The Ghosts of Lemp’s Grand Hall

The Ghosts of Lemp’s Grand Hall

“Are you guys part of the band playing for the wedding reception?” asks the irritable receptionist of St. Louis’s Lemp Grand Hall.

 

“Yes. Where is the hall?” I ask.

 

“Third floor. You’ll need to unpack your stuff here and take the elevator up, and quickly please… the wedding party will be here any minute,” Miss Irritable coordinates the evening’s progressions.

 

“What a cool old building,” I relay my observations to our bass player Pierce.

 

“Yup,” Pierce answers with an introverted nod and a puff of his cigarette.

 

It all started in 1838 when a man named John Adam Lemp immigrated to St. Louis, Missouri, from Eschwege, Germany. The first generation of Lemp noticed how propitious the natural cave system underneath St. Louis was for brewing a new type of beer called a lager—the first of its kind in the Gateway to the West. John Adam Lemp left the grocery business in the first half of the 19th century and decided it was time to create the Lemp Brewery.

 

In 1864 a new plant was erected at Cherokee Street and Carondolet Avenue that would one day expand to take up ten city blocks, including the Lemp Mansion.

 

“I hear this place is haunted,” Pierce portends.

 

“Really?” I respond.

 

“Yea supposedly the family members Killed themselves and are haunting the mansion nowadays,” Pierce attempts to make my skin crawl.

 

In fact, William Lemp, son of John Adam Lemp, committed suicide in the head bedroom of the mansion in 1904, thus ending a three-year grievance over the mysterious death of his favorite son Frederick. Unfortunately, William Lemp’s successors followed in the morbid footsteps of their father. Elda Lemp committed suicide in 1920 after the start of prohibition forced the brewery to temporarily shut down. And William Lemp II shot himself in the same building his father committed suicide in just eighteen years prior. If any building were to be haunted by its preceding tenants, it would be the Lemp Mansion.

 

“Guess I’ll keep an eye out for ghosts,” I kid to Pierce.

 

After unloading our gear onto the third floor, Pierce makes a short comment regarding the scenery within the antedated hall.

 

“It’s antique [Lemp Hall]… not vintage.”

 

The hard maple-wood floors, white table settings, manservants dressed in tuxedos… the open-air lift (not elevator), Italian marble mantle, hand-painted ceilings and intricately carved mantles of African mahogany spoil the thirty-three-room estate as a Victorian Showpiece. Suddenly I feel like I’ve stepped out of the present and into the post-prohibition era as a guest at the brewery. It’s the roaring twenties again. Tonight, the setting of Lemp Hall evokes an image of slim “Slickers” eyeing promiscuous debutantes through tortoise-shaped glasses. We’ve been transported to a place that Fitzgerald and Brooke once praised as, This Side of Paradise.

 

“Now I wish we played swing music!” I exclaim.

 

“Would definitely suit the venue more,” Thaddeus, the guitarist, agrees.

 

“The bride and groom will be up shortly,” a bitter receptionist announces to us.

 

“Hey can I get a drink?” Our drummer Paul interjects.

 

“Are you serious?” The receptionist bemuses. “We’re getting set for the entrance of the bride and the groom and you’re worried about getting a drink? My God . . . you really are a drummer!”

 

After some not-so-witty banter I decide it is indeed time to grab a drink. Paul and I head to the open bar to grab some refreshments.

 

“How can I help you sir?” A manservant in a tuxedo takes my order.

 

“Yea . . . What do you gentlemen have on draft this evening?” I ask.

 

“We have the local domestic [Bud light, nothing from The Lemp Brewery…] and a hefeweizen beer,” he responds.

 

“I’ll take the hefeweizen.”

 

. . .

 

There is a sense of class at this reception: The King and Queen of the ball enter. She is wearing a white dress, of course, with a silk top revealing an abundance of cleavage. The bottom of her dresses is ruffled in textured harmony with the rest of her outfit. The King is wearing a tuxedo just like the groomsman, but with a fancier corsage and a nervousness to get the ball over with already. A lesser class of Men wear tuxedos adorned with cummerbunds, black patent leather shoes and dainty corsages; accompanying them, women are dressed in bridesmaid gowns colored in midnight lavender. Then comes by far the lowest class of men that ever attended a ball at Lemp Hall. Judging by their attire this class of men spend their days drinking rotgut from the local watering holes in drunken delight. Their attire suggests they might have a penchant for smoking, listening to jukeboxes at obnoxious volumes, and committing all sorts of transgressions against decorum—they certainly aren’t dressed for the occasion. They are already here. They, I am shameful to admit, are us (the band). I recall a conversation that took place only a week prior:

 

“Hey so I was wondering what sort of dress code—if any—you would request the band to wear?” I ask the soon-to-be-bride.

 

Her response verbatim:

 

“Whatever you guys would like! As Long as you [the band] are all comfortable is what matters.”

 

We, regretfully, take her response to heart.

 

. . .

 

Is there a possibility of dressing too comfortably? I ask myself as the wedding party finishes filling out Lemp Hall. What have I done? Of course people dress up nice for weddings. And here I am with a shabby group of men all wearing tattered jeans, old tennis shoes and dull t-shirts. We’re the contrast of dress and class that separates royalty from the bourgeoisie.

 

“Hey you guys, there’s some food left over if you’d like to grab something to eat before you play,” the authoritative receptionist scares my nerves by calling on us to start the show.

 

“Ah, thanks. We’ll grab some food shortly.”

 

We—the bourgeoisie, ostracized to the outside deck—sit, eat and smoke cigarettes while observing the pouring rain from a view underneath the third-floor marquee. What a haunted looking set of buildings. I observe the ten blocks of buildings that once encompassed The Lemp Brewery. Tall towers with spires and gothic architecture seem to place us somewhere on the Princeton Campus in New Jersey. The moons beams are obscured be heavy clouds. The night contains us, makes everything pitch black except the few dim bulbs and a couple cigarette sparks lighting the rain-soaked deck. Here in the third world—on the third floor—I wonder which room William Lemp decided to take his life? Will his ghost or Elda’s greet us during tonight’s reception? I hope not. Stop thinking this way! You are liable to make yourself sick and the stuffed-cheese ravioli is too delicious to excommunicate from your body!

 

“Hey! You guys can start playing now!” The agitated receptionist scares me away from my haunted reverie.

 

“Oaky… thanks,” I respond. I need another beer.

 

I know there’s something in the wake of your smile.

I get a notion from the look in your eyes, yea.

You’ve built a love but that love falls apart.

Your little piece of heaven turns too dark.

 

The first verse of Tom Petty’s “Listen to Your Heart” rings out across the maple-wood floors and into the ears of high-class patrons. Sonorous sounds of excitement eddy throughout the hall in matter of fact prurience. Bridesmaids tout revelations of bare cleavage with no scruples. Prohibition has ended. The combination of music and alcohol make the lights cheer and cast circular shadows of breasts on to the dance floor. Not-so-innocent men eye the shadows and bare cleavage wishing to grasp them with lascivious hands. Up above, ropes hang adorned with hundreds of glowing bulbs. As the dancing feet get heavier and the music gets equally louder, I see glints of light from above. It’s as if a supernatural presence has entered the hall to cheer us on. I just hope we get out of here before the lights go out and William and Elda descend from the above. Below? From where? Wherever they are, their presence pervades the atmosphere of The Lemp Brewery. Everyone feels it now. It’s getting late. So I have another drink to shake this haunting feeling. Yes, they have entered—The Ghosts of Lemp’s Grand Hall are here.

-Layton (09/22/2016)

BB’s Hall of Blues

BB’s Hall of Blues

“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.

-Layton (4/23/16)