Come on in! Stringed instruments, white Christmas lights and eager musicians line the walls in The Bridge's tucked away "Pickin' Parlor." I'd just finished bangin' out the I-IV-V chords to Jimi Hendrix's "Red House" on the Fernbridge restaurant's old corner wall piano, while tall, lanky George helmed the lead vocal/guitar duties. Unlike the famous Are You Experienced? version, this rendition included auxiliary acoustic guitars, mandolins and a ukulele courtesy of the gathered musicians -- lots of varying strum patterns and notes competing with each other. But, in the spirit of the night, no one seemed to mind.
Tuesday nights at The Bridge are open jams. The stakes are a little lower than at an open mic, where most performers have to endure the judging eyes of other musicians all by their lonesome. Not so on jam nights. Not confident with your pickin'? Just play quietly. Someone (guaranteed) will fill in that space.
I've dabbled in both worlds. Each has offered moments of musical/spiritual fulfillment. At other times, "Why the hell am I doing this?" screamed from within. Both require an offering. What you philosophically seek from music -- acceptance, fame, camaraderie -- may determine where you best fit in.
In music, as in life, it takes a healthy level of confidence/assholeishness to stand in front of a room and declare through action, "Yeah, you should really listen to just me now. I'm really good." In a turn-taking open mic setting, I control my destiny. Every sound produced from the stage -- or corner of the room, as is often the case -- is coming from me. If I've got "it," that will be apparent. If I suck, my suckage will fully register.
Conversely, in an open jam setting, I might occasionally find myself at the mercy of that guy who thinks he's an '80s shred metal guitar hero -- despite the fact that I wanted to play cool jazz. Luckily, that problem tends to work itself out. When you're painting aggressively on other people's canvases, they tend to speak up more quickly than if you're just Pollocking at the next table. Gotta be a team player.
Playing music with people of varying ability also forces performers to check their ambitions in the interest of everyone's good time. The same musical confidence that might help me at an open mic could lead to a social and musical train wreck when I'm supposed to be an equal member of the jam squad. Just because I know all the numerous chord changes and timing intricacies in "Tiny Dancer" doesn't mean that I should force it on the team. Best to trot out "Hoochie Coochie Man." Three chords. Way easy.
In short, open mics present a higher potential for artistry to be displayed (no, trust me, sometimes it totally happens!) whereas open jams foster community.
The Bridge peddles the latter. While 10 passionately attacked instruments might not always find the same song, there is other music happening in the room. My night there was one long, strummed hug.
It had been quite a while since I'd been to either an open mic or an open jam when I ventured into Deb Woods' and Steve Sterbeck's place earlier this month. It felt uncomfortably good. On open mic nights, Woods' enthusiasm for music and community explodes all over you from the moment you step in the door.
"It's almost like a train, or a whirlwind that you gotta jump on. You feel it. And it whips around all night," Woods says of the weekly magic of open jams. She is white-haired, bespectacled, and pure influential energy. Throughout the evening, whether Woods was offering me beans and cornbread or suggesting I play a song, I wasn't about to say "no."
"Don't the beautiful things make life worthwhile?" she philosophizes, smiling ginormously. "We're all brought closer because of these boxes with strings."
I get sucked into the vortex. On this night, about 10-15 amateur soundsmiths float in. Everyone is encouraged to lead a song at one point or another. Digging through my repertoire for songs that seemed appropriate, I fall back on some trustworthy Springsteen, Creedence and Beatles "everyone-knows-that-one"s.
"You're wonderful!" Woods would tell the band after each song. "Do another!"
You have to get past the cacophonous exterior to find The Bridge's harmonious inner sanctuary. Since last year, the former Fernbridge Market has been encased in a blaring American flag paint job created, in part, as protest over its nearly nine-month closure by the county's Division of Environmental Health ("Queasy Eats," May 12, 2011). Woods' husband Sterbeck said the closure devastated the business.
"I still might not be able to stay open long," he said. "We had to borrow money and use all our life savings just to stay here."
When The Bridge was closed, the couple still opened the doors for weekly jam sessions, inviting the musicians to bring potluck style dishes. "They couldn't stop us from jammin'," Sterbeck said. "We always kept the spirit."
Even political hopefuls have recognized that the Bridge's spirit draws a crowd. On the same night I jammed out "Nights in White Satin" with the impromptu band, 1st District supervisorial candidate Annette De Modena sat listening. For her patience, she was rewarded with the opportunity to make a brief stump speech. "I ask you for your vote on June 5 because I am the smartest one running," she said in part.
De Modena, recognizing me, began to list things I could tell my editor. She was, to say the least, displeased with recent Journal coverage that she felt slighted her. Woods quickly tried to bring the focus of the evening back.
"OK, you've got to let it go now," she said. "We're not political."
As the night wore on and that evening's never-to-be-heard-again band gradually lost members, the song selections became more restrained, somber and spiritually tinged. Having served adequate tours on guitar and piano, I moved on to the drum kit. (Another sure sign that this is a welcoming environment. I'm not a drummer, and I am not that good).
"You wanna end with 'Wagon Wheel'?" Woods asked her two fellow remaining noise makers.
Ah! The Bob Dylan semi-composed song, later made famous by Old Crow Medicine Show, that has taken on the mantle of Humboldt County's own personal "Freebird" and has closed out countless musical events. Simple chords. Singable chorus. Everyone knows it. Everybody wins.
But, of course, we'd already done it (at least) once that night. So Woods suggested that the only other strummer left standing do a song he wrote about the Fernbridge scene called "Down at The Bridge." His name is Stfn. Yes, he spelled it for me. ("I just decided I didn't like vowels," Stfn said.)
While I brushed the snare and high-hat, he and Woods began to play and sing:
Down at The Bridge, it's easier than skippin' stones
Down at The Bridge, they really make you feel at home.
Open jams at The Bridge begin at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and last until everyone is played out.