20 Bands 7 Days

For one week, Sarah Hepola saw every band that invited her. God help her.

So here's a word of advice, boys: The bassist should sing more, and the keyboardist should sing less.

Now, carry on.

9 p.m., Lakewood Bar & Grill It's drunk o'clock at the LBG, where the only audience watching Dan Walker is five men at the bar. ("Watching" isn't exactly the word.) Red candles flicker on empty tables, and I sit at a booth near the back under a banner that reads, "Congrats Graduate." For days, I'll find confetti in my purse and notebook.

Like being witness to an electrocution: guitarist Clifford Campbell and lead singer Andrew Sudderth of Fair to Midland at Club Indigo
Mark Graham
Like being witness to an electrocution: guitarist Clifford Campbell and lead singer Andrew Sudderth of Fair to Midland at Club Indigo
For Second-Hand Soul, there are more bales of hay than audience members.
Mark Graham
For Second-Hand Soul, there are more bales of hay than audience members.

"Any requests?" Walker asks.

Nothing.

Walker is a serviceable musician, a flip-flops-and-baseball-cap kinda guy with a Jack Johnson sound. He intersperses ample covers with tepid originals. It's fun, but that can be a trap; what pleases the audience is often not what pleases the performer. A few years ago, I saw Jon Brion play at Spaceland in Los Angeles. A producer extraordinaire who's worked with Macy Gray and Fiona Apple, Brion is also a songwriter whose music is far more challenging than the radio-ready pop he helps create. Anyway, as part of Brion's act he plays covers. Like, he'll play the most crushing version of Air Supply's "All Out of Love" you've ever heard, just ripping it from adult-contemporary hell and reinventing the sucker on the spot, building each instrument part individually, so the song is sort of born before your eyes. Of course, Brion plays his own music, too, but the people at Spaceland weren't listening to that part. They just kept yelling out kitschy songs to cover. "Don't Stop Believing," "Heartbreaker," "Come Sail Away." I forget which song he did that night, but it was less inspired than usual. Afterward, when I spoke with him, he just seemed depressed.

Seeing Dan Walker at the LBG, I can see why. "Any requests?" he asks.

"There is a house in New Orleans," one drunk begins to sing.

"Yeah, I know that one," Walker says, smiling. He launches into Tom Petty's "Learning to Fly" instead.

10 p.m., Club Dada Sometimes I think the real music experts in this town are the ones checking IDs at the door, the ones fiddling with knobs in the dark corners, the ones pouring drinks behind the bar. Unlike me, they can't escape when the music gets awful. They're stuck.

So when I show up at Club Dada for my last scheduled show only to discover I got the night wrong--a closing catastrophe to my week--I listen to Tom Prejean, who runs the club's open-mike night.

"Stick around for Carrie Minirth," he says. "She started playing here a year ago. And already she's chiseled on the Mount Rushmore of my mind." Man, what a compliment.

Minirth is small and pretty, with the cheekbones and arched eyebrows of a young Katharine Hepburn. She's yet another songstress with a guitar, but her music has disturbing twists. "I put all my eggs in one basket," she sings in a dark Betty Boop voice, "I'm walking to my casket."

"Play 'The Traveling Song'!" says the bartender when she's finished.

"Oh, you like that one?" she asks shyly.

"Carrie, I like all your songs. "

So do I. It's funny how you just know talent when you see it.

It's a nice change of pace, because earlier that evening, photographer Mark Graham and I were there enduring a painful hard-rock show, talking about how depressing live music can be. The empty houses, the smattering of applause. I told Mark, "I just want to shake some of these people and say, 'Why? Why do you do this?'"

That's when some kid named Jeff Somers got up on the stage. I wasn't even paying attention, really, but I saw him out of the corner of my eye--hunched over his guitar, trucker cap tugged down low over his eyes. And then I heard him. A voice full of character and anxiety, atypical chords, a shade of bluegrass in his fingerpicking. It started to drag my attention away from the conversation I was having. Suddenly, I wasn't interested in distraction. I wanted to hear his songs.

"This song doesn't have a name," he says nervously, "but it's got lyrics." His music sounds like Conor Oberst, or John Darnielle, with a shaky voice that would be almost painful to listen to if it weren't so damn compelling. And I realize this kid has answered my question: This is why. This is the reason people keep playing, the reason I keep sitting around in the clubs, enduring the mediocrity and the noise. Sure, it's unpredictable. But every once in a while, maybe when you're not looking, something amazing happens.

"Thanks," he says to the crowd. He bites the edge of his thumb. "You're pretty nice to a first-timer like myself."

No, thank you.

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