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A heroin addict on stage isn't really all that odd. Lou Reed, Kurt Cobain, Keith Richards, Ray Charles: All of them rode that pale horse while performing on a regular basis. What's strange about this particular heroin addict, the one on stage at the Red Sea, is that she's telling the audience about her heroin addiction. In detail. And she's trying, but failing spectacularly, to be funny about it. She stumbles, she mutters, she brays laughter at odd moments. As she mimes the action of tying off a vein in her arm, sliding the needle in and slumping back in satisfaction, the crowd sits in stunned silence. The junkie sits sprawled out in her chair, stage lights focused on her, and the DJ cues up the sound of crickets. Still, no one laughs. The woman sits back up and continues her strange monologue, slurring about sex. "I've been with everyone. Men. Women. Men and women. Women and men...." and the digital crickets keep chirping and the audience members look at each other or they study their beer or they stare at the floor. But the woman just keeps talking, her skittering laugh at herself the only cue that these are jokes, that we're at a comedy open-mic night.
The Red Sea's basement stage isn't going to offer Buñuel-level surrealism every night. But no other bar or club in town presents as many different kinds of experiences as this unassuming restaurant on the Delmar Loop. The joint is so down-low, in fact, that I'd hazard the guess that a lot of folks are unaware that it has a basement, much less a basement performance space. It's a hep cave, the kind of dank, windowless space that in New York wouldn't have a name or address. The stage is low-slung, with tables crowded so close to it that a comic can look down and insult a rip in a patron's Converse (that stung, incidentally). And every night of the week the place features a different kind of music or fun, an underground lair that's home to as many different types of creatures as St. Louis nightlife can create.
"It's a tradition at the Red Sea," explains Ethiopian-born owner Tesfaye Boru. "Reggae, rock & roll, hip-hop, international music. We have it all. You build a tradition like you build a culture. I like all kinds of music, so I have all kinds of music."
And how. Let's run through the list: Monday night is open-mic night, which welcomes anyone -- "top musicians, and the low," as Boru puts it. Tuesday night is hip-hop, with DJs or, occasionally, live music (the Red Sea used to be home to one of the fiercest open-mic battles in town, but has since settled down into regular rapping). Comedy takes over the basement on Wednesday, while one of the most respected open-mic poetry jams in town takes place upstairs every other week. (To mix it up even more, MCs occasionally take to the comedy stage between standup sets).
Tired yet? Let's take a breather to point out that you really can eat at the Red Sea, and there's a lot to choose from. "European food to Ethiopia and even Jamaican chicken wings," says Boru.
Thursday night it's rock & roll. (This week the hardest-working punks in St. Louis, the Pubes, hit the stage.) To start your weekend, you've got live reggae in the cave to complement the Red Stripe and the Jamaican items on the menu upstairs. Saturday night gets up on the down stroke with funk DJs and bands. And finally, on the Lord's night you can check out some jazz. (This week: the Gothic Blues Quartet.)
Are we missing anything here? I assume if the world decided to add a Quidsday to the week, the Red Sea would stick in a Klezmer night without batting an eye. But for Boru, a man with his head so razored clean that you can spot a red nick above his left ear, it isn't just the variety of music that makes him proud. Since 1985, when he opened the restaurant's doors, he has welcomed musicians with open arms.
"We aren't like other clubs. You don't have to be well-known to play here. If you're not well-known, we don't care. We want to give local bands a chance. We will let you play. That's why every band, big or small, plays here. Name them, they have played here."
Over nineteen years the Red Sea has hosted about 7,000 nights of music. It would seem Boru would have to make up new bands just to keep the show running. But he has his traditions down pretty well.
"Through experience you come up with this kind of system. We have this variety in the city, and I have this variety. So if you want to hear music, we have it."
It's fun keeping track of the adventures of Nelly, especially in the middle of the publicity blitz for his new albums, Sweatand Suit. As a professional from his hometown, I try my best to catch all the Nelly detritus I can get my hands on.
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