Smoke and mirrors

Dimly lit figures hustle to connect cables and equalize sound levels, all to the beat of someone’s classic-funk collection. Drums are checked to “I Believe in Miracles,” guitars to “Brick House.”

Smoke from assorted cigars makes strange, dragonlike swirls in the colored light, catching purples and reds. The stage is set with piano and standup bass, the drum kit blocked off with a large piece of Plexiglas. Center stage, where the beams of light cross, the guitarist sits in an armless chair, instrument on knee, and begins a measured count with his foot. The pianist holds the count till just the right second.

And then, in the nano-space between one moment and the next, the club’s blue-hazed air shimmies to life.

It’s talent night at Tressa’s Jazz & Blues, hosted by pianist Chuck Lichtenberger and his band, and many of the event’s patrons and players — be they cynics or believers — concede there’s something special about this room on Monday nights.

Don Burns is not a professional singer. If you met him on the street, you wouldn’t think he’d be the kind of guy to crave the spotlight. He plays a little guitar, though he’s no master of that instrument. He also sings, not with great prowess, but with obvious sincerity. In another setting — without Lichtenberger’s band to back him — Burns wouldn’t stand out much.

Tonight, however, he plays front man — and the room is enraptured.

Burns offers a few songs, carried by the piano and bass when his guitar falters. After a long and throaty tune — and following a long draw on his bottle of beer — Burns stops to help another guitarist set up. Alec Fehl has the look of an upscale Slash from Guns & Roses, long trails of dark hair screening a determined face. The two begin playing together, Burns’ venturing strums falling slowly under Fehl’s defter rock barrage. Through it all, Lichtenberger and his band pick up the dropped cues, fill in for missing progressions, keep the music going.

“I’ve played in a lot of open jams, but I’ve never been forced to do the front-man thing like that,” admits Burns, after the set breaks and he’s had another drink. “But I’m not that nervous to get up there and play with this band.”

He and Fehl work together, but it was only after much cajoling that Fehl agreed to come tonight. As a veteran of the L.A. club scene, he notes: “In L.A., it’s like a cattle call. Get ’em in, get ’em out. … It’s nice to be able to play two songs that you want to play, take the solos, spend a little time on it.

“I’m coming back,” he declares.

Lichtenberger and his band return to the stage, checking the sign-up sheet for more volunteers. It’s a slow night, and thus far, no one else has dared step up. But the band is well prepared, their collective look of anticipation betraying their cool demeanors. On guitar is Peter Grey. To his left and back is bassist Joe Burkette. Further to the right and nearly against the wall is drummer Ben Bjorlie, a former bassist himself.

And off to the far left, behind the amp and out of range of the row of stage lights, Lichtenberger sits at his piano. It’s nearly a perfect metaphor, because though his presence is felt — indeed necessary — on Monday nights, Lichtenberger’s job is to let others have the spotlight.

“Pretty much on Mondays we jam out. People come up and play with us, that’s pretty much how it works,” he confirms, after the band has completed a set of its own. Instantly, the four men begin discussing the array of “performers” who have come to jam with them, from talented amateurs to intoxicated buffoons. They avoid naming names, and after some reflection, Lichtenberger decides, “Everybody, for the most part, is real cool.”

Together, band members seem to be able to make a good run with nearly anyone. “We can play along with just about anything,” Lichtenberger comments, taking a deep breath before continuing, “I just want to let everybody know that if they want to come out and play something, they can. We can probably pull it off, if they can help us out a little bit. It’s not a snob open-mic — we’re not going to look down on you if you are not a technical musician.”

“It’s pretty laid-back,” puts in Bjorlie.

The four of them nod, as if the one inalienable truth about Tressa’s talent night has been spoken. Lichtenberger makes a sweeping gesture, indicating the crowd that has braved an unseasonable chill to be here, and adds, “It’s Monday night; what else are you going to do?”

Talent night with Chuck Lichtenberger happens every Monday at 10 p.m. Tressa’s is located at 28 Broadway in Asheville. For more info, call 254-7072.


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