Second Set: At Pop's, a part-time band living it full time
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 19, 2012 - Last Friday evening, with the rains coming down at a lighter clip than earlier in the evening, two women stood near the front door of Pop's, one consoling the other; even the slightest bit of passing conversation suggested that a no-good man was involved. At a lot of bars, this scene plays itself out on a given night. At Pop’s, though, it’s one of those simple indicators that you’re home.
Hitting the front door, I quickly realized that I had arrived at that sort of amazing, zero hour at Pop’s, the midnight dead spot. On the weekends, Pop’s has concert bands finishing up their shows in the 11:30 range, allowing for minors, in particular, a chance to get off of that big parking lot at a reasonable hour. For the next 60 minutes, or so, the headliners load out and the true weekend warriors load in. Overnight bands at Pop’s routinely play four 40-minute sets between 12:30 and 5:20 a.m., their breaks filled by 20-minute, pre-recorded mash-ups from a DJ who understands that this room’s a little bit hip-hop and a little bit rock’n’roll.
But the overnight bands bring the rock. If there’s an anthem, it’d be “Man in a Box” by Alice in Chains, the kind of big, riff-heavy, air-guitar-inducing kind of cut that makes a young man just home from Afghanistan ask a young lady to dance. She agrees and so he wheels his chair out to the dancefloor and for a few minutes, there’s a sort of a beauty in this moment, the young vet alternately checking out his dance partner (without lot of subtlety) one second, while raising a Bud in solidarity to the band the next. This kind of thing has happened so many times at Pop’s, in so many variations, who could even count them?
Doug Thornburgh has seen this kind of moment before at Pop’s, especially on a good night, when the crowd’s thick and still amped up from the last bar, the one that they left at 1:30 or 2 or 3. A drummer of many bands over the years, Thornburgh now holds down the rhythm for Capone, a group that unabashedly pays tribute to the hair metal bands of the ‘80s. As Thornburgh watched the night’s headliners (Van Halen and Bad Company tribute bands, themselves) roll their gear out of the club’s back loading bay, he was left to pause for a few minutes, unable to set up, but too keyed up for much of anything else.
“We play every night like it’s our last show ever, as individuals,” Thornburgh says, fully serious. “That’s true for every one of us.”
There’s a certain sincerity that comes through with everything that members of Capone say and do. The group’s made of four scene veterans, who rehearse in Imperial and tour the greater region, now replete with a tour bus, one with three vanities and room for everyone to get ready at once. Thornburgh’s head is shaved clean, but the other members keep their hair long, topped by bandannas and hats. There’s makeup involved and the occasional costume change, as the group time-travel back to the days of Warrant and Skid Row. But as vocalist Jayme Vayne says, “This is what we look like all the time. I might not have on the cowboy boots, but we pretty much look like this all week. We’re a part-time band that lives it full time. We’re not a band that wears the wigs.”
As the group set up on Friday, they were under a certain bit of pressure, as the earlier tribute bands finished late, making Capone shrink their four sets into three, one-hour sets, with 30-minute breaks between. They’d still be finishing at 5 a.m., or so, plenty of time to load out just as the sun’s coming up. To start, though, there’d be the usual needs: sliding amps off their trailer and up the Pop’s stage ramps. The huge Capone logo would have to be assembled. Sound check would have to happen in full view of the audience. With one roadie/security man to help out, the band members themselves were the ones doing the grunt work.
Before you get to rock, you gotta get ready to rock. As bassist Zach Smith, the baby of the group at 23, set up his final stage needs, he slotted about a dozen white guitar picks into his microphone stand, then draped scarves over it. That is how you get ready to rock.
And it’s that kind of attention to detail that makes a performer feel good at 1:07 in the morning, as you start your work day with an anthemic, authentic version of Poison’s “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” the house lights dropping for the set’s opener. For the hour prior, they put this stage together, under the full, intense Pop’s houselights. But now, with a small crowd gathered in the tall seats in front of them, the members of Capone were in their element, living the dream life to an audience that would swell with each passing minute, as bars across the region let out, patrons wanting one, two, three more nightcaps before calling it a night.
“Down Boys” by Warrant would come next, followed by one of the great moments of American rock songwriting, Ratt’s “Round and Round,” a song absolutely locked in as one of the most indelible cuts of the 1980s. Eight more songs later, with nods to Guns ‘n Roses and the Bulletboys, the band’s one-third of the way done with their night’s work. And it’s only a bit after 2 a.m.
Wisdom of the green room
Even at break time, there’s a bit of seriousness to the Capone rock’n’roll show. Three members pile into the well-worn green room of Pop’s. As I sit, I hit some type of springless chair moment and sink almost to the floor. This isn’t the cool way to start a rock interview, but if the band notices, they don’t seem to show it. Thornburgh’s on one side of the neighboring couch, Vayne's on the other side. Smith slumps into a chair, a bit tired as he tugs at his smoke. Jackson’s missing; he’s probably on the tour bus that he’s been detailing for the past week, and, after a time, the group gives up waiting for him.
The interviewer slides over to a more level spot in the couch. And as the group starts answering a question, something interesting happens.
Vayne says that when fans want to talk to the band, he generally tries to do so in a quieter place than the main barroom; they mention that Pop’s offers everything that they could want, space-wise, but that they regularly play rooms where the “stage” can accommodate Thornburgh’s drums and nothing more. At Pop’s, though, fans can come right on back to the green room and that’s what one fella does. He’s an over-the-road trucker, who makes it a point to stop into Capone shows. There’s a Transport for Christ patch on his denim jacket and he’s very serious about showing Capone a Facebook post he’s made to their wall.
The band, especially Vayne, listens to him intently. As he tells them that Capone’s his favorite band, that they keep alive the spirit of the music that he loves 30 years on, they nod and agree, checking out his phone for the Facebook post. Eventually, he leaves, though not without handshakes and appreciation all around.
“Dude, that means lot,” Vayne says on the fan’s departure. “It’s just like you’re a painter. You finish a painting and people tell you they love it. Now, we didn’t write ‘em. But we take these songs and play them like they’re our originals. We act like we’re going out into the arena.”
Turns out, the group’s ready to talk. They have a lot to say.
They’ve been doing this for four years, with Smith as the replacement for a previous bassist. Despite his age he says that, “this is what I grew up” on musically.
Collectively, the band really doesn't party, as “there might be a beer, or two at practice,” Vayne says, “but we don’t drink at gigs.” As he says, “Me and Doug, we came up and watched a lot of friends ruin their lives.”
They’d love to transition from playing part time, a gig or two a weekend, into a full-time touring unit. “We’re trying like a son of a gun to get to do this full time,” Vayne says. The band’s got the tour bus now. As Smith says, “If you don’t walk off the stage exhausted, you didn’t do your job.” He pauses. “I’m already exhausted.”
But there are two more sets to play. The DJ’s starting to wind down his set and the band stirs from the back room. Outside, judging just by the dancefloor, you can tell that the audience has doubled in size. Probably 150 people are in the place now and it grew like that in just the last 15 minutes; the rush is coming.
The DJ introduces the band and the 2:30 set’s underway.
Capone's second set
This time around, the previously empty dancefloor begins to percolate a little bit, the band starting off with “Nothin’ But a Good Time” by the frequently summoned-up Poison. Fans start yelling out requests, though the reality is that the group’s going off of a tightly constructed setlist. The request for Three Six Mafia at least draws some laughs from Vayne, who declines the offer of a guest rapper taking the stage.
The next hour is a testimony to what bands at Pop’s do every single weekend. They work. At one point, Jackson walks over to the club’s second stage, playing to the audience on that side of the expansive room. Vayne engages in fist bumps with a couple of enthusiastic fans, many of them clad in the Cardinal gear they wore to opening day that afternoon. Smith works his side of the stage, and occasionally the three performers up front descend on one spot, all of them bringing the rock as it’s been brought in this form for the past 30 years.
Lots of little things catch the eye at this point. The young lady, just off from from Hot Shots, wearing the bikini she worked in earlier. The two women, center of the floor, who’ve drawn the attention of no small amount of nearby gents, as they pull each other close. The guy upfront, pointing, constantly pointing at Vayne, in a sign of respect. And, of course, the dancing couple; they were out there first. They’re not good dancers, by any stretch, but they love the music and they care and they make out on the dance floor and, hey, there’s something to be said for getting swept up in the moment.
At the end of the set, the group plows into the hits like “Girls, Girls, Girls” by Motley Crue, Ozzy’s “Crazy Train” and the set-ender “Wildside,” again by the Crue. That one’s an omen to me. It’s 3:30 a.m. and I’m on the Wild Side, the Ill Side, I’m in the heart of the party at Pop’s in scenic Sauget, Ill.
At the end of the set, I walk into the green room, free as a bird. I greet each of the members (minus Jackson, who must be on the tour bus) and shake their hands. Vayne invites me to hook up with them on Facebook and lets me know that I’m welcome to drop by practice any time. Smith hands me a pick and it’s not until the next day that I look at it. On one side, “Capone.” On the other, “Zach Smith.” This, friends, this is rock’n’roll. I thought I knew with Capone, but that’s a confirmation.
As I head out to the exit, I’m joined by a bouncer, who’s going to unclog the front door. A woman and a guy are having a disagreement. The doorman encourages all to take it outside. There, the third party, another fellow, is waiting. The two guys start pointing fingers, words aren’t loud, but they’re direct. But in what’s now a moderate rain, a Suaget police officer pulls up, directly in front of the exit. The two, bickering moments before, throw their arm around each and are seriously close-talking as they wander in the general direction of the Oz, trailing the woman in the center of their own storm.
I run to my truck, which is close. And as I pull off of the lot, I realize that I wish the group had played “When You Close Your Eyes” by Night Ranger, White Lion’s “Wait” and Faster Pussycat’s ultimate slow jam, “House of Pain.” Something slow and ballad-like, appropriate for the turning of night into day. And then, as I’m crossing the bridge to my version of civilization, I remember a very specific moment in the second set.
Vayne back-announced the song “Naughty, Naughty” by the band Danger Danger. He first looked at the center of the crowd and said something like “Now, I know a lot of you don’t know that one.” Then, he tilted his head, looked directly at me and said, “But this guy probably does.” And I did.
And with that, another favorite memory at Pop’s was born. Probably a top five moment; definitely top 10, with a bullet.