I’ve heard live music in all sorts of different settings: concert halls, homes and coffeehouses, clubs and casinos, auditoriums, amphitheaters and churches and, once, at a Laundromat on Sunset Boulevard. Until last week, however, I’d never heard a show on the outdoor patio of a seafood restaurant.
It was a chilly Friday night in Palm Springs, just before Halloween, and the restaurant in question was really two restaurants built on one site: Fisherman’s Market and Grill facing the street, and Shanghai Red’s, a small tavern and oyster bar, nestled in back. In a little alcove in between was wedged the Barry Baughn Blues Band.
No doubt every little city in Southern California has its own tight-knit, highly-energized, and unknown-outside-its-own-zip-code bar band that regularly blows away locals and tourists alike every Friday and Saturday night. You know the ones I mean. They leave you muttering things like, “There are so many talented musicians out there” and “Why aren’t these guys major stars instead of (fill in the blank with your own favorite hated-pop-celeb)?”
Barry Baughn and his crew are evidently well-known and well-regarded around the Coachella Valley blues circuit. Baughn is the lead guitarist and vocalist and sometime original songwriter for the band. He lists his influences as “A to Z, everyone from Aaron ‘T Bone’ Walker to Z.Z. Hill,” and if you don’t get his musical references, well hey, “That’s what Google’s for.” His band-mates are drummer Alan Diaz, bassist Bob Gross, and John “Mad Dog” Ruiz on the Hammond B3 and piano, and they’re all dynamite performers and backing vocalists who know how to get a crowd dancing and singing along.
I was finishing off my mahi mahi platter when Baughn kicked off the first set with a hard-driving original tune, “Rack ‘Em Up.” The infectious, electric blues beat catalyzed a ripple of head-nodding and toe-tapping throughout the audience, and set the stage for a string of covers both familiar and obscure. In addition to being a stellar guitarist, Baughn is blessed with a classic dirty-blues growl of a voice. He used it to great advantage on songs by Junior Wells and Howlin’ Wolf, on “Messin’ with the Kid” and on “Pride and Joy.” Just as impressively, he dialed things back a little and mixed in nostalgic slow-burners like “Tell It Like It Is” and “You Don’t Know Me.” He called up a woman from a table up front, a red-hot, blue-haired mama, and she guest-sang a sultry version of “Route 66” to the delight of the audience. “Seventy-something years old,” one of the waiters murmured on his way past, balancing a tray of dirty dishes and glassware, shaking his head in bemusement. “She’s still got it.” She finished and sat down to monstrous applause, into which Baughn segued another original tune called “Help Me.” The bass-line and haunting organ borrowed heavily from “Green Onions,” but no one seemed to mind the similarity.
Because here’s the thing: nobody needs a music critic to have a little fun with a fine band like this on a Friday night in Palm Springs, or anywhere else for that matter. I looked around and everywhere I saw people grinning ear-to-ear. The patio was crowded, but the vibe was good. Women were shaking their hips, men were swinging their arms. Most were mildly buzzed and enjoying the crisp fall air, the band’s mesmerizing blues beats, the temporary yet significant sense of community. A seven-foot-tall man tried to waltz with a potted fichus. Gray-haired couples nuzzled one another, shuffling their feet to another slow tune. A dapper man in his eighties danced with a series of thirty-something women, one after the other. A good-natured Canadian man in his cups shouted out offbeat requests after every song and was roundly ignored. Didn’t stop him from socializing, though, or from drinking, or from loudly singing the band’s praises.
So next time you’re in a little joint listening to a little local band giving its all to pass on a little pleasure to its little audience, give a little thanks to the music gods above. Regardless of the fickleness of fame and fortune, it’s no small gift to make people happy, even for a little while. And next time you’re in Palm Springs on a Friday or Saturday evening, swing by Shanghai Red’s and check out Barry Baughn and his crew. You won’t be disappointed.