Everybody Is a Star at the Blind Tiger
Evan Olson, the charismatic, blond-haired front man of the reunited Bus Stop, is leading the 1990s pop-soul group through its second set at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro when he calls out to the sidewalk to Bert Igar, the doorman of this venerable institution.
“Come on up on stage, Bert,” Olson commands.
Igar hesitates at the edge of the stage, hovering awkwardly as the rapturous crowd’s attention focuses on him.
“Bert’s been the doorman here since this place opened,” Olson informs the crowd.
Igar corrects him: Actually, his tenure reaches back only to 1994; the Tiger went into business in 1988.
He started as a barback, Igar tells me after returning to his station on the sidewalk, where the parade of Walker Avenue nightlife unspools. Tom Franklin worked the door back then. It was Franklin who trained Igar, so there could be someone to cover in his absence. Franklin retired in 2001, and since then three or four guys have rotated through the position. Igar has been the doorman here for a handful of years.
“I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Igar says. “It has its ups and downs.”
The best part? “I like seeing all the good-looking women.” The worst? “I hate dealing with all the drunks all the time,” he says.
“Like this guy.”
The prospective patron is a slight man who looks to be in his late thirties with a voice that is either somewhat mechanical or indicative of the flu. He carries about him a vulnerable quality, as if girding for rejection. Igar gives him a hug, takes his money and waves him in the door.
Next, two young dudes stumble across the street from Walker’s.
Igar informs them that the cover is $5 at this time. One of them slurs that they really didn’t want to pay a cover, to which Igar shrugs in a manner that is not unsympathetic. They wish each other a merry Christmas, and the two dudes shuffle into the snowy night like Wisconsin trappers of the Lewis and Clark era.
The snow has been coming down in big, fat flakes for several hours in what is the first Christmas snow Greensboro has seen in perhaps a half century. The multicolored light balls strung along West Market Street and Elam Avenue lend the scene a magical quality. The slushy streets are virtually empty, but the Blind Tiger is rocking at capacity.
It’s officially the last night at this hallowed location, which has become like the familiar living room for the Greensboro live-music scene. A New Year’s Eve Toubab Krewe show was to be the inaugural night at the venue’s new location on Spring Garden Street.
Owner Don “Doc” Beck, who is slinging cold beers from behind the bar, ruefully explains that although the new location had passed all inspections there was a delay with installation of the HVAC system, so the New Year’s show will go down here on Walker Avenue. The first night at the new venue will take place on Jan. 14 or Jan. 15.
The night has a valedictory feel for me, and for many others. I spent roughly four years in this bar covering primarily local music before retiring from the beat last year. Sometimes obscure and often original, the music was almost always attuned to a spirit of inebriated communion.
I often found myself wanting to write more about the patrons than the performers. At the Walker Avenue location of the Blind Tiger, everyone, it seemed, was a star and occupied a position in the constellation. And, on any given night, many of the patrons would be musicians themselves. Hanging out was an art as studied as any stagecraft.
The faces in the crowd tonight are familiar and welcome:
Blues guitarist Tim Betts chatting up Bert the doorman on the sidewalk; singer Walrus, AKA Ray Loughran, at the side of the bar; Jason who always had a kind and encouraging word for me; and Len, the guy who looks like the Edge. Danny Bayer, dressed like a grim Soviet soldier at the siege of Stalingrad, and Kathy Clark appraising the band.
Bucky, dressed in a Santa hat, corrects my holiday greeting. “No, it’s a Jerry Christmas,” he says. “You ain’t foolin’ no one, you old hippie.”
Not least of all, the draw of this snowy night is the reunited Bus Stop, whose Christmas shows at the Blind Tiger have become an irregular annual tradition. It means a lot to see SnÃ¼zz, who has scaled back his live performing as a result of his battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, attacking these old songs with the zeal and evident joy of righteous teenager.
The band is dressed to modish exactitude: SnÃ¼zz in his trademark jeff cap, black suit with skinny tie, and two-tone black-and-white Creepers; drummer Eddie Walker in a backwards jeff cap, a white shirt and black tie; and bass player Chuck Folds in a black vest, white shirt and a stylish black felt hat. In this resplendent ensemble, Olson stands out in a Sammy Davis Jr.-brand polyester suit purchased at Design Archives and an unbuttoned rumpled silk shirt giving the singer the look of a slightly disheveled and loaded Neil Diamond.
The consummate performer, Olson takes entertaining to a ridiculous level, playing the jokey lounge singer one moment and next drawing out a fluid, mercury-like stream of notes from his guitar like Mick Taylor on the Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” He exhorts like James Brown and launches a monologue that borrows the cadence of Elvis’ rendition of “Polk Salad Annie.”
He ramps the crowd’s energy to a fever pitch by urging them to scream louder than they’ve ever screamed before, jump around more than they’ve ever jumped before, and “have as much fun as you’ve ever had.” He closes the show by thrusting his guitar out into the audience, and letting them finger it.
Then it’s over. The floor becomes even more congested than ever in the frenzy of last call. SnÃ¼zz is embracing friends and shouting to be heard over the din. And there’s Bert, with about a six-pack’s worth of empty bottles enveloped in his arms making his way back to the bar, patiently waiting for the crowd to part.