If you want to get into the Radio Bean in Burlington‚ Vermont on a Tuesday night‚ you have to get to the church on time. Otherwise‚ you'll arrive and see the glass doors and windows all fogged up and a makeshift cardboard sign tacked to the doorframe that says "Filled to capacity. Please wait until someone leaves before you come in." Silhouettes of bodies are visible through the mist‚ and musicians fill a small stage‚ their profiles seen from the street. The bittersweet heartache of country music can't be contained‚ and it cries out into the night every time the door is opened.
As soon as you make your way through the door‚ you have to weave around the neck of Mike Gordon's bass. People are everywhere -- drinking wine shoulder-to-shoulder‚ standing with cool pints to their lips‚ sitting comfortably in coveted booths‚ and leaning back against the bar where chalkboard drink menus hang and the naked metal springs of a mattress frame gracefully hold bottles of red wine. Conversations bubble and buzz along with the music‚ breaking into applause when the band ends a number. Friends are easily found and easily made on nights like these‚ the air thick with songs about loving‚ leaving and loving again. Stained glass lamps and strings of red lights add to the hazy glow‚ photos and paintings hang on brick walls‚ and the entire place vibrates with an energy that says you're in the right place at the right time.
On the tiny corner stage‚ guitarist and singer Brett Hughes is all smiles. A blood-red Telecaster with a white pick guard is slung over his shoulder‚ his head cocked to one side as he and Aya Inoue share a microphone and the harmonies on Buck Owens and Harlan Howard's "Foolin' 'Round." Mike's head bobs in time as he picks bass‚ watches Brett and Aya and glances back to drummer Neil Cleary‚ who grins and blinks as he cracks his snare on the chord change. Gordon Stone's eyes go to his hands‚ which glide along the strings of his pedal steel‚ sending waves of tremolo heartache into the crowd. Seated at the Bean's weathered old piano‚ Marie Claire‚ dark hair over one eye and both hands on the keys‚ comps as she watches Gordon. Two songs later‚ Marie comes front and center next to Brett and they slip into their best June Carter and Johnny Cash‚ taking the crowd with them through a fiery rendition of "Jackson."
This loose group of musicians and their weekly gig‚ simply known as Honky Tonk Tuesday‚ is the reason the Bean is filled to capacity so early in the work week‚ crowded with patrons throwing back drinks‚ checking each other out‚ hooting and hollering for the band‚ and throwing money into the bucket when it's passed around. Now a Burlington institution‚ Honky Tonk has evolved from a slow‚ sparsely attended Tuesday night into an evening naturally booked into many people's weekly schedules. Regulars know these hours will be filled with songs about broken hearts and hangovers‚ hard working and harder loving‚ led by a man who carries the songs with an honest face -- and at least a bit of a wink to the crowd.
On a Monday evening in a dark‚ cool booth of a local bar‚ Brett Hughes stirs the mint in his half-full mojito and gets loose about playing music and what's become the Radio Bean's hottest night. "It's funny‚ I just had a conversation with Aya today on the phone about being in a band and playing music. Being in a band is being in a relationship and the music is the thing. She said‚ 'It's like a drug.' And I said‚ 'Yes‚ it's like a drug‚ and it's also like sex.' It's like sex that lasts a lot longer. And you kind of get to choose the‚ you know‚ the mood you want to have. Music is like having a cabinet filled with drugs. 'Well‚ I think I want to feel that way now!' And then five minutes later‚ you don't have to come down off your high; you can just pop in another drug and play something that makes you feel a different way."
For the band‚ and the crowd‚ Tuesdays are the perfect cabinet. With a revolving door of musicians‚ the music's chemistry changes from week to week. Since its humble beginnings‚ dozens have shown up at Honky Tonk to play songs by Hank Williams‚ Buck Owens‚ Willie Nelson and other country legends. In the early days‚ Chris Michetti and Todd Stoops of RAQ were familiar faces onstage‚ when they were home in between tours. Traveling schedules always have an effect on the gig‚ as nearly everyone‚ from Neil Cleary to drummer Steve Hadeka to Hughes himself‚ is a working musician who hits the road when the call comes in. Some nights Neil's cousin Joe Cleary adds some traditional feel with his fiddle. Guitarists Bill Mullins and Dan Archer come in occasionally‚ turning things a bit more rockabilly. According to Brett‚ when lap steel player Adam Crane sat in one night‚ things got pretty "Hank Williamsy." And over the winter‚ Jamie Masefield‚ Jon Fishman and Grace Potter each showed up on different nights to have a little fun.
As a veteran musician in town‚ Brett is a natural bandleader who has a knack at bringing people together: he has no hangs-ups about genres‚ scenes‚ cliques‚ or anything that might create a wall between local musicians. "It feels like Burlington wants to have … I mean‚ everybody wants to play together. And unless you really make an effort to call each other up and get together and start hammering stuff out‚ it's tough to make it happen‚" he says. "We wouldn't really get a chance to play in another context. A lot of the idea was to have a context that makes it loose and available to drag people in on a night that nobody's really doing anything else unless they're out on the road. It's a really good night to get musicians together."
Though he's now the de facto bandleader‚ Brett was originally invited to play drums on Tuesdays‚ backing up Dan Bolles‚ Ariel Bolles and Dave Stockhausen of The Middle Eight. Hughes was recording and producing their album at his practice space and it felt natural to get out and do something different. "Neil had been hosting the Tuesday night gig‚ and then he had to stop doing that because he was touring‚ kind of let it go. And so Dan wanted to jump in and asked if we could do a honky tonk sessions thing‚" Brett explains‚ laying out the gig's history. He gradually took on more responsibilities‚ until one day he found himself in the driver's seat. "Suddenly Dan stopped showing up for rehearsals. He started hanging around this girl‚" Brett says with a good-natured laugh. "And then one night he didn't show up at all. Suddenly‚ there I am holding court up in front‚ clawing through every song I know and reading off of sheets because I had learned a bunch of songs . . ." Soon Stockhausen also dropped out and Brett was left trying to put an entire band together each week. It was sparse for a while‚ which can be hard to imagine today as one surveys the simmering crowd of newcomers and familiar faces. "Then it started really picking up‚" says Brett. "Steve Hadeka started playing a lot and Ari Bolles was back occasionally. That really helped get it together actually."
Ari had moved to Chicago for school and would return to Burlington during breaks. Home for a spell‚ she'd work with Brett to learn songs‚ then play bass and sing harmony on Tuesdays. Aya‚ close friends with Ari‚ started getting up onstage to sing and in turn brought Marie Claire into the mix. "The whole vibe at Radio Bean during Tuesday night is the reason I started doing it in the first place‚" says Marie. "I'd heard about it from a friend‚ so I popped down one night to see what was going on. It was such a fun and casual scene‚ and there was no one playing the piano‚ so I sat down and started playing‚ just listening and picking up the songs as they came. Everyone playing was having such a great time finding out about each other's style and musicianship‚ and the super chill atmosphere of the whole thing lets you just experiment and take risks that you might not otherwise take." And‚ as Brett says‚ "It evolved the way a lot of things evolve: somebody who hangs out with somebody else starts coming around ... and a lot of the same people show up week after week and love it."
Mike Gordon was no exception. "At first he came down and listened and didn't bring a bass because we didn't need a bass player‚" Brett recalls. "At that point‚ I was bringing my acoustic guitar and my electric‚ so we'd get him up and have him play a few on the electric." Soon afterward‚ Ari had to return to school in Chicago‚ and Mike started bringing his bass to gigs. "We started having at it. And it was fun‚ you know? He showed up every week and I stopped worrying about trying to get a bass player."
For Mike‚ becoming a regular at Honky Tonk Tuesday was a natural fit. "I've always been attracted to bluegrass and country music‚ maybe because my heart aches easily when I hear simple‚ tragic songs‚" Mike says. "My Dad took me to Nashville when I was twelve‚ and since then I've wanted to sneak some country music into my life; country radio is my guilty pleasure." Mike's love for the traditional‚ down-home elements of bluegrass and country music seeped its way into Phish's music over the years. And you can hear him take a lot of the traditional ideas out into a fresh sounding environment on his 2003 solo album‚ Inside In. "But what attracted me to the weekly gig is the way Brett and some of the others sing these old songs in new ways‚" he explains. "I'm figuring out a lot of the songs as I'm playing them. Sometimes a song is counted off and I've never heard it‚ and I don't know the tempo‚ the beat‚ the key‚ or the chord changes. Since art exists within limitations‚ I really like doing everything in my power to make a simple song feel like a soul-searching journey."
Around the time Mike came onboard‚ a lineup started to gel during the ordinarily loose Tuesday nights. "At one point it fell into place. It was Mike‚ Neil‚ Marie‚ Gordon and me‚" says Brett. "And then whoever else showed up to play. It fit together really well." The consistency was noticeable from week to week‚ though Brett was still calling out chord changes and explaining arrangements before starting new tunes. "Every week I'll learn eight or ten new songs and go out and try to play them in front of people‚" he says. "'Sure‚ I've got the words right here.' And everybody else is hanging on for dear life and doing it really well." According to Marie‚ the approach helps makes Honky Tonk what it is: "Even now‚ months later‚ I know the songs a lot better‚ but there's still a let's-just-fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants feel to the whole thing. I feel like everyone who's there to play is just there to have fun‚ and I feel like everyone who's there to watch is just there to have fun. There's very little difference in space between the audience and the band at Radio Bean‚ as it's so cramped‚ but I feel like that's also reflected in the relationship between the audience and the band. It's kind of like we're all just in it togetherA one-room coffee house with a tiny bathroom‚ the Radio Bean is so small that whether you're back in the space between the bar and the message board or ensconced in a booth where people's backs are sometimes more visible than the band‚ you're easily within twenty feet of the stage.