Change of Venue: Restaurants serve up new challenges for musicians

One night of music I will never forget happened in a St. Louis restaurant just a couple of years back. I drove Downtown to see a performance by one of my favorite local bands, Lung Dust. I had seen the band on a number of occasions and had spent a lot of time watching it perform at places like Hi-Pointe and the Way Out Club – perfect settings for the three-piece hard rock group. What was so different about this performance was it was in a restaurant, and a fairly small one at that. I can still recall the band’s drummer laughing and telling me, “We’re going to be so loud.” It ended up being a great show nonetheless.

While this particular night may not have been the norm for a band like Lung Dust, it certainly is a familiar setting for many other local musicians, especially those with a lighter sound. It’s fairly common for musicians who play in bars and clubs to play in restaurants on the side, and they all have opinions about this type of setting.

One St. Louis-based vocalist who really seems to enjoy the restaurant setting is Erin Bode, who continues to build an audience with her unique jazz and pop voice. She and her band, The Erin Bode Group, have recorded two CDs and spent a great deal of time in the past few years touring and performing locally. She said her career began in restaurants. “That’s just kind of how I started, playing restaurants and parties and that kind of thing,” Bode said.

She said there are certain things that make a restaurant particularly good for playing music: “I think the acoustics can be a bit of a challenge in restaurants, but Balaban’s is really good. We play a lot at Cyrano’s in Webster. I think the atmosphere is really nice. The people who work there are all really awesome, so it’s good.”

While Bode seems enthusiastic about performing her sets at Cyrano’s, the restaurant staff seems just as happy about inviting her to play there. Co-owner Charlie Downs said: “We think she’s great. She’s well on her way to hitting it big, and I think it’s great that she remembers Webster and performs here at Cyrano’s.” The staff also takes pride in the fact that Bode even got engaged to her husband (and bassist) Syd Rodway at Cyrano’s.

Bode is not the only musician who performs there, however. “There’s a harp player who [used to] come in and a keyboard guy that plays and it’s more like background music,” Downs said. Background music is pretty common in restaurant settings, but sometimes musicians really prefer people to pay attention.

Jim Peters, lead guitarist of The Upright Animals, had a lot to say on that subject. Before playing in the local rock band, Peters often performed in restaurants, most notably with St. Louis favorite Javier Mendoza. “At a club, it’s pretty much a given that music is one of the fine points or one of the key points of the evening,” Peters said. “Whereas in a restaurant, the diners and the food is really the name of the game. A lot of times people are less apt to pay attention to you. And I would say as a performer, it can be a bit of a strain because you’re up there playing guitar or whatever instrument that you do and you’re putting every emotion and everything you have into it and people are just kind of chewing their tostadas or whatever.”

This is not to say that Peters hasn’t had his share of compliments while playing in a restaurant. “I’ve had it happen plenty of times when I was playing and getting really frustrated, thinking that nobody was paying attention to me playing my guitar and then I start putting my guitar away and people start coming up to me saying ‘Oh, that was great. I really enjoyed that.’ It’s definitely a little
bit different.”

John Henry, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of John Henry and The Engine, seems to enjoy playing clubs but also takes time out on the side to play solo in restaurants and bars. “I really always had a band and then I would play solo – either to make a little bit of money on the side, either to play covers in bars, or then, too, to have solo acoustic showcases where I wasn’t playing with the band and I could sort of express songs in a whole different way. I could put more emphasis on the lyrics as opposed to the actual pageantry of a show.”

Henry said he enjoys restaurants and club performances: “I like doing both for different reasons. The rock ’n’ roll show is amazing; it’s fun and it’s exciting. But then again, it’s nice just to be able to slow it down and express more [in a restaurant]. You can just give it more meaning and sometimes that’s really refreshing because it gives you a new perspective on the song. Plus, a lot of people just seem to like the whole singer and songwriting stuff. Some people don’t, but there’s definitely an audience for that.”

One thing that Bode, Peters and Henry all seem to have in common is that they certainly enjoy the thanks they get from the customers when they play in a restaurant.

As Henry said: “I think it’s a huge compliment when you can actually play those shows by yourself and people come up to you and say you did a great job and it’s just you. You just need to carry all the elements of it. It’s a whole different type of thing with different charisma and everything.”