Bargoers Watched Gamut of Music Through Derby-Glazed Daze

By Bob Bahr

The Kentucky Derby didn't become an international sports event through subtlety. It got there through hype and hyperbole. This town goes stark raving mad for one week in early May, and that includes the music scene. The bookings at local clubs are accordingly bigger and better for Derby weekend to boost the hoopla surrounding the Derby.

I faced a tough choice come Derby Eve — there were so many good acts and only so many hours of the evening. But truthfully, I knew all along that I would end up at Tewligans Tavern to see the Royal Crescent Mob's off-kilter power funk. It was only a matter of how I would flesh out the remainder of my evening.

A quick trip down to Phoenix Hill Tavern at midnight was too late for the World, a dance rock band from Bloomington, Indiana. Several members of the band declared the gig a success, though, and there was a wait to get in the place (to satisfy fire safety codes). The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd seemed pleased with the second band, Louisville's Velcro Pygmies, but seemed more pleased with the beers and Long Island Teas in their hands.

Derby Eve and Derby Night attract great acts and huge crowds, but in reality, the audiences are just extreme versions of any weekend crowd. The majority are out to party, to get drunk, to meet people. The band is an afterthought. I felt as if the crowd couldn't care less, and possibly didn't even notice the change from the chops-oriented, complex covers of the World and the simple fun of the Velcro Pygmies. Would they have noticed if Ringo Starr had sat in for Robbo Bazzell? I had my doubts. A few songs into the Pygmies' straightforward rock set, I left Phoenix Hill to catch the Mob.

Inside Tewligans, the crowd was a bit trendier and out of the mainstream. The front room was busy but not packed, and the back room with the band was no better than 3/4 full. I couldn't believe it until I opened my ears.

I've never said or written an unkind word about the Royal Crescent Mob. Their blend of twisted pop, '70s funk, and unbridled fun always pleases me, even when the group looks or sounds a bit road-weary. But on Derby Eve, the Mob was sub-par, to say the least. And definitely not worth the $20 cover charge. Judging from the relatively poor turnout, I was one of the last people to learn this.

Carlton Smith's drum sound was mixed down to the point of inaudibility. Only the occasional hiss of the cymbals and sporadic pop of the kick drum was discernible. I craned my neck to see who the unkind sound man was, but didn't recognize the band's longtime companion Montie Temple until vocalist David Ellison dedicated a cover of Ted Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever" to him.

B's guitar work was mysteriously sloppy and weak, like he was distracted, drunk, or dying maybe. R.C. Mob is basically a trio, with David contributing vocals and the occasional harp, and that puts a lot of responsibility in B's hands. Not only did B fail to supply the texture and muscle needed from his guitar in songs such as "Silver Street" and "Two Sisters," but he muffed the classic opening chords of "Get on the Bus." More often than not, he could be heard noodling with what I believe was a phase shifter, providing accents where an avalanche was needed. Only on two linked songs, "Mt. Everest" and "Timebomb," did B seem present and accounted for.

Harold Chichester popped and grooved hard on bass guitar, adding his distinctive vocals and strange facial contortions in the correct spirit of the party. David's vocals were on the mark, but his attitude seemed to have an undercurrent of grimness.

Perhaps he was aware of the problems that night. It would be hard to miss the Mob's biggest problem on Derby Eve: sagging tempos.

A couple of years ago, the Mob seemed on the verge of joining Fishbone, Faith No More and the Red Hot Chili Peppers in melding speed metal with funk. The Royal Crescent Mob was speeding up their songs in live performances.

This show was a definite retreat from that approach. In fact, most songs dragged horribly, as if a bad, completely unfunky R.C. Mob cover band with bad time was on stage.

Did I witness the unraveling of one of the best funk bands around? The Mob seemed most enthusiastic on two cover tunes, a burning version of L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," and a surprisingly straight and raucous "Cat Scratch Fever." Do they fail to find any joy in their own material nowadays?

I thought to myself that the Royal Crescent Mob seemed headed quickly towards a major career crossroads. I headed toward the Hill. Their dismal performance had me dejectedly kicking pebbles on my way back to my car.

Back at Phoenix Hill, the crowd was rowdier. Dozens of people were standing out in the streets with drinks in their hands, screaming, talking and just hanging out. Two men traded punches over an available taxi, while another reveler tried to talk a bored-looking cab driver into taking him to Nashville. The wait was about a half-hour to get into the club, but the party was alive out on the sidewalk, with many partyers walking back and forth between the Brewery and Phoenix Hill.

Inside, the Velcro Pygmies were running through their covers of the Doors, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, lead singer Cam Flener occasionally dipping onto the dance floor for a little one-on-one entertainment.

The Pygmies were slated to play until 5:20 a.m., and it looked like they would have to go the distance, given the large crowd remaining at 4:00 a.m. Cam ribbed the audience about their limp enthusiasm, graciously explaining it away with, "Gosh, you guys are TIRED!" They launched into an original single from their new CD, a ballad with pleasant dynamic variety and a section that owes quite a bit to "Here Comes the Sun."

Ever the shameless fan of the glitterball Seventies, Cam next introduced "Purple Rain" as "a backwards skate," and a few patrons laughed at the allusion to childhood nights of roller skating to spinning lights and saccharine pop. Cam went heavy into his sexual schtick, rubbing the microphone stand amorously and performing, ahem, push-ups on the floor of the stage, but the fireworks were stage left, in the hands of guitarist Blake Baumeier.

Baumeier struck no guitar hero poses, but stretched out for a fantastic guitar solo that left me dumbstruck. His head bobbed slightly and his hair covered his features shyly as the sorrowful, emotional lines floated out in the smokey air. Baumeier was primarily faithful to Prince's famous ending solo, with extremely tasteful excursions of his own rejuvenating the familiar passage.

Scared to death that the Pygmies would descend into the mundanity of "Blister in the Sun" or "Honky Tonk Woman" after that moment of glory, I hurried toward the exit. Instead, they sent me off in fine fashion, escorting me to the door with the crash and thrash of a hearty Ramones song.

I drove back to a nearly deserted Tewligans. I had missed Love Jones, the first act, and Ten Foot Pole, the act between the Royal Crescent Mob and the last band, Atlantic recording artists the Snapdragons. Outside, the doorman and several other Tewligans staffers were putting together an order for some Indi's fast food. Inside, a handful of people settled in for a set of indescribable music from the Snapdragons.

It seemed like everyone in the room (and there were less than ten) were with the band. But to the Ohio trio's credit, they delivered an intense, professional set of music. The lead singer was also the lead guitarist, and his unique vocal delivery was every bit as intriguing as his solid work on Fender Stratocaster. The bassist's nimble fingers and the drummer's quick feet (on double bass drums) filled out the sound nicely. Combined, the effect was a bit country, but with a hip intellectualism and a couple of handfuls of alternative fire.

The band barely kept their composure when a drunken boob stumbled in, pulled up a chair, and rested his feet on the middle of the stage, ya-hooing his appreciation of their hot musicianship. I decided it was time to go home — the sun was coming up soon.