The Bum Steers Play at Liston’s

It’s 9-something on a Friday night and the Bum Steers are into their first set at Liston’s. The tables are filled so Hank and I sit at the bar, a good idea because the band bought larger speakers since the last time we heard them. The pool table is pushed to the side and covered by plywood. Tables and chairs are stacked in the snow outside and the Budweiser Beer light with the Patriots insignia is unhooked from the ceiling. The musicians are backed against one wall, but even so the dance floor is no bigger than a dining room in a split-level ranch.

The band is starting strong with danceable tunes but they have no takers. Billy, middle-aged but acting teenaged, is feeling extra-good tonight, clowning around with some solo dance moves on the floor and then doing a goofy stunt with a Patriot’s football helmet. His mother, Shirley, who lives in the senior housing down the road, is laughing on the stool beside mine. A man asks me why I’m laughing, too. Billy, I tell him.

It takes Hank some time and a couple of beers to get into the dancing mood, and now we’re missing a blues number I wish the Bum Steers played later in the night, because he’s outside smoking. The state passed a law a few years ago banning smoking in public places, even bars, so the smokers congregate near the doors, chatting, shivering in the winter and ducking into the small alcove when it rains. Butts are strewn on the ground near the steps although there’s a container to put them.

When Hank’s ready, we’ll be on the floor nearly every number. He leads. I follow. Our style is sort of swing. Holding hands. Back and forth. Stepping together in some fancy footwork. Nice and loose. Spinning. Twirling. People often remark they like to watch us. We tried a lesson but that didn’t work. It’s hard to break down what we do naturally. We were also getting ticked off at each other. I’ve only danced with a few other men, including one heart-thumping Wanda Jackson number with a family friend. I’m here to have fun with Hank.

Liston’s is only three miles from our house, a good thing, because it’s easier to get to a bar than to get home from one. Steve, one of the owners whose family goes way back in Worthington on both sides, remembers biking here as a boy, he and his buddies going swimming then stopping for penny candy, Coke in the bottle and the shuffleboard machine. At the time, Liston’s wasn’t the only bar in town. Frankie’s was in West Worthington, nothing more than a joint that served ice-cold beer. On Saturdays, Steve’s dad and his Uncle Bevo rounded up the neighbors’ garbage to haul to the dump and when they stopped at Frankie’s, he and other kids played Wiffle ball outside. Steve says Frankie’s could be a rough place. Hell’s Angels robbed it one time, and the bikers shot the dog. When the place burned to the ground, the owner didn’t bother rebuilding.

Later, when Steve was old enough it was the Drummers Club on Friday nights after softball. It was Liston’s on Sunday nights after pick-up basketball in Town Hall. The bar didn’t have a large selection. “But the beer was ice cold and Irene had the TV set on,” he says. Liston’s wasn’t a late-night place then. Irene discouraged it. Two bad accidents involving patrons a few years apart shook her up. Now, Steve and his wife, Diane, own the place.

Hank and I have moved to a booth. The cold air leaches through the wooden walls although hay bales wrap the outer walls. The five TVs, including the one above the band, are tuned to a basketball game with the sound off. In the summer, it’s usually a baseball game. Red Sox and Patriots fans rule at Liston’s. (Steve and Diane organize a couple of bus trips to Fenway each summer.) Sometimes it’s NASCAR or a rodeo. One night, hunters were killing deer on the screen.

When Liston’s doesn’t have a band and we still feel like dancing we’ll go elsewhere, usually the Ashfield Lake House, where you dance between two rows of tables, or the Home Club in Hinsdale, where they serve Bud in cans, or to a friendly biker bar in Easthampton. We rarely know a soul even though they’re not that far from Liston’s, our place of preference. Here, we know most everyone. Many have worked with Hank. Others just live in town or one nearby. Some are kids who went to school with our kids but haven’t left town.

Our son, Zack, when he visits, comes with his hometown buddies. We’re not crazy about drinking in the same place as our kid, but even so we aren’t the only ones. I’ve seen two or three generations here or so many members of one family drinking you’d think they’re having a reunion. One kid, who sipped sodas while his pop drank beer, got a birthday cake on his twenty-first birthday. Most regulars are single or divorced or if they’re married, they don’t bring their wives. We’ve watched marriages break up and lovers hook up. One couple from another town comes to pick up another for some action, so I’ve been told. I don’t know if they’re successful, but you’d think they were schoolteachers, not swingers to look at them.

There’ll always be a little barroom hanky panky, but people have to be on good behavior. No swearing. No fighting. No acting up so others feel uncomfortable. Or they get tossed for several months, long enough to realize how much they miss the place. If the mess-up happens in winter Steve tells the offender to see him when the grass is green. If it happens in summer? “I tell them to come see me at Christmas.” But some don’t learn their lesson. Six people in town are permanently banned from Liston’s, and I know all six. Unpredictable sorts.

I get up to use the women’s room. The women’s room is clean and smells good, because women won’t put up with anything funky. The door is located next to the bar, so guys lining up to get drinks have to step aside to let you in. The women’s room is also close to the part of the bar where the band plays, and if they’re loud, it feels as if they’re in there with you.

By the Bum Steers’ second set, the dancers are on their feet. The dinner crowd is gone, and those that remain are here for the music. The parking lot this time of year is usually packed with snowmobiles but we haven’t had enough snow this winter so the trails in the woods are thin. The band is playing something from the Rolling Stones, then Johnny Cash, and those in a dancing mood are loving it. We’ve found our feet and are on the floor with them. The floorboards likely haven’t ever had a finish but they’re smooth from ground-in dirt and drinks. Unbelievably some people go barefoot, mostly redneck hippie women.

People just move together, no touching. The man who sells us firewood, a lean guy who wears a ball cap pulled down on his head, holds his arms tight and does a nice shuffle. So does his buddy, Kyle, who later sings with the band. Another Kyle, a sheep farmer, wraps his big arms around a woman in a tender way like he’s carrying her. Jerry, who is sometimes called Freddy, is there with his much taller girlfriend, jumping around like he’s stomping out brushfires. A young girl who grew up with one of our sons, of age to drink, shows off a trick she can do with her cowboy hat.

Bum Steer Bill, wearing a red Western shirt and silver studs in his ears, says the band loves Johnny Cash and their audiences do, too. They play five of his songs tonight. They also play a Willy Nelson, more of the Stones and Hank Williams. A Warren Zevon clears the dancers, but he’s a band favorite. They rebound with another golden Western, and the floor refills.

Bum Steers are not the best band that plays at Liston’s, but they are big crowd-pleasers. Bill says, “We’re not good enough musicians to win them over that way. We just make friends. We play music people like.” They don’t play that bar anthem, Mustang Sally, but they do Whiskey River, certainly one here.

The band debuted when the core four, who grew up together, did an eight-number set as the warm-up act for their fortieth birthday party at a Legion hall several years ago. Eight months later they had their first gig playing for the door at a bar in the Berkshires. Now they make music twice a month at bars and clubs all over Western Massachusetts.

Bill says if he ran a bar, it’d be like Liston’s. People pay attention, and if fifty people are in the place, forty will dance. He remembers the time a couple of women danced on the bar. He says, “It makes you feel a little like a rock star.” But not every place is like that. The night can be hit or miss for the band. Sometimes no one dances until the last set or six people are left in the joint and the last forty-five minutes turns into a paid rehearsal.

That happens at Liston’s. The place can be so packed you can’t move on the floor. People slop drinks on the floor or on each other. You take an unintentional chop from an elbow. Amateur dance night, I call it. At least we no longer have to dodge lit cigarettes. But other times it’s so dead, Hank and I are the only ones dancing or half the audience came with the band. Or no women show up, so the men just stand around drinking.

You want it to be somewhere in the middle, like tonight, so Steve and Diane feel they can keep this going. Steve says getting bands to play at Liston’s was hard at first. Nobody wanted to make the trip, but over the years they’ve won them over so there’s live music often every weekend. At the pig roast in August, at least four bands play. There’s never a cover charge so if the night’s receipts are close to paying the band, Steve’s happy. Their accountant says they shouldn’t do it, but he likes the music, and he likes having it for the locals. “The town’s been great for a million different reasons,” he says.

Most bands play cover tunes. A few make up their own. Mostly it’s some blues, some country, and a lot of rock and roll. Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers, who lives in a nearby town, has played sax with local bands a couple of times, including a benefit Steve and Diane held for New Orleans musicians displaced by the hurricanes.

Skynard is big. So are the Allman Brothers and Van Morrison. Brown-eyed Girl is a guaranteed draw. So are Sweet Home Alabama, Give Me Three Steps, and Roadhouse Blues by the Doors you know the words: “I woke up this morning and I had myself a beer.”  and Mustang Sally although this band won’t be performing it. Neither do they do Free Bird although more than one loud drunk makes the request.

Bands can be on one night and flat the next. They get better or worse or call it quits. You know a band’s in trouble when the lead singer goes to the bar for a beer in the middle of a song. Or they’re just too weird. One night, Steve hired a two-man band as a favor. The guitarist, a small man, dressed like he was the reincarnation of Stevie Ray Vaughn with a satin shirt and a black, flat-brimmed, Billy Jack-style cowboy hat. He tried playing like Stevie while the drummer wailed away with his sticks. Hard-working guys. But no one left their seats. You could only watch.

Two years ago, the Bum Steers recorded a CD, The Bum Steers Live at Liston’s. On the cover’s photo one of the bar’s super-regulars, a logger whose father was the mayor of very large city, is clutching a longneck and raising a hand in a how-do-you-do barroom salute. It’s sort of a best-hits list for the band, including a couple of originals. The tune, Thousand Dollar Car, is one of the Bum Steers’ best slow numbers. The chorus goes like this: “Oh, why did I go and buy a thousand dollar car?” Really.

Hank and I weren’t there for the recording, but later we bought the CD, autographed by the band, for five bucks. Bill signed his: “Glad you keep comin’ out.”

Yup, this is pretty much how it happened on a Saturday night at Liston’s. The photos were taken on a visit to Worthington this June. Here it is on Thursday at dinnertime. Alas no music that night. 


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