hen we weren't playing around Charlottesville, Sitting Ducks was traveling the region, usually within 2-4 hours driving distance. The nightclub circuit flourished from the mid 1970's to the early 1980's, and there were quite a few choices within a region.
When attempting to break into new rooms however, our musical style was both an asset and a liability. We could play jazz as well as rock'n'roll rooms, but we were so unusual we rarely were an instant success at either.
We had our share of instant winners, but building a crowd usually was a long-term committment between ourselves and the club owner. We were likable though, and such a change of pace that hipper club owners cut us slack for no other reason than to give their employees a much-needed change of pace.
One such club was located in downtown Baltimore Maryland. No Fish Today, was a well-oiled club with an unusual name that seemed a perfect aquatic fit for Sitting Ducks. 'No Fish' was a circuit legend which ultimately burned to the ground. (If ever there was a signal the touring circuit was dying, that was it.) We played No Fish only five or six times, but it was one of those places where we hit it off with the ownership and staff, and kept receiving return dates.
The club was about a 3.5 hour drive from Charlottesville, which meant it was just within range to drive up for the gig and play, and immediately turn around and drive home. That's a sixteen hour workday, but musicians are nearly unanimous in wanting to sleep in their own beds, even if it means a frightful all-night drive home.
Fortunately, we had first-class driving accommodations: a ten-year-old red and white GMC Van Dura, with way too many miles to know. To say that van had been 'round the block a few times was a gross understatement. The doors sagged so badly we could hardly close them and the column-shift transmission was so worn only two of us had mastered the art of shifting into third gear without sending the lever 360-degrees around-the-column. Also, because it ate muffler gaskets like Krispy Kreme doughnuts, it sometimes could be mistaken for a Harley-Davidson. Through it all, Van Dura was actually pretty reliable, but did suffer one more inconvenience: it had no heat. Well, it wasn't always lacking heat, but in January of 1981, when Sitting Ducks was booked to make its second appearance at No Fish Today, Van Dura was cold as a mackeral.
It was a Sunday night, the third day of a three-day road trip. Even though a short trip (we rarely went away for longer) everyone was ready to get home. We'd had a successful weekend at one of our best clubs, The Wharf in Virginia's Old Town Alexandria, which always left us a little giddy. The No Fish gig however, was a different story. Not a bad scene mind you, but Sunday night was always iffy, and the temperature had dropped off the table. It was the kind of night you can't pay people to venture out to a nightclub.
We played the gig (a few brave fans did make it out), and were in a big rush to load-up and hit the road. The club employees were equally in a hurry, so much so that guitarist Rob Otis didn't have time to change into his travelling clothes. Rather than make the long cold journey in gig clothes, he instead selected Baltimore's Eutaw Street "open air" dressing room. Three o'clock in the morning, temperatures hovering near zero, Rob's in his stocking feet, hopping from foot to foot, changing pants on the sidewalk in front of the club, laughing at the silliness of it all.
We piled into the van. It was a two-seater, so it wasn't built for the comfort of five travelling musicians. The equipment had to be laid flat (sort of) and covered with a funky mish-mash of foam pads, blankets, pillows and sleeping bags. Pete the bass player was driving (he was the first to master the trick shift lever), I was in the passenger seat and would remain awake for safety. The rest of the band was "comfortably" laid out under the blankets and soon was fast asleep.
Three and one half hours, hurtling through Maryland and then Virginia, the unheated Van Dura thankfully making it without trouble. The conversation was quiet, each of us occasionally nipping from a bottle of Wild Turkey to ease the bone-chilling numbness that crept insistently deeper with each passing minute.
Pete had an uncomplaining way, and aside from acknowledging repeatedly "Man, it sure is cold," there wasn't any whining. Just eyes forward, get to the next leg. Laurel, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Falls Church, Manassas, Gainesville... I remember whizzing by the bank clock in Warrenton Virginia, reading the temperature, two degrees below zero. Culpeper, Madison...
By the time we hit Charlottesville we were speechless, frozen. We arrived at Pete's house at 6:45am; he had driven the entire distance. He later related his hands were so frozen he couldn't hold a key much less operate the lock into his house. That's cold.
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