Musician Mark Bragg couldn’t have picked a better venue for a Tom Waits open mic. I’m not the first person to remark that the sweat of Tom Waits seeps through the walls of the bar at 164 Water Street.
Once the Silver Spur, shortened to The Spur, then the Victory , Scanlans, and now the Black Sheep, this incarnation, spoke to Bragg in a different way than its predecessors. “When The Black Sheep installed that piano in that little bar where space is already at a premium (when another bar might have put in a tv screen or a vlt) they drew a line in the sand. This bar is all about music, and I wanted to do something with that.”
Bar owner Don Maher loved it, noting Tom Waits fans are pretty fun people. Bragg agrees. “The Ship’s Bill (Haynes) is perhaps the most visible Tom Waits fan downtown, and he has been murdering both the rockers and the sweet songs. I have seen Julia Shea at a hundred shows; she’s a longtime supporter of downtown music, but I had no idea she had such a sweet and pure singing voice, so we back her up, the band gets quiet and the bar goes hush. It’s magic,” he says.
Haynes himself explains his admiration for Waits through a balance of critical thought and emotion. “I guess it’s that Waits has never stopped changing it up,” he starts off, discussing different eras and instruments of Waits’ career, but soon becomes more mystical.
“Waits is certainly my favorite songwriter but also at the top of my list of favorite storytellers. I can totally get lost in the narrative to the point that I would recognize the smell of the room in a song where he never described the scent.”
The weekly Sunday evening event (7 to 10 pm) is not a free for all. Certain rules apply, such as pre-selection of songs online earlier in the week so the band, consisting of Bragg on guitar and piano, Josh Ward on bass, and Chris Donnelly on drums, can learn the music. By following these basic directives, the band can facilitate an evening that is a great time for both performers and audience while welcoming Waits fans of all levels of experience.
Bragg explains ,“you don’t have to be pro or even confident to take part. The band barely knows what they are doing, but the night just works.” Barely over a month under its belt, its already attracting the attention of acclaimed visiting songsmiths such as Windsor Ontario folk-hero Ron Leary, who is planning to fit a Waits song in over his weekend in St. John’s.
This success among the musical community has to make Bragg happy. When asked about his motivation for starting the event, he told me simply wanting to jam was one element.
“I’m a musician but I don’t really tour so much anymore, and it’s hard to feel like a musician when you are just in your basement studio by yourself all the time trying, and usually failing, to be brilliant. I wanted to get out and play more often and with more people.”
Link to event rules and details: https://www.facebook.com/nighthawksattheblacksheep/?fref=ts