Back to the bars after a long COVID break
Tin Cup Serenade has an eclectic sound that draws on early New Orleans jazz, calypso, swing, classic saloon songs, obscure standards, ragtime and Latin music. The songs they play can sound nostalgic at times, but that’s not their intention.
“I’m not making music that’s trying to evoke any past era,” said Rolf Wilkinson, the band’s singer, guitarist and songwriter. “I just play the music I feel and that will move people. We don’t use a set list, and we’re sensitive to the live audience. We know around 300 songs, so we can react to what’s going to work, rather than some designed concept. We don’t try to reinvent anything, or do anything to sound ‘authentic.’ The music dictates how we approach it.”
Before the COVID shut down, the band played hundreds of shows a year, but Wilkinson said he made good use of his down time. “I practiced guitar like crazy. I used to use guitar to accompany my singing. I let the other band members take all the solos. Now I have the ability to play duet shows with a bass player.”
Wilkinson said the band’s main focus is on live performances, although he understands the importance of having albums to sell at gigs and online. The band has released two records—the eponymous Tin Cup Serenade (2007) and Tragic Songs of Hope (2013)—on their own label. They include Wilkinson originals like “Here Is Love,” a straight up swing tune.
“Sunny Oakland Day” is a smooth celebration of his Easy Bay digs. It has a slow shuffling beat that accompanies a crooning vocal, with phrasing that dances around the beat like a horn player’s solo. “There Is a Vine” is a song of lost love that’s half way between tin pan alley and doo-wop. Wilkinson said he has enough new songs for another album ready to go, but the process of recording varies greatly from the feel the band generates at live shows.
“We only have one word for music, but it’s two different art forms. I think of music as humans playing music for other humans, but that definition’s been changed and affected by the invention of recording. It’s hard to put the experience of live music, in a communal setting, into words, but when the magic happens on stage, you can feel it. That doesn’t happen when you’re sitting there, listening to a record.
“Recording is a different art form and needs a different name. You make albums to attract people’s attention, so they come to the live show, but a record differs from what we do on stage. We’re a jazz band. Every time we play, we put the songs through the extreme prism of our approach. If we play a Mexican song like ‘Cielito Lindo,’ we’ll play it like an old-time jazz band, so it’s not Mexican or jazz. The blend is so bizarre, the kitchen staff will stop whatever they’re doing, walk into the restaurant and stare in disbelief. Then they’ll start singing along.
“We enjoy the challenge of playing for drunks in bars. It’s easy and fun, but every environment requires you to adjust to the tone of the room. That’s why I’m more motivated to play live, than do the work required to make a solid album. That said, we’ve gone through a paradigm shift in the past few years, and I need to respond, musically, to everything we’ve been through. I want to record the songs I wrote documenting this time, before the next tidal wave comes and everything shifts again.”
Wilkinson grew up on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. “The kids were all into hair metal,” he said. “In high school, punk and new wave happened, so I played drums in bands. I’d witnessed a Max Roach quartet concert, where the crowd had them come back for 10 encores. That inspired me to focus on drumming.
“The shows we’re doing these days are running smooth, despite the enforced hiatus. The band members have all evolved as musicians during the interim. Their interaction and extrapolation during improvisations is more fluid and exploratory. Since COVID’s ebbed, people appreciate the exuberance you get going out to hear live music. They’re making a connection with us that seems deeper than before. There’s more joy coming from the audience. Even though there are tragically less places to play, when we do play, there’s more electricity in the air.”
Tin Cup Serenade will be playing on Thursday, Dec. 15 at The Blush Bar, 476 Castro St., San Francisco. blushwinebar.com. 415-558-0893. They’ll also be playing on Friday, Dec. 9 and Friday, Dec. 16 at Vic’s Winehouse, 1870 Fillmore, San Francisco. vicswinehouse.com. 619-381-2576.