Speal’s Tavern is a little Blues Club outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is home to “The Cigar Box Museum”, “Deep Blues”, and the nicest people you will ever meet anywhere. And for the last couple of years it has been my home away from home. In January of 2012 I ended up just down the road from Speal’s Tavern after a series of unfortunate circumstances which I wrote about in my Blog post “The Journey So Far……”. I had lost everything and was completely bankrupt emotionally, spiritually, and financially. I had hit bottom and just didn’t care about anything any more. I truly had no fight left.
Completely stressed, I spent the next couple of weeks with the flu, sick as a dog. Then I stared at the snow and tried to drown my sorrows. I was completely immersed in my own little pity party and it was not pretty. One Saturday in late February I just couldn’t take it anymore and decided I needed to go play some blues. I had read about Speal’s Tavern online in researching Cigar Box Guitars and Stomp boxes. I knew it was right down the road and they had an acoustic Open Mike on Thursdays, and a Blues Jam on Fridays. The following Thursday was March 1, 2012 and I knew I had to go. I gathered what was left of my self-esteem and confidence, grabbed my resonator and went to their Acoustic Open Mike.
I have never been so nervous in all my life. I pulled in the parking lot and sat for about 15 minutes. I almost left but I talked myself into going in. I went inside and was immediately awestruck by all the Cigar Box Guitars. They were everywhere. I had truly walked into Blues Heaven! I set my guitar case in a booth and before I could sit down Chris Volpe came over and asked me if I was there for the Open Mike. I told him I was but I was so freaking nervous I didn’t know if I could play. He assured me Speal’s was a very positive, supportive environment and I had nothing to worry about. When it came time to play my three songs I got up and fumbled my way through “Walking Blues” and “Come On In My Kitchen” by Robert Johnson. I didn’t make it halfway through the second song before the nerves took over. I mumbled, “Sorry that’s all I’ve got”, ran off the stage, packed up my guitar and bolted back to the apt. I was indeed a mess but I had done it. It was a huge victory for me. I vowed to practice and go back the following week.
I went back the following Thursday armed with the three songs I had practiced. Chris Volpe saw me walk in and came over with a big smile on his face. He treated me like an old friend he hadn’t seen in years. “Hey Bobby, good to see you. Are you alright? You sure took off in a hurry last week.” I assured him I was OK and that last week stage fright had got the better of me, but I was back to try again. I did better that time and kept going back every week. It sure helped when Chris would play Trumpet or Flugelhorn with me, he would always make me sound good. And there’s nothing better than acoustic blues on a resonator with a side of trumpet! Dan Speal, the owner of Speal’s Tavern would greet me with a smile, a handshake, and a beer. He’d ask me if I needed something to eat, and then Darlene Howard(affectionately known as Dar), who ran the kitchen, would fix me some of her famous Thursday night tacos. The other musicians and customers would greet me with a smile and encourage me to keep at it.
Thursdays were always really good for me. It gave me something to work towards every week. Having to sit behind an acoustic and perform by yourself really forces you to work at getting better. And every one of the musicians were so supportive of each other. I have never seen a more positive musical environment anywhere. Some of the more memorable nights for me were having Chris on Trumpet or Flugelhorn, Jean Peterson on sax, Vince Adams on Trumpet, or all three play with me. I met Angry Johnny Stangry one Thursday night and he and I sat at the bar and played acoustic guitars til long after closing time. I’ll always remember that because Johnny is one monster guitar player and I was flattered that he’d even play with me. Every week was completely unique. There were always blues bands or artists passing through that would play little acoustic sets. It wasn’t too long before I met Kenny Sko that runs the Blues Jam on Fridays. He said I should come by and check it out. So I started going Friday nights as well.
The first Friday jam I went to I sat in with Kenny on drums and Jim Drish on bass. I was in heaven! Playing electric blues with a band that first night in Speal’s was so liberating for me. My soul soared I was so happy. I probably wasn’t very good that first time but man it sure felt good. I was hooked and kept going Friday nights as well. Thursday Open Mikes were always good but there was something different about Fridays Blues Jam. Emcee’d by Kenny and hosted by some of Pittsburgh’s best blues bands it was more than just a jam night in some bar. The band would play a set before the jamming started and I was always blown away by that first set of music. The lights would come down and then Kenny would introduce the band for the evening. Then the Blues would start and for the next 45 minutes grow in intensity spurred on by the crowd. For me it was a trip back in time, like seeing blues played in an old southern juke joint. The audiences were always so appreciative of the musicians and what they were doing. Someone would take a solo and the crowd would applaud in appreciation and the musicians would feed off the energy. It was magical stuff for me and I was always humbled just to bear witness.
After a couple of months of going to Fridays Kenny asked me to put a three piece blues band together and guest host occasionally. To be perfectly honest I wasn’t so sure that was such a good idea. My confidence was growing but I didn’t feel I was up to that yet. But Kenny is a very convincing guy and usually doesn’t take no for an answer. Since then I’ve been guest host quite a few times and I’ve sat in with some of the best blues guitar players around. Over the last year I’ve been busy playing gigs with Angry Johnny Stangry And His CRS Band, The Tim Woods Band, TK Mundok, Gashouse Annie and even some solo gigs. I got so busy playing in fact that for the most part I forgot my troubles and how I ended up at Speal’s Tavern to begin with.That is one of the many reasons I love Speal’s Tavern.
Another is the incredible wealth of talent that passes through its doors, and I have never seen a more supportive group of musicians and music lovers anywhere. I’ve seen, and been lucky enough to have been part of, some very magical musical moments there. I have learned so much in the last couple of years from all the musicians I have met and played with. I’ve grown from the experiences I have had there the last couple of years not just as a musician but as a person. I started to feel like I had a purpose again. I started to let go of the anger and resentment I had inside. I smiled again. I don’t know how long it had been since I’d been happy enough to smile. When I first went to Speal’s I didn’t think I had a friend in the world, I even sang “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” believing every word. Since then I have made many friends there, some of them have become my very best friends. Everything good that’s happened in the last couple of years in my life is a direct result of going to Speal’s Tavern.
Which leads me to the biggest reason I Love Speal’s Tavern. I firmly believe that Dan Speal and the environment he’s created, all the musicians I have met and had the pleasure of playing with, and all the friends I have there saved my musical soul and brought me back home to the blues. Going to Speal’s that Thursday night three years ago completely changed the course of my life in a very positive direction and I will always love Speal’s Tavern for that.
Photos courtesy of Dan Speal and Speal’s Tavern.
Photos from top to bottom:
- Speal’s tavern
- Speal’s Flyer
- Chris Volpe
- Bobby “Walking Blues”
- Chris Volpe and Bobby doing “The Thrill Is Gone”
- Dan and Dar
- “The Horny Horns” Chris Volpe, Vince Adams, and Jean Peterson
- Angry Johnny Stangry
- Kenny Sko, Emcee extraordinaire
- Speal’s audience
- Tim Woods and Bobby playing the blues
- TK Mundok, Max Woodall and Bobby
- Randall Troy, Bluesman
- Bobby hosting with Vince Adams and Dan Speal
See you next week and……..
Thanks for supporting me on My Blues Americana Journey!