I was delighted to see my pals Susan and Hank walk through the door at El Rio, a colorful dive in the Mission. The occasion was “Los Train Wreck’s All-Star Jam,” originally “Kathi’s All-Star Jam,” a musical event that has been occurring monthly for over eighteen years, whether the world needs it or not.
Mostly, it seems the world wants it. After a couple of hours watching an array of performers jump up onstage (a term I use loosely here as the “stage” is really just the part of the floor in front of the covered-up pool table) to sit in with my band, Susan and Hank were happy campers. “This is so much fun! I can’t believe we’ve been getting your announcements all this time and we’ve never come before,” Susan gushed.
I’ve known Susan since we went to different high schools together on Long Island. As teenagers, we perfected the art of changing from skirts to jeans on the Long Island Railroad in order to blend in with the ultra-cool locals at Café Figaro in Greenwich Village. We drove into the wilds of Westchester to see Bob Dylan perform. We tried to get in bridge-and-tunnel hippie-girl trouble and mostly didn’t. Then Susan went off to Barnard and I went to Antioch, and we got a lot better at getting into trouble. I love that we’re still friends.
But back to the jams. They began with a phone call in late December, 1991, from the guy who booked the bands at a place called the Blue Lamp. I was in a band called the Ray Price Club at the time.
Blue Lamp Guy: “Hey, I just realized that January first is a Saturday night. We’re usually closed the night after New Year’s Eve, but since the first is a Saturday the boss wants a band. Is the Ray Price Club available?”
Me: “Oh geez, everyone has gigs the night before—I don’t think they’ll want to do it. I tell you what; I’ll ask the band, but you keep looking. If you get really desperate call me.”
Blue Lamp Guy: “Um…I just did.”
So I asked the band, and everyone said no, sorry, they would be too tired/hung over/involved with family to play on New Year’s Day and that was that.
Enter pedal-steel guitarist pal David Phillips. He was game to help me pull something together, and we invited every musician we knew to come down and join the first jam of 1992. We had no idea who would show up…but it turned out quite a few musicians had nothing to do that night and were itching to get out of the house. In fact, the bartender told me they had a larger crowd for our off-night jam than they’d had for New Year’s Eve.
Here’s how it worked that night and has ever since: our house band, now called Los Train Wreck, sets up and plays for a few hours, and anyone who walks through the door can sign up to join us onstage for a song or two. We have regulars who come every month, many of whom (singers Charlie Owen and Katie Guthorn, for example) are seasoned pros—and many of whom are not. We almost always back up the renowned multiple Emmy-winner Ben Fong-Torres on a song that contains original lyrics ripped from the headlines. We’ve had a homeless-guy regular reciting original poetry to a blues riff. We’ve hosted authors Amy Tan, Dave Barry, and Matt Groening; Americana twangbanger Dallas Wayne; Sons of Champlin guitar ace Terry Haggerty; Dr. Demento favorite Tony Goldmark; Terry Garthwaite from Joy of Cooking (along with her bass-slingin’ brother David and talented niece Oona); leopard-skin-pillbox-strat hero Andrew Goberman; the female runner-up of a John Mayer sing-alike contest…the list goes on and on.
Here’s the thing: there have been more amazing musical moments than we’d have a right to expect, and many more ordinary ones. There are fewer downright painful moments than you’d think. My favorites are the folks who are shy about performing but get up and do it anyway, enabled by the big ears, fine musicianship, and expansive hearts of Los Train Wreck. But most amazing of all is that my bandmates David Phillips, Todd Swenson, Paul Olguin, Peter Tucker, and Sam Barry show up, month after month, cheerfully playing for drinks, tips, and a wink from our favorite Bad Mommies, Angie and Mandi. (They really are bad mommies.)
Here’s the other thing: we’ve been around a long time—long enough so that our friends can casually wait nearly two decades to check us out and we’re still at it—and we hope to be here for a long time yet. So dust off the chord chart to that Patsy Cline (or Beyonce, or Leadbelly, or Bonnie Raitt, or Elvis) song you used to sing in your old band (or are learning for your new band, or love to bellow in the car with the windows rolled up) and come on down. We’re here to make you sound good, the second Tuesday of every month, at a little dive in the Mission called El Rio. Sign up for a monthly reminder at www.kathiandsam.net. I dare you.