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Road Stories: Adventures In Mixing Bar Band Harmonies Circa The Late 1970s

An early-career epiphany about the actual source of vocal harmonic discordance that has stuck with the author through the years.
Evoking the “unique ambience” of the Underground Tavern. Think this band can sing harmonies?

In the summer of 1979, at the ripe old age of 18, I was on tour with an Ontario-based bar rock band as the sound tech. One week, probably in July, we were playing a bar in the East End of Toronto called (no lie) the “Underworld Tavern.”

This had, as far as I knew, nothing to do with the criminal element and everything to do with the bar being two floors below street level, under a bowling alley or bingo hall, and yes, the load-in involved carrying all the gear down those two flights of stairs.

Here’s a sample of the clientele: One night, probably the Wednesday, we were just finishing up playing to, maybe, nine people when this dude and his two sidekicks stroll in. The dude has “Buffalo Bill” hair with matching hat and buckskin jacket, and one of the sidekicks was actually “space truckin’” (a weird slow-motion walk that someone who is messed up on PCP [a.k.a., Angel Dust] does… first time I’d ever seen it…).

They sat down at a table near the front of the stage (which was 1-foot high with matching low ceiling), beside the (empty) dance floor and ordered last-call beers while the band was un-energetically working its way through the last two songs.

“Thank you very much, good night!” comes and goes to widely scattered applause and the band walks off stage to the dressing room. At which point the dude and his cronies start banging their beer glasses on the table and shouting “F— you! Play some more! F— you! Play some more! F— you! Play some more!” I don’t believe an encore was forthcoming, but I digress…

As was the drill at the time, the band played three sets a night, with a mixture of cover tunes and originals. I liked most of the originals and some of the covers (“Rebel, Rebel” comes to mind) but one thing that I absolutely hated was The Beatles medley, which consisted of “Twist and Shout,” “You Can’t Do That,” and one more that escapes me now.

This was weird. I had grown up listening to The Beatles and loved them… still do. But I hated that medley, specifically because the harmonies sounded absolutely awful and I’d decided that this was because I just couldn’t mix harmonies to save my life.

Until that fateful Saturday…

Another custom at the time was the Saturday afternoon matinee. This was something which most bands truly despised, as it meant playing two extra sets, and then having to hang around until the real show, which, being Saturday night, was then followed by the load-out… which meant schlepping all that heavy gear back up two flights of stairs at two in the morning.

Consequently, the matinees were a kind of “open mic” affair where anyone in the audience who could play was encouraged to come up and do a number, anything so the band could play and/or sing less themselves.

This particular Saturday, the band was limping through some number when a guy approached me at the console and said, “Hey, we have a little Crosby, Stills and Nash tribute thing going, would it be OK if we got up and did a few songs?” I said sure, just go up to the stage and let the band know.

They did, and a few minutes later, I was stunned to hear harmonies – glorious, musical harmonies coming out of the sound system. Same microphones, same levels, same EQ… and there they were — harmonies!

And then it dawned on me: It’s not ME! It’s not ME! I can mix harmonies just fine, thank you very much, the clowns I was working with just couldn’t sing them. It was an empowering moment and one that has stuck with me through the years.

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