By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Neighborhood bars don't need bells and whistles to attract clientele. They are nearby and sell booze. Good ones provide a space without imposing a specific type of experience. They're just there with an open stool.
The Stagger Inn Again in Edwardsville, Illinois, is a good one. It's known for its live music, food and shuffleboard, but what draws most of the crowd is the people, the community. This is what a normal week looks like there.
Friday: There's an open seat at the bar. At 11 p.m. there are probably 100 people here. Only twenty look younger than 35. The crowd mingles and dances like it's a singles mixer as Mondin Band rolls through its second set of well-polished, true-to-book classics, mostly from the early '70s: the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, Santana. The band is good. People keep saying, "Aren't they good?"
John Mondin, the guitarist, fronted the Soulard Blues Band for a stint. Bassist Paul Graves has gigged around for years. There are pictures on the wall to prove it. In one, he's anchoring the rhythm section for blues great Fenton Robinson. Graves says Fenton called him the best white bass player he ever played with. Fenton died some time ago — so did Graves' old keyboard player. He found out he had cancer and was dead 40 days later. The drummer lost an eye to sinus cancer last Thanksgiving.
Graves is 55 years old. He has long, bushy eyebrows like an owl and says he sleeps with his eyes open; he's writing a song about it. "Blink, and you're old," a friend told him once. "Blink again, and you're dead."
My week at the Stagger Inn Again was 31 drinks long. The first was a Stag on draft.
Saturday: A handful of twentysomethings cruise up on bicycles and lock them to a light post outside the Stagger. Satiated smokers walk in to catch Al Holliday's Rhythm Revue. Trumpet lines and snare runs bleed out the front double doors.
The crowd is younger tonight. Holliday is 24 years old. He leads the six-piece rhythm, blues and soul outfit, vocally and from behind his keyboard and black Fender Strat. He's an earnest kid, claps out the tempo, sweats and sways through each song. He's as well schooled in Stax as Mondin Band is in Steely Dan. It's a rail-whiskey-and-Coke kind of night for me. Holliday drinks water.
The Stagger Inn opened on May 8, 1974, attracting lines of hippie longhairs from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's campus to the center of the small, conservative town. The tavern was half the size it is now. It had no kitchen, no stage and no second room. But despite its popularity, the Stagger went under after its first decade. For a couple of years, it became a disco-balled sports bar. Randy Willimann reopened the tavern in 1985 as the Stagger Inn Again. Randy's wife, Christy Wells, took over in 1998 when he died of a brain aneurysm.
There are photos of him on the walls, too.
There are photos of almost all of the employees and regulars. "In memorial to some and recognition to others," Wells says. "I think it's the best we can do." They're family photos: 115 of them, not including the collages.
Sunday: One of the evening's performers, Jon, has a rip in the ass of his shorts, and it's getting bigger. It's his turn soon, though, so there's no time to mend it. He orders an Irish Car Bomb, slams it hard and watches the other performers while he waits.
Butch Moore has been hosting this open mike at the Stagger for 27 years. He's 60 years old, with gray hair and a goatee. Some performers fumble through parts of songs, but everyone finishes. They seem to get better as the night goes on, the same as my $1 cans of Pabst. Moore drinks Guinness and applauds after each song. "This isn't American Idol," he says. "I'm not a judge. I'm an encourager." He'll meet with people early to give guitar and voice lessons in the back office — you just have to ask.
Tami Webb peers back toward the stage from the right corner of the bar. She's 53 years old, wears glasses and has short, dark hair. She sits with regulars Mike Spikoski, 54, and Connie Wilton, 25.
Webb is an adjunct mother to a lot of the young people who hang out at the bar. They call her Mama Pittman and ask for advice about things like taking medicine, cooking and relationships. She's hesitant to give advice on the latter — Pittman is her ex-husband's last name and her sons'. She's three-times divorced. Won't say the "L" word anymore. She does standup comedy to work through it; she's got some killer one-liners. Three necklaces hang from her neck, and two have peace-sign pendants.
Monday: There are balloons. Kelly Faust just completed her PhD in sociology from Western Michigan University and was offered a professorship at Ohio University in Athens. She has family in Edwardsville, some old college friends, too. They sign a poster that reads "Ph.inishD."
"We spent a lot of time at this bar when I was getting my undergrad and master's at SIU," Faust says. "We were regulars." Her mom, Vicki Stevens, is still a regular among the happy-hour crowd. Her aunt Janet used to help run the place. Janet had surgery to remove a cancerous brain tumor last week — the conversation turns in her direction and there is a sober pause for finding support among a family of regulars.