For a minute there, I could've sworn I was on the set of Almost Famous
. On the small stage at the Red Line Tap
, a band named Sexfist
was performing to a raucous crowd. The beer was flowing, groupies were dancing wildly, and there was a dangerous amount of facial hair in the building. I could see the Rolling Stone cover already.
Of course, I should mention that the band was playing traditional bluegrass, and the groupies (there were three of 'em) sported spiffy belt buckles and bore little to no resemblance to Penny Lane. At least the beer was domestic.
Major motion-picture fodder or not, the oddly-named (for its genre, at least) Sexfist sure plays as if it's on the verge of being the next big thing, and for a crowd of regulars at this Rogers Park institution, the group has already made it. A little after the official 10 p.m. start time, the five band members strode on stage in matching (or close to it) suits to a flurry of applause.
As a clearly bemused Abe Lincoln looked on from a portrait on the back wall (one of two in the room), fiddle player J.R. Hinshaw launched into a toe-tapping ditty that, like many that night, would include entreaties for his "darling" to come on home. I've only seen one other bluegrass band live in my lifetime (and that was at Bonnaroo, so all memories are suspect) but this seems about as close to an authentic rendering of the music as you can get in Chicago.
Along with Hinshaw, Sexfist is Brian Koehler on guitar, Martin McWhorter on mandolin, Ben Wright on the banjo, and the ponytailed Jon Goldfine on the upright bass. During the performance, each member took a turn singing and showcasing his considerable string talent, as the group shuffled around constantly to make room at the one microphone on stage. Sure, it'd be easier to have several microphones, but that's not the way they did it back in the day, and Sexfist is clearly serious about sticking with tradition. I'm not sure if Bill Monroe or Del McCoury ever made a habit of calling hecklers "chickenshit," but then, times have changed.
Besides, the audience at the Red Line Tap demands a little feistiness. When band members jokingly begged for help with the art for their new album booklet (the release party will be in December) between songs, they were met with both cheers and catcalls, kind of like the reaction you'd get from your best friends. Most of the people here seem to be regulars, and it's pretty much assumed that you're here often, too; I was asked about the usual beer specials by a fellow patron. A number of people also wander over after eating (and enduring the open mic night) at the adjacent Heartland Cafe.
The bar is lined with an older crowd watching sports on the two old TVs, while past the partition, a large group of twenty-somethings shoot pool, chug $2.50 Berghoffs and generally make noise.
"It's louder than usual, don't you think?" one friend of the band remarked to another (the conversation took place over me, squished as we were in the packed seating area). Even from the front, it could be a little difficult to hear the singing.
But if there was any problem with the sound, the three dedicated "Band-Aids" dancing by the stage didn't seem to notice. If Cameron Crowe ever did decide to make a movie about Sexfist, I'm sure they'd be first in line. Now, I wonder how a bluegrass version of "Tiny Dancer" would sound...
Sexfist plays at the Red Line Tap every Tuesday night at 10 p.m.
Ben Rubenstein jumps under the covers every other week in an ongoing search for freebie music that rocks. If you know of a no-cover night he should check out, email him.