On a good night, the space between audience and performer at the Venice Cafe is minimal, with dancing fans pressing right up to the lip of the band area. An outstretched arm could caress a guitar or deliver a quick slap to a conga.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the place was packed. Though the Venice, located on Pestalozzi Street, isn't the roomiest venue even on the emptiest nights, this evening had something special. The fact that folks were enjoying themselves without the worries of an alarm clock had a lot to do with it, but the band was cooking, too, serving up songs that had been heard a time or two but with energy and enthusiasm matched by the audience.
The scene was particularly striking because the Venice doesn't make concessions with the lighting; the room was brightly lit, but people didn't seem to mind: Young Phish-heads twirled alongside their folks, and couples did slow, very public bump-and-grinds next to tie-loosening businessmen.
The club's Wednesday-night band, which features members of the Urban Blues Express, includes ace guitarist Bennie Smith and, sitting back in the corner, pianist James Crutchfield, who's been in the room just about every Wednesday since the Venice opened a decade ago.
"Since the very first week," says Venice co-owner Jeff Lockheed, "he played by himself and banged on that old upright piano that's next door now. He played with Guitar Frank and the guy on the washboard bass. The first five years, he played acoustic; we never amplified him. He used to hit those keys so goddamned hard, he broke half of them. He's only missed a couple of gigs -- because he had a stroke."
Lockheed adds, "You'd call him up and say, 'There's a foot of snow, Crutch. No one's going to be here.' Still makes the gig. Still drinks Bud Light."
Though Lockheed admits that Smith may now be the drawing card, Crutchfield's still a big part of the act, his straight-from-the-gut "yeahs" and "do it agains" a staple of the Venice.
Two weeks after Thanksgiving, and the crowd, early in the evening, is just filtering in. No dancing yet, but the testimony is still there: Of the 22 people in the room downstairs, 17 are nodding their heads or tapping their feet. By the time the night's over, the audience will be dancing. The band's on again, a sit-in guitarist adding extra color this night. Crutchfield's done-it-all hands deliver solid strokes to the keys in his signature way, and he sings the occasional tune. He's at the Venice despite a death in the family last week; odds are he'll be back next week, too. And people will enthusiastically greet him and the songs he's been playing for decades.
"I've heard these tunes a thousand times," says Lockheed. "And I'll miss them when they're gone. That time could be coming. But I shouldn't speak too soon. Crutch might still be here 10 years from now."
On Friday nights at Kennealy's, a dark yet impeccably furnished little room on Menard, the crowd arrives punctually at 10 p.m., ready to hear songs from a songwriter and performer they've heard a few times, too.
Michael Schaerer doesn't cut the figure he did 10 years ago, when he was fronting Pale Divine, thought by some to be the band that would break St. Louis in that less constrictive, alt-rock heyday. His black duds are gone, replaced by overalls, T-shirt, cap. The band he plays with on Fridays -- the three-piece, acoustic Tiny Cows -- schlepp in and tear down their own gear. It's an operation that moves: from Kennealy's to Llewelyn's on Saturdays to the Brick on Sundays.
The performance, too, is spare and simple. After quick thanks to the crowd, Schaerer looks at his combo, and they decide the next song with a nod or quick word, or Schaerer just starts a cut and the players fall in behind him.
The voice is still unmistakable, whether it's wrapped around an original or a cover like R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts" -- an odd choice for a cover, maybe. Or maybe not. Schaerer has to fill a whole night with songs, and he veers between the predictable (his announcement of a Dylan track is followed by "All Along the Watchtower") and the less so. Most selections are slowed down, way down.
This night at Kennealy's, with technical problems delaying the start time, Schaerer promises a twist on the evening. He recently released a dead-solid solo CD, Cross to Bear, and he's bringing in two string players to add parts to some of the album's songs. Though the cover songs have been paying the bills recently, he talks about spending the last two weeks in front of the computer, patiently composing sheet music that'll augment the mere two hours of practice he's had with the strings.
When he plays the occasional original with the regular band at other times, the audience responds. These fans, though, approve of the covers, too: Just one song in, a cat at the end of the bar is shrieking "woo-hoos" like a schoolgirl. A lot of the faces in the audience look familiar; they've been seeing and hearing Schaerer since the Pale Divine days and probably even caught the short-lived Rainbox, which featured some of the same players as Pale Divine but little of that group's potential. It's the old Kennedy's crowd, some have said, a few years older and with better jobs, but they're loyal and still drink their beer to the sounds of live music.
Schaerer has regrouped, too, and the songs on Cross to Bear carry tinges of folk and jazz, though some could be muscled up and played by the type of band he used to front. He's happy spotting them into sets like these for the time being, though a full string section backing him in a more concert-type mode is what he's after.
It's refreshing to hear Schaerer in this context. He achieved some serious attention early; he lived the life. Now, the simpler goals are before him: selling a few copies of his new CD, making a living playing guitar and singing, seeing what happens from there.
Schaerer closes out the night at Kennealy's a touch after 1 a.m., and the bar staff slips in the Pale Divine CD Straight to Goodbye. He looks mildly amused at first; then, as the band's electro-stomp single "Something About Me" continues, his humor seems to drift and he turns off the power halfway through the cut.
That song has little to do with him now. That action, his calmer demeanor, this night's set all indicate that clearly.