashion as the locomotive crosses the Mighty Mississippi River. Looking around, the walls of BB’s Jazz, Blues, and Soups (tonight’s venue) are adorned with figures from the Great American Song Book. B.B. King, Leadbelly, Charlie Jordan, and many other formidable blues guitarists peer down at the venues patrons from picture frames above. Contemporary blues guitarist, and St. Louis native, Tom Hall takes the stage for his 7pm curtain call.
We take our seats in the upper deck as Tom hall enacts elegiac sonorities drawn from Jelly Roll Morton’s swung ragtime to Dave Brubeck’s third stream jazz. He’s a real Bert Reynolds-looking character with his gray hair parted in the center, mustache whiskers long and greyer, and cowboy boots tapping the pulse of a four-four blues. As the sun elucidates tonight’s singer, the yellow dusk reflects brightly off his steel guitar. Tom shields his eyes with a hand to look down and take a request from one of the patrons; he begins playing “Take Five.” “Just stop and take a little time with me,” Tom’s guitar speaks to the crowd. I’m impressed to see him somehow tap his feet to the five-four meter while arranging an instrumental improvisation worthy of pleasing the late David Brubeck and Paul Desmond.
His head sways as he bends forward to call forth the facility in his fingers needed to execute such a tough tune. In an act of alchemy, the stiff-looking, gruff old man takes on the vitality of a young artiste; this is why I love seeing good musicians perform. You see it in great acts performing the music they love. In this case, the music supplants the lethargic, soporific physique of the performer with a lively youth that wakes the dormant life of music from somewhere deep within—from where I don’t know. It’s not like seeing the modern day Chuck Berry who is clearly just doing it for the money at this point, or, at least, he’s not performing “Maybellene” and “Johnnie B. Goode” to wow audiences at Blueberry Hill. It’s sad to see the vitality so stripped from a rock n’ roll icon to the point of dilapidation. The music no longer energizes with its effervescent quality; enervation subsumes vivacity.
On the contrary, Tom Hall isn’t a pastime act performing for a patronage of nostalgic fans checking off an item probably half way down their bucket lists. No, Tom performs because he loves American folk music: Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” just a man and his acoustic guitar pulling at the roots of American folklore.
Ann and I order another round as the tune comes to a close. “That’s ‘Take Five’ and I’m gonna take fifteen,” the performer announces to the crowd in his dirty, deep bass voice over the PA speakers. As the first of two sets comes to a close, I meander down the wooden planks and introduce myself to tonight’s act.
“Hey good job up there,” I compliment Tom before asking a request.
“Thanks young man, what’s ya name,” Tom replies.
“Layton,” I reveal my identity. “Hey, you know ‘St. Louis Blues’ by chance?”
“You know, oddly enough, I don’t. And I’m from St. Louis!” He bemuses.
“Well… how about ‘All the Things You Are?’”
“Nah, I’m sorry. Ya know, I’m not too good at taking requests… but I am about to play a Paul Simon tune.”
“I love Paul Simon,” I think to myself and then say, “Sounds good. Good luck up there.”
“Thanks young man.” Tom says, and I leave him for the lovers’ tables upstairs. Ann and I aren’t lovers. The doorman collecting our five bucks made an awkward assumption when we first walked in. We just laughed it off, climbed the rustic wooden planks, and entered cupid’s balcony-side table. And now, as we hover above the spirit of Paul Simon, I’m kind of hoping to learn about the “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Instead, Tom Hall plays some African-sounding tune (probably off Simon’s Graceland album) and I’m happy as the clave rhythms dance on and our fourth round of craft beers hit the lover’s table.
Suddenly, a man standing on the wooden planks descends with a pocket-sized instrument to trumpet what music he has in him. Now I’m wishing I could join in the camaraderie by grabbing an imaginary upright bass to start swinging in the Dixieland tune the duo are now playing. “What fun it is to see musicians improvise,” I think to myself. It gives the music a direction you can’t anticipate. It creates an excitement of the unarranged. It’s an ephemeral commotion you never want to end but has to at some point. I sit there in awe as I always do when I hear euphonious sonorities never heard before. The range of music performed tonight, along with, the mystical transformation of dilapidated elder into effervescent youth, has created a performance worth witnessing. Sadly, the second and final set comes to a close as Tom Hall paraphrases the late King of Rock n’ Roll in saying, “Thank you very much.”
Ann and I leave BB’s to catch the end of the Blues hockey game and sip one more pint at the Broadway Oyster Bar next store. First, we traverse the doorstep and head out onto the street. I look up and the strobe-light beams of the suns rays have disappeared beneath the Mighty Mississippi River. The locomotive above has come and gone and so has the music. The emptiness of the evening sets in as my foot hits the city pavement and I’m glad when we run into Tom Hall outside. He says to me, “Nice to meet you Layton, you two have a good rest of your evening.”
In turn, we congratulate him for his performance, he gives us his card with all his information on it, and I look up his website at tomhallmusic.com. The evening emptiness subsides as I put my phone up to my ear and return to the lover’s balcony in BB’s hall of blues once again. This time I’m alone and, ironically, singing along to Tom Hall’s version of “Sweet Home Chicago;” I later think to myself, “The St. Louis Blues lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.” And now I’m Bitter.