Before there was a Riley's Tavern there was Chaos Coffee, ska dancing and Earl Grey tea in the early '90s. Writers lounged at the bar tops—old and young—looking for a prose verse and inspiration from the scene vibe. Years later, Bottom's Up took over, with its B-52 Bomber mural flying past bands and bar-goers.
In the 2000s, Riley’s entered the scene, and here in 2011, it has expanded from an original bar where bands played on its old wooden dance floor. With ghosts of Chaos Coffee in the air, Riley's Backstage is for the loungers, the writers, the music lovers who find themselves mingling with scenester friends, vagabond hipsters, indy musicians, tattooed gleaming-toothed DJs and the dark Bukowski-like bar worshippers sitting in the corners.
I entered with writer Jane Hawley. Tattoo artist Justin Foss said hello and Indie Mash-up organizer and filmmaker Joey Ruiz of Loiter Productions, camera in hand, was ready for a night of music.
"How's your baby?" I asked.
"Much better," the Boston University graduate said about his newborn. We talked baby monitors and film editing before band members drifted in, passing where I sat on a leather couch, soaking in the bass thumps from the dance floor next door, ready for some indie rock to shake my soul.
Excited for the music, Hawley said she was waiting for her friend, bassist Michael Aguilar from The Choirs to take the stage in a brief reunion show of some defunct band. In the meantime, Foss spun DJ mixes to the crowd through the smoky stage mist.
While technical difficulties affected the start (it was rumored someone stole the stage mics) I spoke with Kenny Reeves' drummer, Chris Bourbon, about the music scene, remembering his old ska band from 2005, the Fuzzy Pink Slip-Ons. "I miss ska," he said. We talked old school British Invasion—the '90s version—and had a laugh about suspenders, big shoes, swinging elbows and buzz cuts.
After the first unnamed band tore through some pop punk riffs, Kenny Reeves and the Clones stepped onto the stage. "I'm getting up for this one," Hawley said, sporting a red velvet jacket, grabbing her camera and readying herself for some tunes.
As the thumping din of hoochie dance music rattled the walls and nearly drowned the room, the Clones fired up their three-piece ensemble. Chris’s (the drummer) shirt declared "Good Old War" and was lit in red lights as Reeve's—all sideburns, a lanky acoustic crooner—grabbed the audience right away with his playful vocals. He jumped to the music, he riffed on the chords and ripped along through a set that had some great harmonizing.
I would have peeked into the dance scene next door if it weren't for Reeves' upbeat mood and the crescendo of percussion from the drummer and bassist tearing into the first song, and later, the drummer tossing music instruments into the crowd, including writer Hawley's hands, who boogied to the band. I slumped against a wall, as usual, and could feel the ungodly grinding of the techno thump next door.
If ever there was a rugged band bent on roaring through the music scene like a pack of wild hunters, it would be Buffalo Season. I shook their guitarist’s hand before the show. This guy looked like a mountain man—full beard—gritty stare and stern faced—like he’d stepped right out of a history book onto a weathered mountain and cut his way through snowpack, bramble and mad-eyed grizzlies to get to the scene. And it wasn’t just him. This was a band of blood hunters, buffalo killers and we the audience were the herd.
“The lead singer drives up from Costa Mesa, I think,” Hawley said. “And he usually takes his shirt off.”
So the guitarist wasn’t the only mountain man on this squad? I swear from their first song’s opening chords I was staring buffalo-like, wide-eyed, right into the barrel of an indy folk-rock gun. Their music was smokin’ hot with a bass player smiling like he’d just bagged a hundred buffalo pelts with his confident swagger. He clearly was one of the stars of Buffalo Season (one of the best band names I’ve heard in quite a while).
The lead singer’s gravely voice was a war cry, and the old wooden organ out in front (don’t know what kind) was all painted with a lone buffalo waiting on the last bit of frontier, making for a killer mood, in which all that was missed was a great pelt and head from a buffalo, hanging behind them as a backdrop.
What a night. Hated to leave. Hated to scoot out past the dance floor in the other room and leave all that music and vibe there. Chester Avenue, just up Wall Street Alley, was cold, biting. Cutting back up 19th Street, the music rung in my head, lasting quite a while.
DJ Justin Foss. Photo by Nick Belardes
Kenny Reeves and the Clones. Photo by Nick Belardes
Buffalo Season. Photo by Nick Belardes
Kenny Reeves and the Clones. Photo by Jane Hawley