Wednesday, May 30, 2012


“Straight from the shoulder I think like a soldier
I know what’s right and what’s wrong.
He knows what’s right and what’s wrong!
I’m the original discriminating buffalo man
And I’ll do what’s wrong for as long as I can.
He’ll do what’s wrong for as long as he can!”
The Minotaur’s Song by Incredible String Band

Having never worked in a restaurant before, I had the choice of starting out as a busser or a host.  Cleaning up tables seemed like too much work, whereas greeting people at the door and escorting them to their seats (punctuated by periodic bursts of song) sounded like just the kind of breezy job duties I could handle.  As we rehearsed for the opening, like minded musicians found each other and duos and trios began forming.  This was especially helpful to someone like me, who could marginally provide my own piano accompaniment, but who would be much better off singing while one of the other far better pianists (or guitarists) played.  And I was hoping I could convince some other people, musicians and singers, to join me on a couple of “group” numbers.  I was very lucky early on as there were many brave souls willing to help me in what would turn out to be somewhat whacked out, peculiar performances.

Opening night arrived; the joint was PACKED.  Here’s an encapsulation of the Great Northern experience, which repeated itself in one form or another for the 18 months I was there: The “C’s” (a not exactly affectionate term for “customers” coined by Bongo) would come in the front door to be greeted by one of the four hosts: two attractive young women (think “American Idol”), one who mainly sang “show-tunish” numbers and another who was more pop influenced; a tall, handsome, blond haired country singer (think TV network CMT); or a long-haired, bearded, wild-eyed “outsider” type (uh, that being me).  To the right was a full bar with a copy-playing rock band.  To their left was the restaurant.  One of us hosts would escort the party to their table.  The chances were high that there would be someone performing.  The chances were also high that the signature dish, The Plank, would be making its way to one or another corner of the room.  Food, liquor and music were served up non-stop throughout the night.

The Plank was an attraction unto itself.  It was a maybe six by three foot long piece of wood piled high with barbeque-sauce slathered ribs, various other meats and cheeses, and a selection of fruits and vegetables.  It actually came in several sizes depending on how many people were in the party that ordered it.  It brought a sort of medieval, bacchanalian edge to the whole proceedings.  Two people had to carry it out of the kitchen, and it was usually greeted with as much (if not more) enthusiasm as a well-played musical number.  (The waiters tried to be careful regarding just when they brought it out – its appearance could absolutely destroy some of the quieter musical numbers.)

In between a mouthful of ribs, a shot of whiskey, and raucous table conversation, here’s what an unwary C might experience those first few months: Bo Richards blasting through the Stones’ Heartbreaker with a voice that filled the always noisy space (there was no amplification); the breathtaking vocal magic of Sears, Seely and Nitz on Home to You; the folksy roots music of Marty C; the show-stopping beauty of Antoinette, Nancy and Alice’s Soft Spoken Man/Desperado medley; the Nicky Hopkins/Elton John-like brilliance of Ichabod’s piano playing; the calming beauty of Gray and Cathy’s Bluebird; the rhythm and blues piano playing Lanny supporting the raunchy decadence of Lindaroo as she stopped the show with Don’t You Feel My Leg.  The list could go on, and will, but for now, suffice it to say there was a mighty, mighty, array of amazingly talented performers who made strong impressions and immediate repeat customers out of the folks who came to visit.


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