Catching Lightning in a Bottle

You can’t go home again… that’s the trite little saying you tell yourself when you try and revisit the glories of the past. Rarely does a return trip into the world of our youth measure up to the nostalgia of our pure memories. I think that’s why I had a knot in my stomach when I got out of my car last Saturday and walked slowly to see my friend Russ Sanderson’s new band, Beyond 10.

There’s another saying, “catching lightning in a bottle,” that creators try and invoke whenever there’s even a slight chance of building something new and different on the foundation of what has gone on before. They mention the difficulties of achieving “lightning in a bottle” or that they found “lightning in a bottle” again.

My friend caught “lightning in a bottle” again, and I know how he did it.

First and foremost, going to see a band in a bar seems like such a young person’s game. Am I too old to have fun? Will the girls think of me as the “dirty old man” out to try and score with drunk 22-year-olds? Gene Simmons once said, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Well, the ringing in my ears hasn’t stopped yet, and I didn’t get hit on all night, much to my disappointment.

I walked into the joint. It had been several years since I set foot in a bar in Effingham, and I halfway expected to see old acquaintances milling about. I saw a few people from my grade school days, but for the most part, everyone looked about 25, and I had more than a decade on these young pups. I hadn’t heard Russ sing in ages, but my thoughts turned to the good times of days gone past — Ivory Grand… Malaki… all bands Russ was in previously. Could he still bring it? Will the band be any good?

Sneaky Pete’s is a one-part restaurant/sports bar with pool tables, big screen TVs, a nice bar in the middle, and a one-part dance club with a second room holding the stage, dance floor, and a second bar. Pete’s barely existed when I lived in this town. The much larger Chasers was the place to go to see live music. However, the vibe was the same — too small a stage, too small a dance floor, lots of girls bumping and grinding, lots of guys on the periphery watching like hyenas, and lots of drinking.

Inside the dance club section of Sneaky Pete’s, the early arrivals wait patiently and drink. All the few tables are taken, but I wasn’t about to hang thirty feet back and sit on my ass while the band played. I smile at the black curtain in front of the stage (Wanna look like a big-time act? Buy a black curtain) and ordered up my first Red Bull (I had an hour drive afterward, so I did the responsible thing and drank Red Bull all night. At least it made the early morning drive a bit easier…) and wondered if I was in for a long night of butchered songs and vain attempts of recapturing former glory.

I run into Russ’s wife, Sharon, who was surprised to see me, of course. I had not let my friend know I was coming, wanting to surprise him when he hit the stage. Sharon looked great and was genuinely happy to see me. We chat a bit, and more friends of Sharon’s make their way toward her. I tell her I’ll see her throughout the night and patiently wait for 10 pm to roll around.

At 9:58, someone dressed up like the Easter Bunny comes out to drag reluctant girls onto the dance floor. This goes on far too long, and most people just want the band to get started. I’m one of them.

Behind the curtain, the band goes into “Same Old Situation” by Motley Crue. The curtain falls, and the band takes off. Behind the drums is a large, lighted sign displaying the band logo that I learn later cost $700. It’s pretty impressive. I get one good look at the band on stage, and then a deluge of girls pile onto the dance floor to dance, but mostly to prim and preen for the band members. The Talking Heads line, “Same as it ever was…,” comes to mind.

The band is sloppy at times, but the musicianship is so high that nobody notices or really cares. This is their fifth gig, and while they may not be totally in sync on stage, they more than make up for it in style and energy. Russ sees me and has a huge smile on his face. He comes near to shake my hand.

As the band rolls into their next song (“Any Way You Want It”), I’m immediately struck by two things — Russ is having a whole lot of fun on stage, and their bass player is one of the most dynamic musicians I’ve ever seen on stage. Charlie Truhlar is charismatic, flashy, and very tight musically. He was the lead guitar player in his former band, but here he shares bass player/lead singer duties with Russ. His first vocal is “Pretty Vegas,” and he knocks it out of the park. The girls love him.

This band isn’t about T-shirts and jeans, but they aren’t about spandex and teased hair either. They are putting on a show and throwing a party. The crowd is going quite nuts, and the drink is overflowing. If I was a bar owner, I’d have them playing as much as humanly possible.

They run through their set like gangbusters alternating between new and old, favorites and flavors of the moment. They may sing 80s hair-band songs (“Sweet Child ‘O Mine,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” “Livin’ On A Prayer”), but they turn around and play something that’s on rock radio today (“Vertigo,” “Flavor of the Weak,” “In the End”). They aren’t a one-trick pony. They’re playing songs they love and working the crowd.

However, I was a little taken aback when the band went into “Smooth Criminal” by Michael Jackson. I remember a silly punk band remake a few years ago, but this version was pushed in a new direction with the addition of a wonderful live mash-up with “Stairway to Heaven.” I was completely floored, and the band had a good time watching me as I went from rolling my eyes to rocking and rolling.

Russ dedicated a song to me, “I’ll Never Let You Go” by Steelheart. It’s one of his signature songs — one that I heard him sing at least a hundred times before and one I’ve never heard any other bar band even attempt. If there’s a song that can showcase a vocalist, “I’ll Never Let You Go,” is it. He belted it like he was ten years younger, and those in the audience who had a clue knew it was something special. I’d like to hear some American Idol wannabe hit those notes.

Overall, I danced with Sharon, received a couple of looks from some interested parties but no approaches, and stood way too close to the speakers. I told Sharon that I’d never seen Russ this happy on stage. She agreed adding a huge smile. I think she was happy to see him as joyful as I was.

Before I left for my 2 am destiny with the interstate, I asked Russ about the obvious fun he was having on stage. His response was revealing, “For the first time, I’m not doing this for the money.” Being in a band wasn’t a part-time job anymore. It was just something fun.

The lesson learned? Do something you love, have fun doing it, don’t worry too much about the money, and you might catch lightning in the bottle.