5 O’Clock World | Joyriding with the High Rollers

I used to be the nightlife columnist for a newspaper so dorky, I was the best thing in it. Here’s one of my club reviews from 2005.

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high rollers

Copyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved

You sure wouldn’t know it to look at it, but the Narragansett Cafe in Jamestown (25 Narragansett Ave.) is one mighty interesting place.

On the face of it, it’s just another small-town bar. Except it’s a small-town bar that occasionally books national acts. We’ve got a few of those around here.

Anyway, that’s how I used to think of the Ganny, as the regulars call it. Unassuming. Low key. Sort of Ernie’s Garage-looking. Am I on the right block?

Then I went in. Many things make the Ganny special. First of all, the bartenders take no prisoners when out-of-towners get out of line. (“Martinis?! What kinda place you think this is?”) Plus there’s this resident angry mob that chased me — twice, actually — because they thought I was some dude invading the sanctity of the ladies’ can. One time a hysterical guy nearly kicked down my stall door. In the women’s room. I am not making this up.

Now, I’m assured by my loved ones that I do not (as Bunny Swan put it) looka like-a man, despite a propensity for motorcycle jackets and cowboy boots. It’s just that the Ganny, where the lights are atmospherically dim and the beer goggles extra thick, is a place where magic happens! Or something.

In other words, the Ganny is my kind of place. So forget that the outside looks like Mayberry Hardware. I’ve heard an awful lot of good music inside, the quality of which easily overshadows any cosmetic disadvantages by many orders of magnitude.

Last week I was overdue for some pixie dust, so I stopped in to catch Dave Howard and the High Rollers. Tommy Ferraro, the band’s guitarist, agrees that the Ganny looks deceptively laid back from the street. He should know. He’s played there for fifteen years.

“Most every night can be a crazy experience,” he says, recalling the old days when he’d perform atop the bar, dragging a long cord behind him. “I might’ve kicked over somebody’s drink once or twice.”

His favorite Ganny memory, though, is a birthday he’ll never forget. “The owner, Danny Alexander, and the manager, Lynnie Sisson, are great people. They brought out a big cake. I played a green Fender Stratocaster in those days, and the cake had a green guitar on it. It was really sweet!”

As it turned out, a bunch of my friends had had the same idea as me on this particular night. So I sat at a table full of jaded professional musicians whose idea of a fun night off is a date with the High Rollers.

Back in New York we called this a busman’s holiday. And let me just say, an evening off doesn’t get any better. We were all kinds of raucous, careening into the night with the High Rollers driving. It was like our own private party except with a killer band, someone to clean up our mess, and a bunch of other people we didn’t know.

Our bus never rolled in but the club was jammed anyway, because the High Rollers always draw a crowd. The dance floor was total chaos.

For the record, the only thing actually rolling here besides the band was a local guy in a wheelchair, who I’m told gets ejected regularly for groping distaff patrons. The vigilante mob? Not so much rolling as roiling. The band’s other fans range from gymnastic swing dancers to crusty jitterbuggers, to hardcore R&B and rock’n’roll purists who brook no shoddiness. This place is like dance school, with beer. And seething mobs and projectile wheelchairs.

The High Rollers’ bread and butter is blues, but they are chameleon-like, adapting seamlessly to the tastes of whichever town they’re in and whatever revelers drop by. They’re almost a different band every time, each incarnation flawless and irresistible. Whaddya like? Rockabilly? Honkey-tonk? Country? Stones? Ballads? You came to the right place. If you’re breathing, you’ll love them. There’s nothing they can’t play the hell out of.

If ya gotta ask why, then here ya go: Each band member is a monster in his own right. Ferraro is one slammin’ guitar wizard, perhaps one of the most underrated artists in the music industry. Paul Bondarovski of Midnight Special Blues Radio said: “Les Paul would stay open-mouthed having heard [Ferraro’s] solo in ‘Old But I Ain’t Dead.'” Ferraro’s been playing since he was eight, he explains, when his accordion teacher goaded him to “play an instrument you can make some money with.”

The rest of the line-up consists of Robillard alumnus John Packer on bass, ex-Radio King Bob Christina on drums, and of course Dave Howard on vocals and harp. He was one of the Vipers (as in Young Neal And The). Along with Ferraro, he’s also the High Rollers’ songwriter. Collectively the band has, like, 800 years of chops. They’ve cut three CDs that’ll blow your doors off: Sure Bet, Lonesome Tears In My Eyes, and Ride Past Midnight (the latter two are hard to find but worth the work).

The Providence Phoenix named the High Rollers “Best Blues Band” four freakin times. They play at the Ganny a lot. So ignore its Guido’s Pizza facade and go on in already. There’s plenty of room to dance and a stunning range of suds on draft. Just steer clear of the wheelchair perv and that lynch mob over by the restroom. Hell, there’s no cover. Whaddya want — everything?

Above: A killer solo by Tommy Ferraro.

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Copyright © 2013 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
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