Merry Covermas

The venue is far too brightly lit and covered in plastic ornaments for my liking. It’s one of a soulless national chain of yuppie watering holes that appeal precisely to those lacking any imagination.

The venue is far too brightly lit and covered in plastic ornaments for my liking. It’s one of a soulless national chain of yuppie watering holes that appeal precisely to those lacking any imagination.

I slip in quietly, almost guiltily, contractually obliged to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and do almost nothing to make things any better. The bar staff share a knowing glance.

I’m at the midway point of the ‘Christmas Period’ which, for me, means the last two weeks of December. It encompasses Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve and tonight’s festive landmark: ‘Mad Friday’. I’m on my fifth or sixth gig out of approximately twelve. I’m a walking cauldron of black coffee and Beecham’s All-in-One.

Like the ‘kooky’ receptionist at work everybody secretly hates, any evening that self-identifies as ‘Mad’ should be avoided wherever possible. Unfortunately, I need the cash.

Luckily for me, there’s no madness here. Tonight, like every other night I’ve played at this particular bar, they're serving sticks of syrupy vodka shots and overpriced cocktails to hardly anyone.

I set up in an awkward no-man’s land - neither stage nor bar-floor - amidst some tables I have to wrestle out of the way. The equally awkward bar-manager greets me as if for the first time.

It’s actually the third time I’ve met her: the shadowy booking agency I’ve only ever encountered via email have been sending me here for months and I, apparently, am a glutton for punishment.

To be fair, I’m not really her problem after-all; it’s a chain-wide initiative to have ‘live entertainment’ that she had no say over in the first place. Every Friday another jobbing loser pitches up, strums Oasis into the near-silence and shuffles off home a little richer. At least materially.

There are a couple of tables in: some friendly looking blokes in their early thirties who are bound to request The Courteeners at some point and be disappointed when I refuse to play them and a table of girls in their twenties. The girls already look disappointed; presumably with the discrepancy between the amount of effort they’ve put into their outfits and the number of people around to appreciate them.

As the girls walk past to the bar they eye me with what I can only describe as suspicion. It’s a peculiarly English thing -  a musician playing to a bar has to work hard to win the trust of the room. You aren’t what they came for. Nobody quite knows what to expect, and there’s a strange tension in the air.

I plug straight into an in-house sound system here which, I suspect, nobody has ever really known how to use. I have no control over its volume, and I already know from experience that nobody is going to make any adjustments to improve the balance or the quality of the sound. The bar-manager shoots me the sort of smile usually reserved for an inpatient at the hospice. It’s my signal to get going.

This is a job, I tell myself. Other people don’t expect to go to work every day and have fun. You’re earning a living that allows you to do other, more gratifying things. Would you rather work in a call-centre? Do you want to be a management consultant? I launch into Mrs Robinson - it’s a safe bet because people occasionally adapt the chorus into a chant about the manager of a local football team. Just as Paul Simon would have wanted.

By the end of the second set I’m halfway through my 2,323rd rendition of Sweet Caroline - a song that, by rights, I should hate, but, because of the line ‘how can I hurt when I’m holding you?’ in the second verse that nobody knows the words to, I still don’t (quite).

There’s even a smattering of applause when I finish from the table of men, though there’s not even a raised eyebrow from the table of girls, despite the fact that they have been filming themselves and me throughout the evening on their smartphones.

It’s an extension of the same Mexican standoff we had when they first walked in. They’re still not quite sure what to think about the whole thing, though they know better than to let a ready-made Snapchat story pass them by.

When they aren't raising their oversized glasses of flavoured gin, puckering their lips and scanning their cameras around the semi-populated parts of the room they're silent: staring at their screens, together but apart, waiting on the affirmation of people who aren’t there but are probably doing the same thing in a different bar with different people.

I pack down quickly, and wish the awkward bar-manager a merry Christmas. She returns the season’s greeting. She makes no comment on the music. Why should she? She isn’t paid to be conscious of my ego. Like me, she’s just trying to do her job.

Keep dreaming,


Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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