By the light of the neon beer sign, surrounded by crowds ready to unwind, legions of musicians plug in and pay their dues on the bar band circuit. Nothing keeps a bar rocking quite like a live band, one that fills the room with tunes for folks to dance their stresses away and sets the soundtrack for a wild night out.
It’s not an easy gig, playing at bars at night while holding down day jobs and sometimes juggling families. Living a musical life where the party never seems to stop, not to mention all the wear and tear from playing guitars and drums so much, can test even the sturdiest of workhorse musicians.
Of all the bar bands that entertained Sacramentans until last call, one particular group earned local legend status: Rutabaga Boogie Band.
In the 1970s and 1980s, you could find Rutabaga Boogie Band playing five nights a week with sets that stretched upward of five hours. Their mix of rockin’ cover tunes and originals drew packed crowds at Oasis Ballroom, Shire Road Pub and other watering holes around town.
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So who better to dispense some tips to the latest generation of bar bands than Bill Horton, a guitarist with Rutabaga Boogie Band? Now with its members in their 60s, the group is dusting off its amps, rehearsing and getting ready for a reunion show at Harlow’s on Friday, April 14.
With hundreds upon hundreds of gigs under his guitar strap, Horton’s dealt with all kinds of crowds, club owners and onstage mishaps. As the Rutabaga Boogie Band prepares to rekindle memories of nights at the Oasis Ballroom, Horton shared his well-earned, sagelike wisdom.
Here’s what Horton had to say about what it takes to be a successful bar band:
Don’t forget the dynamics: It’s easy to get carried away when the dance floor is packed, drinks are flowing and the guitar amp is cranked nice and loud. But the best bar bands don’t forget about the subtleties that can elevate a simple soundtrack for partying into a fully realized sonic experience. Crescendos, variations in volume and intensities that ebb and flow are the secret sauce for captivating audiences at bars, instead of just pummeling them with guitar riffs.
“Dynamics are the most important thing a band can learn,” said Horton. “(Some musicians) take dynamics for granted, and you think they’re going to happen, but you have to make them happen.”
Don’t hog the spotlight: We get it, mister guitar god. You can play Eddie Van Halen’s “Eruption” note for note and have the fastest fingers this side of the Tower Bridge. But depending on the song, sometimes it’s best to just lay back and give some shine to that grooving rhythm section.
“We used to say, ‘Let the rhythm section cook,’ ” said Horton. “A rhythm section can carry a band, so don’t be afraid to not play. I’ve been with guitar players who think if they stop playing that the world stops turning.”
Accept mistakes: “Just play through them,” said Horton. “Just grin and don’t say a thing.”
Never act like you’re too good for a gig: There’s no getting around them as a working musician. Everyone has to pay their proverbial dues, whether it’s facing lackluster crowd sizes, managing the occasional heckler or even dealing with an indifferent audience. All you can do is stay humble and keep pushing.
“Take any gig you can, play anywhere you can and treat it like the best gig of your life,” said Horton. “Whether there’s 10 people or 1,000 people, you have a moral obligation to do your best. And watch your volume, watch your dynamics.”
Pro tip for vocalists: Singing multiple nights a week, especially when trying to be heard in a noisy bar, can give the vocal cords a good beating. While many singers have a favored elixir to keep their throats coated, Horton opts for a citrus touch.
“I drank straight lemon juice,” said Horton. “It seemed to clear the phlegm that could be in the vocal cords.”
Be cool to the club staff: “We never went into a gig like rock stars,” said Horton. “We were always best friends with the club owners and made sure to tip the staff after a weekend.”
Keep it in perspective: It’s easy to get caught up in the crowd adulation and endless offers of free drinks, but face the music: You’re not a rock star, and probably never will be. Humility can go a long way, even in the amped-up world of bar band gigs. Don’t forget the primary purpose of the gig is to make people happy through your music – which in turn could lead to the robust drink sales that make club owners happy – rather than an excuse to stroke your ego.
“We had a formula that we stumbled on: Monkey see, monkey do,” said Horton. “If you could put a quarter into us like a jukebox, we would. People want to be entertained. I felt fortunate to be part of this band and wanted to make other people feel part of it, too.”