I am a Social Smith. It has always been my calling. Even as a child, I would get in trouble for sneaking out of bed and camping at the top of the stairs when there was company. At age twenty I jumped on my motorcycle and left Michigan for the west coast. My mother asked me why. “I want to meet people!” was my answer. Any job I took was almost always centered around social gatherings and good cheer, be it bartending, noisy restaurants, working in theatre, or traveling with a band. My station was to entertain the folks.
As I sit on my quarantine sofa by the window on the third Saturday afternoon of the month, I drift back to times before Covid (back in the “olden days” according to my son!) My R&B soul band Second Hand Smoke is on stage at the Saloon in North Beach San Francisco. We’ve held the third Saturday gig for over twenty years. The place is packed with a full dance floor. The lights are murky and the air is thick with the sweaty fog of good times. It has carried this charm since 1861; the oldest bar in San Francisco.
“I NEED TO KNOW THERE’S SOME WARRIORS IN THE HOUSE!” I shout on the microphone. “SEENS HOW WE’RE HERE - WE MIGHT AS WELL GET THE BEST OF IT!”
We count in the next tune and the dance floor is actually bounding to the rhythm of the music. It feels wonderful to blow my sax and sing to the heavens with the power of a full six-piece band with me. It feels wonderful to be the stewards of exuberance. The music isn’t coming out of us, it's coming through us. We are the humble spigots that have learned how to tap into the geysers of vitality.
After the show, we are met with bright eyes and sweaty hugs. This is exactly what they needed, they tell us. They are telling the truth. The connection of live entertainment is irreplaceable. It’s a people thing. It’s a human compulsion. It’s food for the soul.
I snap back to my Saturday afternoon sofa and turn to gaze out the window. The Saloon in North Beach seems like a black and white movie I once watched about the “olden days before Covid”. My son had it right. Sweating on a dance floor in a salty old bar with a bunch of juiced-up strangers is a scene that most would find horrifying now. My heart sinks. What’s a Social Smith to do in times like these?
I got a phone call about a month ago from Kathy, my keyboard player. “I have some good friends in Novato that have been hosting live music in their driveway for the neighborhood! It’s really wonderful. All the neighbors come out on their porches and front lawns with bottles of wine and such, sit in lawn chairs and enjoy the entertainment. Wanna play?” She didn’t need to ask!
That Sunday I was following my phone through a twisty well-manicured neighborhood in the beautiful foothills of Novado. “Your destination is on your left. Arrived,” said my phone. It was the sight of the mic stands that stirred me. They set the buzz that good times are looming as they always do. As soon as I rounded the corner into the scene you could feel the air was lifted. Folks were out on every porch and front lawn, sitting in lawn chairs with drinks of their choice. I was greeted by a slender comfortable man in relaxed clothes. “My name is Emilio Rojas,” he said. “This is my wife, Brenda.” He gestured to a silver-haired woman who had an aura of strength and kindness. She sat in the afternoon light with a gracious smile. “Welcome to our home!” she said. It was a beautifully landscaped estate with clever art and sculptures arranged in compliment. Quite the contrast to the sweaty swill of the Saloon, I thought. But hey, I’ve followed my saxophone to way wilder scenarios!
Then Something struck me about the scene. It had been a long time since I’d rolled down a block with neighbors out on their front porches. It seems the last several decades have chased them into their backyards of high fences. Evening socials and gossip between porches have become a thing of the past. I now drive through entire neighborhoods without seeing a single house that even has a porch.
Kathy Tejcka hunkered over her keyboards warming up and checking her mic. The power of her voice hit a deeply familiar chime. It carried years of sensational times that are now so longed for. It cracked open the thrumming core of why we do this, of why we all need this. It was a call to gather for good times. This is why Emilio Rojas and Brenda Galilee opened their home and gifted their neighbors with the soul food of music. They are the heroes of our times. It’s what the world needs now.
After meeting and greeting we sparked up the show and played to the most appreciative audience in years! It was way more low key than a Saloon show but carried all the love. As an old drummer friend I traveled with, Walter Shuffle’s Worth used to say, “It was a small but mighty crowd!” Having missed the love of making music uncapped the depth of its reaches. It was good to be back on stage with the pros:
Kelly Back on guitar with his rock twang and soulful pickin’, looking like Greg Alman’s nephew.
Josh Greenburg on percussion, always a knowing smile under his dark eyebrows as he percolates away on congas and such.
Willie Riser on the bass - the Atlas of the band as he sits - anchored as oak - twinkling his eyes at us from under his short-cropped white hedgehog hair.
Jackie Enx back there swatting the drums like she’s driving a team of Clydesdale horses, only tilting the bill of her ball cap up to catch the cues.
And, of course, my soul sister, Kathy. She’s so much a part of her singing and keys that I can’t see her apart from them.
We played through the early evening as the sky spread its color. We cracked jokes and waved with pride at the occasional car that would slow and drift through wondering “What the hell?” Emilio and Brenda sat alongside awash in the glow that comes with giving, enjoying the breeze of sounds. And for just a moment, any thoughts of viruses and politics were banished outside the screen door like unwanted mosquitos. Enjoying live music is a people thing - a human compulsion - food for the soul.
A post-show chat over a beer with Emilio and Brenda uncovered a common circle. To no surprise, they called Black Rock City their home! They were Burners gifting music to their neighbors after all. We vowed to find each other when our grand city in the dust resurrects past the menace of a virus and we learn to surmount its challenges. We were dreaming of the time to be back in BRC - the city of front porches! We parted in the welcome warmth of newfound friendship, something that’s not as frequent and much more cherished these days.
Riding home my thoughts were with The Saloon and its dubious future. The amped-up energy of a crammed shotgun bar seemed a long way away. Would things ever be the same? Many have doubts. But there was one thing I could depend on in the years to come. There would always be more music. It would still bring people together. And the next time we play to a full dance floor, we’re gonna TEAR THE WALLS OUT!