Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tuesdays at The Plough and Stars: Boston's Best Kept Secret By Cris Driscoll

Massachusetts Avenue will most likely seem almost uncomfortably quiet.  You'll easily find parking.  If traveling by way of the T,  you will walk the sleepy city blocks while only passing a few other pedestrians.  You'll finally arrive at your Tuesday night destination, swinging open the front door of The Plough and Stars when immediately, it happens.  You find yourself transported to a foreign world.  The dimly lit room is cozy, insulated in worn wood.  Tucked away in its far corner, three musical virtuosos communally wail before a transfixed and dialed-in crowd who would spend big bucks to be here, but are asked for nothing.  Scanning the faces of the folks inhabiting the enthusiastic room, you notice they vary greatly in their age, ethnicity and style but all seem to share in something intangible.  They've adopted the unstated rules of Le Pigeon at the Plough -- personal stress and ego must be left outside on the sidewalk.  Doing this frees up space for an honest appreciation of music and a true acceptance of one another.

If I sound a bit attached to this unique night, it may be because I was there when the trio played their first Tuesday before a handful of semi-interested patrons, almost one year ago.  I have also been there for almost every one of the following fifty-two Tuesdays.  My small roles of the evening lie in keeping the crowd's glasses full, helping them to feel at home, and when I'm fortunate enough to be asked, in singing a heartfelt number for them as the night comes to a close.

The actual hosts are the musicians.  They all are true professionals.  Their only chosen means of making money is by playing, yet they all willfully take a severe pay cut on Tuesdays showing their collective commitment  the night.  When they perform, drummer Dave Brophy and guitarist Johnny Trama surround organist Rusty Scott.  Scott sits dwarfed and buried behind his mammoth Hammond B3 organ and its accompanying giant, spinning Lesley speaker.  It takes all three to move this instrument into the club.  Hearing and seeing it in such a small venue is entirely unheard of.  No one goes through all that trouble unless they're playing somewhere theater-size and up.  All invested in the evening understand how necessary the Hammond is.  No keyboard made before or since could ever claim to come close to reproducing the magic of the B3.  Sharing such a small space with the instrument, as Scott pilots the beast with keen  expertise, one is aware of its full capabilities.  It can turn on its listener in a seamless flash -- soothing sweetness morphing to an alarmingly brutal bite.

The trio known as Le Pigeon have slowly fine tuned and cultivated their sound over the course of the year.  If forced to place them in a genre, one would most likely say they dwell in a realm closest to that of classic soul.  That being said, both their original songs and reinventions of classics possess prominent threads of rock, jazz and funk.  No single Tuesday is even remotely like the one before.  As the word has spread, the city's top tier of musicians frequent the night.  A revolving cast of bassists, vocalists and players of every conceivable horn show up each week, usually with hopes of being invited to sit-in with the group.  

This past Tuesday, veteran guitarist Jeff Lockhart unexpectedly showed up with his guitar and amp in tow before the evening's music began.  His first time performing at the Plough came as he was called in as a sub for Johnny Trama.  Since that night he has returned with increasing frequency.  Upon hearing him live, it would be difficult to find someone who could argue that the man's fearless playing should not be ranked amongst the world's best.  Megastars like Beyonce, Dido and Brian McKnight have recognized this and hired Jeff for both session work and extensive tours.  This night, Jeff seemed to push the boundaries even further than he has previously.  The trio were wholly accommodating as songs that were usually 6 minutes in length swelled to greet the twenty-five minute marker.  The crowd was focused and hung on the tension and release created by each passing musical phrase.  In Cambridge, Massachusetts and on a Tuesday night no less, I am here to report that I witnessed a packed room wherein more than half the crowd danced with complete abandon.  You read it right.  There was real, live dancing on display like in the fabled days of yore.

I wanted to know what this experience was like to a first-time visitor.  Whether or not they found it to be as refreshing and rare as I still do after an entire year.  I knew almost every face in the room but did eventually come across someone who I knew had entered the club a Le Pigeon virgin.  I asked Nisa, a mother of two, in her early thirties and  enjoying a rare night out, what her impression of the night was.  Surprisingly, she reflexively replied as if she'd been rehearsing her answer.

"It astounds me that one could walk into a tiny little bar and witness musicians as good as these.  These men are so talented, yet I fear they struggle financially.  I was actually just thinking that we need to create a pay structure for musicians based on stats and talents like we do in sports."

Tuesdays with Le Pigeon evoking awareness of the plight of the struggling musician?  Fantastic!

Jennie Siegel is arguably the most dedicated Hammond B3 Trio enthusiast.  She very rarely misses a night.  Regardless of how many people occupy the room, she dances with reckless fervor, her eyes closed tight.  Her committed, trance-like behavior begins when the band plays their first notes, and doesn't end until I reluctantly raise the lights as the night ends.  I asked her what keeps her coming back each week.

"There is something magical that happens at the Plough that I look forward to.  I love that I feel comfortable enough to dance and not feel judged, but welcomed.  I can't totally explain the synergetic mix of musicians, patrons, staff and mojo, but everyone that I have introduced to Tuesdays has felt it.  As much as I love bringing new people and as much as I want the staff and musicians to do well, part of me hopes it never gets too big and somehow loses its magic, or outgrows the space."

This is a valid concern.  July is typically one of the three quietest months of the year for the venue.  Two out of five of this past July's Tuesdays at the Plough were packed, each flirtied with reaching capacity.  If this sounds like a night that you may enjoy, I suggest making the trip sooner than later while the show is still cover-free.

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