“Hey brother, a friend’s band is playing on your side of town that I want you to see tonight. You in?”
This was the greeting I received after answering a call from one of my oldest friends, about two years ago. Sadly, I was already booked with family stuff that night. This was the first, but far from the last, time that I would miss out on seeing Open Beta. Open Beta
I missed them at Comic Con 17 by ten minutes, at Comic Fest 18 by an hour. I have had friends, strangers, and an author at a panel I attended tell me to go listen to them. The fates have conspired to prevent it, until Saturday. I was kidnapped by the above mentioned friend, Michael Klopper. (Pausing for the chorus of, “Hey, I know that guy!” Of course you do…) We went down to the old OCP (yeah, you know me.), O’Connor’s Pub at Dunlap and the 17. I’ve never been there before, but me and that bar have become fast friends. It’s that kind of place. I kept looking around for a fat redheaded guy smoking a cigar.
We walk in as the trio are working their way through a, I’m going to stereotype from ignorance here, classic Irish Jig. Heads are bouncing, drinks are rising. The band pulls the eye, a mismatched yet balanced set. To the left is the guitarist, pretty average looking guy, size wise. I later learn his name is Paul Schmidt. I try not to hold it against him. To the right is Brian Abernathy, Mike McShane’s long lost brother, tall, wide, and tapping a stick on a large round hand held drum. He’s getting sounds out of the thing that would make Neil Peart look twice. In the center dances a manic pixie on a violin that is just as modern and electric as Brian’s drums are archaic and unpowered. Shorter and smaller than either of the guys, she nonetheless dominates the stage, the fiddle speeding up as she kicked and swung, the guy’s faces starting to contort as you could tell they fought to keep up.
Every table had at least a pair of people, most of them full up. I stood at the door, watching and listening, and Klopper quickly and quietly made his rounds, hugging, hand shaking, responding to raised hands and quiet calls of his name. I’m used to this. It doesn’t matter where I take him, this happens. Everyone knows Klopper. I’ve written about this before. Eventually, the song ends, and Klopper motions to an open chair at a table with some friends of his. I sit, as Erin leaps off stage and descends upon a large glass of coffee, whip cream piled high. Brian swears loudly. “More coffee?” He looks out at the crowd. “We’re having a hard enough time keeping up, don’t give her MORE caffeine!”
The crowd roars, and Erin cackles with glee as she leaps back onstage. This was repeated a few more times that night. As well as a few shots done by all three together. You know it’s a proper Irish band when the players are drinking more than the audience. The band launches into a song with words, very folk feel, but not one I recognize. I think it might be one of theirs.
Klopper asks me what I’ll have, he’s buying the first round . I’m wanting something I can nurse for a while. “Enh, a beer.”
He glares at me. “It’s an Irish bar. You’ll have a cider.” I agree, and he comes back with a couple of glasses and a basket of fried cheese curds as the band takes a break. He leaves all three, goes to say hi to the band as they split off. The cider half vanishes in one long pull, I need to find out what he got me, as it was delightful. The curds start vanishing as well. Speaking as a part Canadian who has had lots of experience with fried cheese curds, Wisconsin had better never find out O’Connor’s source of cheese, or they’ll send a crew to wreck the place in jealousy.
The band returns to the stage. The next three hours go by in a whirl. They have a pattern, Open Beta does. One or two songs with words. The guys take turns at lead vocal, though its mostly Paul. Erin does a bit of backup for some songs, but not much. Then we get an instrumental, just enough drum to keep a beat, a bit of guitar for tuned rhythm, and that violin.
There are not enough words to describe that violin. Erin seems to flit back and forth between beating sounds out of it, cajoling a soft tune, and then just wrestling the strings into submission. The music just channels through her, and guides her bandmates, and the audience. Emotion pours out, wordless songs that are nevertheless sung, or a perfect counterpoint to words that are said, the emotions underneath highlighted by the soul of that bow pulling along the strings. I am not a dancing man, at least, not without a lot more than just a glass of cider in my belly, but several times that night, I glanced over to the pool table and wondered how easily I could move it out of the way to make a dance floor.
A little something about me and my tastes. I like building songs. You know, a song that starts with part of the melody, a bit of the instrument. Then on the repeat, adds some more. Eventually, we have the full song played, every lick, every instrument, bright and loud. Open Beta appears to have a similar taste. A lot of their songs, especially the ones that are covers of popular songs, build. A light tap of drum. A gentle long tone from the violin. A basic repeating chord scheme from the guitar. A bit of song. Refrain and new stanza adds more drum, the guitar picks up some notes between the chords. The long tones resolve into a touch of plucking and more notes. We come around the bend into the final verse, and the band drops it down into overdrive, guitar bouncing, drum throwing out a pounding that, if your eyes were closed, you would SWEAR was a full kit, not a single lonesome leather covered circle of wood (Bhodran, it’s called. I had to look it up. Bow Drawn. ) And that violin, and it’s player… Bouncing and skipping across the stage, bow flying across the strings. Several times that night, I thought to myself, they should do a cover of Devil went down to Georgia. Because the fiddle part would give her a break, and let her relax her fingers in comparison to what she’s already playing.
They play sad songs, they play happy songs. I find myself with wet eyes, not sure why, as I’m laughing at the same time. And in between songs, or often during, the trio banter. As Klopper says, deep into the third set, “See, you get a concert AND a show.”
Paul and Brian take turns playing straight man funny man, but much like the music, Erin brings the soul. With a word here, a quip there, and lots of facial expressions aimed at the bawdy antics of the boys, they set the jokes up, and she knocks the crowd down. One liners that would get a chuckle on their own cause the crowd to explode into laughter as she drops her gaze to the ground, wrist to forehead, bow sticking into the air, and sighs the sigh of the much oppressed and put upon. Another mug of Irish coffee appears on the table in front of them, and she leaps upon it in glee, the others again exclaiming in dismay. “Keep this up, and we’ll end up having to do kamikazes every time one of you buys her coffee.”
Minutes later, a pair of shots are handed to them by the barkeep. The revelry continues. The classic folk songs, mixed with their own music, and covers, many geeky. A low mournful song is played and sung. I listen to the lyrics. I know this song. I know it well, yet they’re playing it in a way I can’t identify, and the lyrics are… ah. The melody flows into the one I know well, the original song that now serves as chorus, as the entire bar sings together. The words burst out of my own lungs, an anthem of the geeky and proud for the last decade and a half. “Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand.” They roll through the song, building, as I mentioned before, and on the final chorus, the rafters are ringing from the audience singing along. (For those curious, the full song they played is called “Mal’s Song”. Its an expansion of the Ballad, written by Michelle Dockrey. Look it up, it’s fantastic. )
Paul announces that they are about to play a song written by an ex member of their original band, who happens to also be the bartender serving us. It’s a relationship, in eleven minutes, he says. Klopper smiles and taps me on the chest. “This is the first song of theirs I ever heard, you’ll love it.” The story he relates to me is that after a particularly bad breakup, one I remember helping pick up the pieces after, a mutual dear friend of ours dragged him to see the band that would become Open Beta, Talk a Little Treason, and this was the song they played as he walked in. He was ready to walk out, upset by the song, when it reached the final verse. That’s all he would say, and let me experience the song.
It opens with a plaintive request to spend some time together. A impassioned description of a night spent in each other’s arms. And of course, waking up alone. The song moves into doubt, wondering, are we or aren’t we a thing? It strikes a chord, no pun intended. In fact, it makes me think quite a bit about the mutual friend who introduced Klopper to this song and band. And we’re well past wet eyes. There are tears on my face, and I am dumbstruck by this song, and the power it has over me. And just when I’m about to excuse myself, and leave the room, the final verse starts. And I’m joining the rest of the room is laughter, great, cathartic, side splitting laughter. I may be one of the few people in the room who doesn’t identify with the close of the song, but I still find it funny. You’ll have to hear it for yourself. I won’t ruin it.
We’re nearing the end of the last set. The band has already admitted to the crowd that they have a set list, but they don’t use it, completely. “They’re more like GUIDELINES”, Paul informs us. The band is in close to each other, whispering, but from my vantage, I hear every word. “We could. Or what about Solsbury Hill?”
“Yes.” I whisper to myself. “Play Solsbury Hill!”
“What?” Klopper, not having heard them, is looking at me.
“Oh, just whispering to myself, no worries.”
The song starts. Gentle drum. Just a touch of guitar. Klopper recognizes their version instantly, and knows my tastes. “Ooo! You’ll like this one.” I nod, and listen. True to form, first verse, vocals, a couple chords, long sweet sounds from the violin. Brian takes the lead on singing this one, and he’s holding the mic like a lover, the drum aside for the moment. Into the second verse, the music builds, and as the final verse starts, he’s belting the song out, Erin is dancing like a maniac, bow flying across the strings, Paul bouncing with the guitar, music pouring out of the stage.
They finally end, a few minutes past midnight. I am wrung out. My head is full, my heart is lighter than when I came in. I laughed, I cried, my hands still sting from clapping and my feet ache from tapping and pounding the floor. I purchased an album, gave them my compliments. Listening to the album the next day… It’s good, but lacks some of the magic. This is a band best experienced in person. Go. See them. http://www.openbetamusic.com/