Trial by Fire in a Biker bar

I learned to perform with a band in front of a crowd at the Otisville Hotel, a biker bar in rural Michigan. My host and guide was Tim Lamb, who I met on the Guitar World message boards.

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Hey there. My Big in China band is playing next Saturday, April 24 at Suzy Que’s BBQ in West Orange, NJ. If you’re anywhere nearby, join us by clicking here to reserve. Gearing up for my first spring gig and one of the few since the pandemic set in, I started thinking about my history of performing.

I started late, and didn’t really even begin playing guitar in anything approaching a serious way until I started working at Guitar World when I was 24. I sort of bluffed my way in there and then figured I better get better. I bought my first electric guitar - a cool natural finish 70s Strat with a black pickguard purchased from conservative jurist Robert Bork’s son! I took lessons and improved enough to start having fun jamming with friends instead of hiding in the corner when such opportunities presented themselves.

At the same time I was interviewing people like Eric Clapton, Albert King, Dickey Betts and Buddy Guy and my deep immersion in music and my experiences with great musicians actually made me take my own guitar playing less seriously. I knew what great playing sounded like and it wasn’t what I was doing and revealing my weakness risked undermining my credibility as a journalist. Having a collaborator with whom I felt the spark of inspiration could break this feeling. I had several over the years - one of the most important was Norman Bradford, whom I met in Ann Arbor in 1996 via an ad he posted on a record store bulletin board. We jammed all the time, hit some open mics and even played some fun gigs.

My playing improved radically whenever I had a good jam buddy. Otherwise, I stagnated despite good instincts because I found playing music by myself uninspiring and boring. The potential for something exciting, maybe even transcendent, existed only in the interaction with others, and I never knew where I might find that inspiration.

The most knowledgeable, helpful poster on the Guitar World Online message boards was “Tragocaster,” a Michigan guitarist who persistently invited me to his Sunday night gigs at the rural Otisville Hotel. It never quite worked out while I was living in Ann Arbor, but finally took him up on it one summer night while back in Michigan visiting my wife Becky’s family in Bay City. My father-in-law Harold insisted on joining me for the hour-long drive down a dark two-lane road. Just after the Otisville town limits sign the shoulder of the road became filled with Harley Davidsons. The ramshackle wood frame hotel sat at the town’s only intersection and was completely surrounded by the big bikes.

Clusters of bikers congregated in front wearing leather vests showing gang colors, their long beards spilling down over bulging bellies. Harold and I parked his cherry red VW bug around the corner and sat talking. I felt terrible about dragging him into this situation.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I had no idea this was a biker bar. We can go home. I won’t be mad.”

“No,” he said. “It will be fun. I haven’t been to a place like this in years.”

Ok then. We walked up the steps—Harold in his khaki shorts pulled half way up his gut, black socks leading to loafers. He strolled right through the packed crowd of beefy bikers and bought two Buds before we found a spot at a table. The band was hitting it hard and I relaxed a little at the sight of two black members - on bass and alto sax. The sax player was a spunky woman blowing hard. As I relaxed about the crowd, I grew nervous in an entirely different way—I was going to be in way over my head with Trag’s great Buick City Blues Band. They were really hitting it hard, but there was no way out now. Trag and i had spoken that afternoon and he assured me that he was bringing an extra setup for me and I saw it there on stage, a blond Tele on a stand, in front of a small Fender combo amp.

We finally met at the break and it was a pleasure, even through my nervousness. We had been good online friends for a few years by then and we spoke like old pals. I started the second set on stage and it was a blast. I’d like to share some photos or videos but they don’t exist and I have no recollection of what we played, other than “Killing Floor.” Trag was a gracious, terrific bandleader, pulling me into the music and never showing me up—traits I would try to mimic when I started fronting my own band years later. I thought i might just play a couple of songs and get out with my pride intact, but we were having a blast and I played the entire set. Harold was impressed and we had a fun, amped up ride home. My own confidence was lifted; I’d never be so nervous about walking on a stage again.

Over the next three years I headed for Otisville any time we were in Michigan on a Sunday night. My in-laws thought it was crazy to drive down a dark two-lane highway for 100 miles to hang out until 2 am in a rickety roadhouse where fights occasionally erupted. But Becky never complained because she understood how much I loved those jams.

Bluesman Larry McCray, an old, dear friend of Warren Haynes, lives close to Otisville and also popped up there often. Trag was always trying to get Larry there when I was, but the stars never aligned. Larry is a great guy, the first person to ever record “Soulshine” by the way and I once had a great hang with him backstage at Pine Knob or whatever they call the place now following a Phil & Friends show. Larry called Phil “Mr. Weir” repeatedly, but he was so genial and warm-hearted that no one, including Phil, corrected him.

The biker scene was never quite as intense as it was that first night, though they were often out in force and I saw any number of brawls unfolding right in front of me. I’d usually be on the band’s right, close to the pool tables, where a lot of the trouble originated. My one rule was to never make eye contact with anyone over there and never ever look for even a moment at any woman. All the fights started that way. No one ever messed with me or anyone in the band, but I wasn’t about to risk breaking that streak. a couple of times when I was in town during the week or the Otisville gig wasn’t happening I met up with tim and some of his buds at various spots for jam sessions. Always a good time.

Tim died suddenly in 2009, and I still miss him and those jams terribly. The Flint Journal wrote this nice, well-deserved obituary. Trag was a great player and a great guy, and I thank him for all he did for me.

Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and  One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band  – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions.  He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.

Here’s Tim “Tragocaster” Lamb in 1999. Different band and venue, but you’ll get the idea: