Guest Commentary 

A memory of one magical night at Tucson's musical heart

My earliest memory of Club Congress dates to a steaming August night in 1991, when the club staged a tribute to the freshly late, forever-great Stevie Ray Vaughan. My buddy Joe and I--we're both big blues fans--arrived long before showtime, so we bellied up at the Tap Room to begin dousing ourselves with some of Stevie Ray's favorite demons. We were joined by Tucson blues legend Sam Taylor, who was on the bill that night.

I sort of knew Sam from his regular gigs at the Chicago Bar, where I spent most Saturday nights trying to shake the salesman out of my skinny white booty (ah, the freelance arc). The three of us rambled on about golf (Sam and Joe were both devotees), blues and booze. We noted the irony of the way Stevie died, in a freakin' helicopter crash, of all things, after trying to drink and drug himself to death for half of his life. Joe and I respectfully absorbed Sam's perspective on the hellfire and pitfalls of liquor and life on stage.

Sam recounted a conversation he'd had with Stevie about it. We listened in reverence, young men brushing with fame. But there was no epiphany here, just a mutual shrug and a deep, sad certainty that some things are the way they are and cannot be changed. Then Sam left to get ready for the show; Joe downed his Jack-and-Cokes, and I consumed the entire stock of Rolling Rocks.

Thoroughly lubricated, we slid over to the club side of Congress to watch the show. We discovered that Sam was the only real blues act on the bill. He played early, followed by a bunch of rockers who each began with the caveat, "Well, we don't really know any Stevie Ray tunes, but ..." Maybe it was the lack of blues, or the scent of death in the air, but the crowd was tense. It seems to be human nature to latch onto death vicariously and use it to tease one's own mortality.

Eventually, there was a smokin' set by a frumpy little guy with a growling guitar and a relentless rhythm section. They actually attempted a Vaughan tune, but it was the rest of their set that blew me away. I remember shouting to Joe, "Now these guys are good! Who the hell are they?" Only Rainer Ptacek, with his infamous combo.

I have no recollection of the name of the final act, but they were led by a large, lurpy wild man with pale skin and blond hair, a lily-white guitar and a great big buzz. By this time, the density of agitated, overheated humanity had been dangerously intensified by many people sneaking in the side door. The band quickly tapped into the fey, "Damn it all, here come the torpedoes!" mood of the crowd.

Synergy prevailed. The Albino Avenger shed his clothing and began flailing his ax with his teeth. His technique was less than precise, as he sprayed blood all over his white, naked self and his white, naked guitar. They were very impressive visuals (especially when he lifted his guitar up from his waist to play with his teeth) and obviously inspirational to the crowd. Two women down front tore off their tops in solidarity.

As Joe pressed forward to scout the tits, I chose discretion. Having seen (and even instigated) a few riots in my time, I decided to forgo the peep show and find some defensible space against the wall. Sure enough, within moments, the crowd surged forward in a frightening mass of sweating flesh, as every drunk-ass dude in the place tried to glimpse the half-naked writhing women. Tables toppled; bottles broke, and the whole human bunker-buster was just about to detonate when the song ended; the lights came up, and the bouncers cleared everybody out in a big hurry.

Outside, the spell broken, hippie drummers were blissfully pounding out a vigil in the parking lot. It struck me that my early impressions of Tucson as a dead town with no heart were dead wrong. I decided then that Club Congress was the left ventricle of Tucson, Arizona. Today, it's still beating hard and steady after 20 years. Get yourself down to the Congo this weekend and celebrate the birthday of the dark, beautiful heart of Tucson.

More by Randy Serraglio


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