Playin’ in the Band

March 13th, 2014


At around seven o’clock on Thursday nights, Pegasus Coffee Shop undergoes a transformation: the small tables, previously occupied by laptops and foamy lattes, are rearranged and used as placeholders for cocktails, tall beer, and sheets of music at the dawning of Biscuits & Gravy, a three-hour jam session hosted by local musician Ethan Joseph Perry. Folks flood in through both entrances with instruments in tow, greeting each other with nods, hugs, and playful banter between old friends.

Incoming musicians strategically dance across the coffee shop, raising instruments above their heads and shuffling through the maze of chairs, tables, guitar cases, and people in order to grab a spot in the large circle materializing around the front fireplace. Non-musicians also take their place around the bar, ready for the pickin’ party to begin. People walking past the front windows often stop and smile, curious and warmed by the sight of community collaboration. A few welcoming waves from the jam circle urges them to come inside and join; they laugh, shaking their heads as if to say, “I couldn’t do that!” and walk away with a smile equal to ours.

Then, with a one, two, a one, two, three, four, the atmosphere ignites into a frenzy of string instruments and vocals as the group begins the ascent. Laughter and side conversations at the bar are drowned out by the fifteen or more new and veteran musicians encouraging each other to play loud, sing out, take it away, and bring it back. The choice of song is determined by a clockwise rotation around the circle, with each musician bringing a different flavor to the group. An old Grateful Dead tune may be replaced by a John Prine sing-a-long followed by a little Neil Young, and so it goes. The keeper of the song also passes along jam solos to various members of the group. Courageously and at a moment’s notice, the soloist takes the song to a new level. You’d think they’ve been playing together for years—and, in many cases, you’d be right.

I sit high on a stool behind the circle’s inner layer of musicians waiting for a song I know, a wave I can catch and ride straight on home with the rest of the crew. As soon as it hits—that old familiar tune—I sing out in harmony with the women and men around me, and our voices blend with the fiddle, guitars, mandolin, banjo, stand-up bass, harmonicas, and impromptu table drums, swirling in a vortex around the circle and reverberating off of the tiny coffee shop’s walls. Every Thursday, the energy is palpable, the happiness contagious, and the feeling of community undeniable. At the stroke of ten o’clock, the session comes to an end with Pete Seeger’s “Goodnight Irene,” and the musicians part ways, ready to do it all again next week. Join in!

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