Guta means ‘groove rock’
It’s Thursday night down in the Whiskey District on the corner of Walker and Elam and the weather’s none too pretty. But the faithful denizens of the corner already creep into the bars ‘— some to drink, some to schmooze, some to hear some music, and some to do all three.
The crowd is thin at the Blind Tiger but heavy with regulars who are in the know, milling around, giving hugs and catching up with friends. Thursday is originals night at the Tiger, and in a city where the music scene has become dominated by cover bands and karaoke this constitutes fairly big news.
The band tonight is not local; they’re actually from Elizabeth City out in North Carolina’s river country, a three-piece called Guta whose reputation precedes them. They’ve played here before and are a favorite of both the staff and the regulars. Through them, limited word has gotten out and music fans from as far away as Boone have made it in tonight.
Doc, behind the bar wearing a piece of New York sports memorabilia, pulls beers and surveys the crowd, which grows by twos and threes with the passing minutes. ‘“I like these guys,’” Doc says with characteristic succinctness, and then issues a warning: ‘“Don’t interview me.’”
Minutes before the show bandmember Ted Sablon approaches the bar for one last drink. He looks an unlikely rock star with his sensible haircut, wispy-thin mustache and crisp white shirt, but Ted is the keystone to the whole operation: he writes the songs and sings them, and he also plays a mean guitar. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s surrounded himself with talent. Bassist PJ Donahue handles his machine with consummate skill. Drummer Christian Mara, known among the group and their fans as ‘Swine,’ is a near-perfect example of the archetype, with a shorn head, tattoos and a slightly wild look in his eye.
Without much fanfare they take the stage and PJ starts in with some thumb-slap bass. Swine makes with the sharp snare work and Teddy pours some of his phenomenal energy into his guitar, delivering rappish lyrics with a white-boy bop. They unleash two-part vocal and instrumental harmonies that demonstrate the promise that the rest of the evening will be hot.
This is the best kind of show: great music with a lean crowd so you can always get to the bar for a drink. There’s plenty of room on the dance floor and a concertgoer in baggy black pants festooned with chains and other jangly things does a butt-shimmy that brings more than a few people off their barstools.
Song number two is a reggae/ska-type number with a bumbling bassline and more of Ted’s crisp lyrics. Tune three is a Chuck Berry-style R&B stomp; the fourth is a hard-driving boogie with an infusion of jazz ‘— for this one PJ uses all ten fingers on his bass.
By song number five, a slow-burn rocker, the crowd has swollen to a modest . Bert Igar, the Tiger’s utility man, has propped the door open and the sounds leaking out onto the street coax foot traffic in through the doorway. By the sixth number the bar rail is full and by the seventh the crowd really starts to get into it. It’s another jamband boogie and Ted displays not only his mastery of his instrument but also his showmanship and vocal range ‘— his pitch is high, a bit like Geddy Lee from Rush, but he’s got moves, a serious guitar face and the people in the room in the palm of his hand.
Their range is fabulous: they go on to demonstrate 1940s-style flim-flam bebop, rockabilly, psychedelia and roots rock, even a little disco. They cover the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, Wilson Pickett and Steely Dan. Using a loose grip Ted makes his guitar sound like a banjo and with pursed lips he morphs his voice into a saxophone. By the end of the second set, he’s hammering on his guitar strings with a nebulizer, an electric, neon-glowing mallet that coaxes a whole new world of sound from his guitar.
These guys are good.
Ted says that the band has been together for six years, but they practiced in the garage for two before taking their show public. Since then they’ve played all over the Carolinas and Virginia and have ventured as far as New York City to show their stuff. But tonight they’re here at the Blind Tiger for a select group of fans who, to a one, have all but forgotten that karaoke even exists.