IT'S JUST A SHOT AWAY: In the post-modern maze we're all wandering through, it's often a comfort to find something new that appears familiar. It seems like every time we surf the waters of entertainment on television, we're relentlessly reminded that we'll all soon be fellow travelers on that goddamned "information superhighway." It's enough to make a person escape the clutches of the couch and head for a rest stop--a place where everybody knows your name. A place where you're always glad you came. A place where no one makes reference to communal televised ersatz experiences.
Well, we don't know about any of that, but we've finally made our way to The Shelter, the newly hip bar that has stood like a fortress against the tides of fashion for over 30 years.
The place was a dive where neighborhood boozers gathered to share their thoughts on philosophy, politics and sports and pound the snot out of any fellow boozer who chose to exercise the right to disagree with those views.
Ever since the man known to customers as Santiago bought the joint last April, it has slowly undergone a renovation and made a return to the style of the times in which it was erected.
"It was built in '61," Santiago says, holding a tall cocktail glass and sitting in the honorary Mamie Eisenhower booth. "It's kind of cold war architecture, like a bomb shelter."
Santiago speculates the building's curving facade faces south because that's where the Davis-Monthan Air Force base is hunkered down--a prime target for Ruskie nukes for years.
"That way, if the bomb hit, people could drink here for a couple of weeks," he theorizes. "It would work like a shelter."
There are sights and sounds in The Shelter that most of the young patrons who gather there know only through the collective memory of television. Pictures of President Kennedy and his wife Jackie (pre-O) adorn the walls, as do nifty black velvet paintings, long, curved strands of wrought iron, a hand-painted portrait of Marilyn Monroe, starburst clocks, cool colored lights and a gigantic metal sign touting the benefits of having your car air conditioned by Sears.
Most people I've talked to about the place talk of it with a smile. They like it because it's so different from the average Tucson bar. It has big-city chic that's hard to find in the Backwater Pueblo.
Part of that ambiance is created by the music. A jukebox holds '60s gems such as Claudia Longet's version of "Love Is Blue," Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles," Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass doing the ultimately cool "A Taste Of Honey," Lorne Greene's unforgettable "Ringo" and other classics by Elvis, Booker T., Dean Martin and The Ventures. One song you've got to hear if you drop by The Shelter is Bing Crosby's version of "Hey Jude." No one could cover The Beatles better than Der Bingle.
On Thursday nights you can hear live lounge-lizard jazz with The Garth Koren Trio.
Keyboardist Koren is accompanied by bassist Darren Boswell and drummer Todd Mellor on an array of jazz standards--"Georgia" and "A-Train" to name two--and some fusion stuff (Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage"), a couple of original tunes and miles and miles of Davis.
"We do as much Miles Davis as humanly possible," Koren says. "That's the man. We do mainly middle Miles. Towards the end he got kind of strange."
Koren says that whomever they cover or whatever style they play, the trio always improvises, changing tunes to fit their mood or the crowd.
The classically trained pianist also plays regular gigs around town with Bobby Taylor's rhythm and blues band, but yearns for big-time anonymity.
"I'd really like to be a studio musician," he says. "I'd like to be that guy on MTV backing up Sting and no one knows who he is, but he's playing his ass off."
There's no cover charge to check out Koren's threesome--a price that's more than right for a group that gives rebirth to the standards and is confident enough to mess around with Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On."
The cocktail revolution (the trend that lifted Tony Bennett out of obscurity and onto MTV) carries on at The Shelter, 4155 E. Grant Road, every night. Dig it.
LAST NOTES: Mother Hips is at The Rock with Steak on Thursday, February 9.
Chicago blues shouter Eddie Burks plays the Santa Rita Ballroom with The Sonny Antone Trio on Friday and Saturday, February 10 and 11.
Rachael Strauss and Christina Harrison front Texas punksters Pervis, a band with a rep for wild shows. They're at the Downtown Performance Center with Spunk on Saturday, February 11.
Alejandro Escovedo returns to Club Congress on Sunday, February 12. Tucson's own Big Joe opens the show around 9:30 p.m.
Valentine's Day offers up a bouquet of music: G. Love and Special Sauce gives you blues, funk 'n' rap at the DPC; Jonathan Richman proves he's the Forest Gump of music at Club Congress; and famed jazz guitarist Al Di Meola is at the Buena Vista Theater.
If it's been a while since you got your reggae jones fixed, you'll be glad to know Inner Circle ("Bad Boys") will be at The Rock on Wednesday, February 15.
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