Train of Love
After five years of Wednesdays at Donn's Depot, family is all in the residency
Every Wednesday night for the last five years I've hauled my guitar to Donn's Depot on West Fifth Street and pulled up a stool next to my partner in music and life, Chris Gage. On Jan. 28, we take our last weekly ride at the Depot; beginning in February, we shift to once a month (the first Wednesday). As all Austin musicians with a weekly gig know, gathering every seven days at one club becomes more than just ritual.
Local writer Michael Corcoran once referred to Donn's Depot as "one of Austin's noted 'crock-pot clubs.' It's termed so because of all the housewives through the years who've thrown dinner in a crock-pot and then headed down to Donn's for an afternoon of revelry, arriving home just before their husbands." Right or wrong, that had always been my impression of the place, so it was off my beaten path for the 16 years I lived in Austin prior to our residency.
Over these last five years I've discovered that impressions aren't always accurate, and time changes everything. When we first started playing Donn's, most of the audience was over 55 and had been regulars for years, enjoying owner Donn Adelman's shows of Fifties rock & roll and popular standards. Donn's a master of that music and has built a loyal following.
Our music's different, so gradually we began transforming the audience, drawing our own regulars culled from locals who know us from the Kerrville Folk Festival, local airplay, and many years of playing around town. Austinites go where the music is, and for the past half decade, more often than not it's meant going to Donn's and discovering these strung-together train cars decorated with Elvis paraphernalia and a blackjack table. It has soul because of its history, not because a marketing guy and interior designer re-created a Texas music "joint." It is a joint, and proud of it. In the land of "Keep Austin Weird," Donn's Depot is a landmark.
The really weird thing is the family Chris and I have become a part of because of this gig. We've witnessed life in all its glory and tragedy as we've gotten to know the listeners who support us each week. The regulars and the intimacy of Donn's breed a connection that transcends the usual audience-performer relationship.
We watch as people are introduced, dance, exchange phone numbers, fall in love, follow the thread of passion until it unravels, break up, act out their anger at the table where they courted, sometimes move on, meet someone else, and then start the whole thing all over again.
We're the soundtrack to their drama, and we go on the ride with them, pouring our hearts into "Devoted to You" when love is in bloom and spitting out "Who Will the Next Fool Be" with knowing glances when they're nursing a broken heart.
Sometimes we're witnesses to deeper challenges. An obviously devoted couple started coming to hear us the first week we played at Donn's and subsequently became our good friends. Jimmy was killed one September afternoon while sitting at a stoplight listening to Folkways on KUT. One of Austin's biggest music cheerleaders and a beloved father and husband was gone.
Chris and I sang two of his favorite songs at his funeral and then wrote "Hey Jimmy" for him, a song that later appeared on our Burnin' Moonlight CD. Many nights at Donn's we've dedicated that song to his wife and daughter, and I'm always struck that a piano-bar gig has led us all to this rich moment.
Then there's Gary, a vibrant 40-year-old we could count on to be smiling back at us at least three out of four Wednesdays each month. For years he's graciously and quietly supported us, never pushy with his appreciation. He always makes a contribution to the tip jar (or gratuity snifter, as we call it) without tying it to any specific song request, unless it's for one of ours.
A few months ago we noticed Gary having trouble talking and thought perhaps he'd had a few too many cocktails, which would've been totally out of character. As the weeks passed and his motor skills deteriorated, it was obvious something was wrong. Gary has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) and is fighting it with all the energy he used to pour into hiking, biking, and dancing at Donn's.
The last time he came in, it took him 10 minutes to cover the two feet to the tip jar, but he did it, and with a joy that still radiates from him. His family was with him that night, and I'll never forget singing and watching his mom and dad as they watched him dance with his niece. As a mother, I could feel their love, pride, and heartache with every ounce of my being.
Later that same night, a local guitar-playing "semihero" crashed the stage after too much whiskey and too many chemicals. He made an ass of himself until we asked him to leave, and then he shouted and gestured profanities at us from the side of the stage. He called us later at the bar to scream some more and left a threatening and psychotic message on our home phone at 2am.
I was amazed at the profound difference between Gary's grace and class as he deals with a truly tragic situation and this other guy's sad display of ego outrage because he didn't like his guitar tone. Life lessons are all around you if you open your eyes, and especially in smoky bars where it all hangs out.
One of my favorite Donn's related memories happened at the Austin airport at 8:30am on a Tuesday morning. Chris and a handful of patrons had been "treated" to a piano/lap dance by a pretty, and pretty intoxicated, woman at his solo Donn's gig the night before. Apparently, Mr. Gage never missed a beat as she dusted the piano with her gyrating spandex derriere and then stuck her tongue in his mouth as he was singing the blues.
Cosmic Austin elder Rusty Wier, one of the few witnesses, had told Chris "you better tell Christine before someone else does." So Chris wisely followed that advice and told me before the coffee was even perked the next morning. Sure enough, as we waited to check in at the airport a mere eight hours after this spectacle, some guy we didn't even know yelled, "Hey piano man! How 'bout that chick last night at Donn's!" Moments like that don't happen after most singer-songwriter gigs.
Our Depot family has grown from our fans, obviously, but Donn Adelman and his wife have also become surrogate parents to the parade of musicians that streams through the place. Their son Matt manages the club, and he feels more and more like our brother every day.
Three years ago they lost their oldest son, Mike, who was brutally murdered after being followed home from Sixth Street. Chris played Monday night at Donn's that week, and I remember him crawling into bed and telling me that Mike was critically injured and in intensive care. We held our breath for two days, and when we walked through the door Wednesday evening, the bar was heavy with the news that Mike had died a few hours earlier.
Matt was there and as we set up, all the bartenders, waitresses, and musicians who'd ever worked at Donn's started showing up. Everyone through the door was an employee or a regular who knew the family and cared deeply for them. We sang when we could, cried when we needed to, and quit a little early.
In the next few months we also sang at Donn's mother's funeral and a memorial service for their niece, who died suddenly while still very young. It was a tough year for the Adelman's, but Donn kept rocking and rolling, and with Matt's help, the doors stayed open.
Donn's Depot has spent the better part of three decades building a reputation as a piano bar that specializes in "songs for dollars," with the tip jar prominently displayed at the edge of the grand piano. I have spent the better part of three decades searching for my "sound," my "voice," my "musical identity."
I've found it in songs I've written, songs written by some incredibly gifted friends (most of whom live within 30 miles of Donn's Depot), and songs by obscure French singers from the Thirties and Forties. Then fate, timing, opportunity, and necessity put me on that stool at Donn's every Wednesday night for the last five years. What's occurred is an organic meeting in the middle that's enabled me to bring my voice to a place I never thought it would fit.
Donn's Depot has also given Chris and me a place to discover our music together. We played week after week, hour after hour until we gave birth to a cohesive sound that's our own. Those four-hour Wednesday nights have been a musical workout that built creative muscle and kept us tight.
Still, some nights I can't get out of there fast enough, because repeated requests for "Piano Man," "Me & Bobby McGee," and "Margaritaville" are more than my fragile, purist heart can handle. There are some requests we will do, although we do have a bottom line. Patsy Cline is usually a yes, but you can forget any Billy Joel. I've wrapped cords plenty of Wednesday nights feeling burned out on secondhand smoke, counting tips, and staring down the clock, sets, years. The complaints in my head flow faster than the cheap tequila the 22-year-olds in the back room throw down. But I know every job, every dream, and every choice has its compromises and grueling moments.
The good news is that our professional and creative life has grown and evolved these last five years, with new projects and commitments taking more of our time now. So, we're cutting back to just once a month and look forward to creating a new tradition: Albert & Gage on the first Wednesday at Donn's Depot.
I'm grateful for the work, the friendships, and the lessons learned. The music business and our success-oriented culture encourage us to strive for bigger and better in all we do. Donn's isn't a big, beautiful theatre, and we haven't been selling thousands of tickets for tens of thousands of dollars.
Yet after almost 30 years of making music on all kinds of stages, I'm struck by the simple beauty of the life that's danced before me there, and I'm honored so many people have wanted to hear us sing, week after week, year after year. You know who you are. Thank you.