I'm here on a Monday night to show love for my friend Ken, who wants to play a few songs at Tony Padilla's weekly Open Mic Guitar Church. A recent transplant from Baltimore, Ken doesn't have all his musical gear with him, so I bring one of my guitars, along with a tambourine and some shakers, just in case I get drunk enough to embarrass myself. Back in the D.C. area, Ken and a buddy made decent side money playing covers for happy-hour drunks, and he's anxious to see if he's still got it after a few months away.
After we finish eating in the back corner of the pub, we close out with our server and find a table by the stage, where Tony is busy unraveling microphone chords and fussing with the P.A. knobs, and where I switch to Bud bottles because my gut is a brick wall and Guinness just won't make it through the cracks. Although he looks like he could be the disgruntled love child of Ozzy Osbourne and Glenn Danzig — with his long, stringy black hair, pale skin and T-shirt-and-jeans sound-guy attire — I quickly discover that Tony's one of the nicest guys in the bar. And as any barfly will tell you, the nicest guy in the joint is always the one buying shots for strangers. When Tony stops by our table shortly before Ken goes on to ask if he needs a shot for courage, Ken politely declines under the guise of having to drive back to Longmont, where he's squatting until his wife and kids move out here next month. But Tony doesn't buy it. "I only fuck with you 'cause I know you can take it," he says with a laugh and a hearty pat on Ken's back. "I'll buy you a shot when you get off stage, then."
The three or four guitar players and singer-songwriters who have already played are surprisingly good, and Ken is no exception. He starts with an Alice in Chains song I don't care for (only because I never liked Alice in Chains), then continues with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," Oasis's "Wonderwall" and a slowed-down version of U2's "One." He's the first guy of the night to play covers and, as a result, the first musician that anyone in the bar pays attention to. The older, mustachioed dudes sitting at the table behind us smile and sing along to Skynyrd; Tony comes over with a big grin on his face and asks me to remind him who sings "Wonderwall." And I actually feel a caught-in-a-moment shiver run through me while listening to Ken gently wail through "One." It's an especially impressive set made all the better by the absence of me and my tambourine.
Ken returns to the table feeling sheepish and self-conscious, and I'm slugging back my second Bud when Tony comes over to shake his hand and ask if he wants a celebratory shot. Again Ken declines, so Tony looks at me: "How 'bout you, bud?" Fuckin-A. Problem is, he wants to shoot Jäger, and I have a strict policy about that filth as well. But it's no use. Tony's back before I realize it with two shots of liquid black licorice and a toast. "Here's to a guy who lets another guy borrow his guitar," he says, before we tap our glasses on the table and send the shots sliding down our throats. I immediately feel sick to my stomach, but Tony continues: "It's a noble thing you did, man."
So much for self-control.