Nobody knows New Orleans music like its bartenders. Those at local music clubs serve musicians and fans and see a different side of the industry than those directly in it. For new or touring musicians, they are the venue experts, answering questions about who runs the sound, what beverages are complimentary, and where you can grab a cheap bite to eat. For regular, local musicians, the bartenders are often friends, familiar faces encountered once a week or month. Sometimes they’re therapists and keepers of secrets; other times they’re matchmakers, passing a musician’s phone number with a drink to an unsuspecting patron.
Turnover at music clubs is low, as many bartenders stay with a venue for years. Jeff Lopez is in his sixth year at Maple Leaf Bar, working every Monday, Thursday and Friday night at the Riverbend music club. At three nights a week for six years, Lopez has seen approximately 936 shows at the Maple Leaf.
“This is the longest job I’ve had in my life,” Lopez says. “I never dread walking through the door and truly enjoy every moment I spend there. We have a family of staff at the Leaf that has worked there over five years. People circle our jobs.” Lopez talks about working at the Leaf with the enthusiasm of a star-struck teenager headed to see his favorite band, but at 41, he is neither a teen nor star-struck. He simply loves music and the local music community.
When asked how much music plays into his job satisfaction, Lopez says music is everything. He’s a club bartender that could never work at a restaurant bar and refuses to use a blender. He works during Papa Grows Funk every Monday, the Johnny Vidacovich Trio on Thursdays and various acts every Friday.
“The stars on that stage are phenomenal. Trio night is my favorite. Recently Johnny had James Singleton and June Yamagishi. It was incredible how these guys played together. It’s true music, unrehearsed though it doesn’t sound it.” When Lopez talks like this, it’s hard to see what separates him from everyday music fans besides the wall that runs down the middle of the club. But Lopez sees what goes on before and after the show, and what goes on behind closed doors runs a gamut of experiences, good and bad.
“Knowing the realities of musicians’ lives comes with the territory,” he says. “The booze, drugs, womanizing. It happens.” Some performers who struggle with addictions steer clear of popular clubs including the Maple Leaf, because they can be bad for them. “It’s hell for some and heaven for others. These people have their lives and deal with them the best they can.”
Lopez has seen the dark sides of a few, but he has also experienced the peculiar, light-hearted sides of certain performers, including that of Walter “Wolfman” Washington. While some believe Washington was dubbed the “Wolfman” for his ability to howl the blues, it had more to do with Washington’s conspicuous, wolf-like set of teeth. After he had them fixed, the Wolfman’s way of showing love and appreciation was with a bite.
“Once, he bit me so hard in the neck that he bruised me,” Lopez says through laughter. “He’s become a dear friend.”
Getting to know musicians isn’t quite as easy for bartenders at some of the larger clubs in town. Miguel Ryncon has been behind the plank for 10 years at the Howlin’ Wolf, and he sees a different kind of music community in a 1,300-person capacity venue than that of an intimate venue holding 150 people.
“We’ll have everything from Rebirth and George Porter, Jr. to heavy metal, rap and country,” he says. “These musicians don’t make up one big, happy family or support one another like some do at other venues. A Rebirth crowd wants nothing to do with a metal crowd. The indie rockers don’t come out for the country shows. I see and serve all types of musicians and fans.”
Ryncon represents a different type of music industry bartender. The Howlin’ Wolf is not a bar doubling as a music venue; it’s a music venue with a bar. Ryncon isn’t there for the stories people tell or to get to know patrons and musicians.
“I don’t like having to entertain people to make money,” he says. “I’d rather go into a music venue where whoever is playing has the crowd, and I’m just behind the bar serving drinks. People come in and drink while the band’s there, and then they leave.” That’s not to say he hasn’t enjoyed several moments behind the bar of a famous music club. Ryncon and his wife featured a Deftones song in the bridal procession of their wedding, and when Chino Moreno, lead singer of Deftones, passed through the Wolf performing with Team Fleet, Ryncon and Moreno had the chance to get to know one another.
“My experiences with most celebrities have been cool. Bill Murray wandered in once to a metal show that flopped. There were only about 20 people there. He looked at me and said, ‘What are we drinking?’ I made about $400 in an hour.” Ryncon goes on to describe how, despite his recent bad press, Nicholas Cage is another celebrity he’s had the pleasure to serve. Policy at the Wolf requires both a credit card and form of ID to start a drink tab. According to Ryncon, many musicians and celebrities express contempt, saying, “You don’t know who I am!? What do you need my ID for?” Cage didn’t flinch, handing over his license and card like a regular guy in exchange for a couple of whiskeys.
Ryncon sees sides of musicians that fans don’t. As a musician himself, he understands that they’re at work, that what they’re doing is a job, and it’s not always glamorous. “George Porter, Jr. loads in his own stuff, drives his own van, is a regular guy at work,” Ryncon says. “You’ll see 20-year-olds from the suburbs come in with roadies and trailers and 15 fans. They don’t quite get it.”
Cullen Donnelly, nine-year veteran bartender at Carrollton Station, echoes that sentiment as it pertains to promotion. Donnelly remembers how bands in the ‘90s would call everyone they knew to get people at their shows. Today, many young bands post an invite on Facebook and don’t understand when only 15-20 people show up. Since the audience—or lack thereof—will affect Donnelly’s wallet, his annoyance doubles when the entitled youngsters walk in and immediately ask, “What do I get for free?”
Fortunately that scenario doesn’t occur too often, and Donnelly enjoys the variety of live music on the Carrollton Station stage, whether from emerging artists or established pros. Having grown up a fan of the Beatles, the Who and classic rock greats, he couldn’t ask for a better shift than tending bar during an installment of Susan Cowsill’s “Covered in Vinyl” series or a performance by favorites from his younger days, such as Dash Rip Rock and Paul Sanchez.
Mike Calabrese is actually a barista more than a bartender. He serves drinks at the Neutral Ground Coffeehouse, and he may have more personal interaction with musicians than bartenders at other clubs in the city. No music venue or bar has a more intimate, living-room atmosphere than the Neutral Ground, where two to four musicians perform each night.
According to Calabrese, “The Neutral Ground works for the city and musicians because it provides a casual stage where there’s no pressure. It’s almost like a live practice space where musicians can play a gig and not worry about details while working out new material.” Calabrese fondly remembers a night when Jesse Moore came in to fill an open set, and the coffeehouse was nearly empty. Instead of treating it as a wasted gig, Moore sat at the stage and composed a song he had been thinking up on the ride to the venue. He then performed the rest of his set as if the place were packed, putting on one of the best shows Calabrese had ever seen.
Also important to Calabrese is the nature of the Neutral Ground as a place where musicians meet and new bands form. The Neutral Ground is an all-ages venue, so it gives New Orleans’ young and emerging talent a welcoming home and place to grow.
“For me personally,” says Calabrese, “it’s great to see all these things at work and be able to play a part of such a vibrant musical community.”
Considering the various roles bartenders play in that community, it makes sense that performers across the city invariably give their audiences a friendly reminder: “Don’t forget to tip your bartender!” They’re music fans, but they’re trying to make a living too.