When I think of a DJ in a bar, I immediately picture someone spinning house or techno or whatever you sweaty kids are calling it these days. But at a handful of Triangle watering holes, you can hear–and watch–someone playing other types of music. For instance, on Monday nights at Slims in Raleigh, Joe Yerry takes control of the bar’s CD player to entertain himself and, on a good night, from 10 to 30 patrons. Yerry, a bartender at Slims and guitarist for the hard rock band the Bleeding Hearts, got the idea when he walked into the East Village’s Niagra Bar and the first thing he encountered was a DJ, just inside the door, playing a little bit of everything. “The difference between being in a bar instead of on the radio is that you can read the crowd’s reaction,” offers Yerry, who used to DJ at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Thus, while he’s been known to go from Merle Haggard to Motley Crue or from Jerry Reed to Johnny Thunders (and has had fleeting thoughts of playing two hours of Frank Zappa), Yerry tends to keep things patron-friendly.
That face time with listeners in a bar can lead to some interesting exchanges. “I had just put on a George Jones song, and a woman walked in shouting, ‘Can you play anything but this!’” recalls Steve Gardner with a laugh. “She said, ‘I love George Jones, but you’re seriously killing my buzz.’” Gardner has been DJing at the Federal in Durham every other Wednesday for closing in on a year. He started off playing twangy rock a la the Topsoil radio show that he hosted on Duke’s WXDU for seven years but has recently started leaning on indie rock instead–another case of giving the people what they want. Gardner’s favorite time is 11:30 to midnight, a time he refers to as “the changing of the guard” and a window of opportunity for him to get a little more adventurous. “It’s when the responsible people leave,” says Gardner, “and the hardcore regulars start to settle in.”
In addition to Gardner, DJ Marco plays ’60s and ’70s soul, R&B and funk every other Thursday at the Federal, and every Saturday finds DJ Twombly spinning underground hip hop, mainstream rap, dancehall and funk. “Having music at Federal is very important to us and part of our identity,” explains owner Josh Wittman. “Having a great live DJ is also a much more interactive and enjoyable experience for our customers, because the DJs can see what people are responding to and enjoying and they’ll keep feeding that need, constantly tweaking their playlists as their record collection allows.”
You want interactive? John Howie has been known to spread out his records on the bar at the Cave in Chapel Hill during his periodic “Monday LP Nights” (the next one is slated for Dec. 20) and let the Cave patrons choose the tunes. “I still have my bag packed from the last LP Night,” says Howie, when a phone call catches him at home on a Tuesday afternoon. “Let’s see, there’s Charlie Feathers, Radio Birdman, George Jones, the Vibrators, James Carr….” It’s all very low-key, according to Howie, “just like hanging out in my living room.” Okay, show of hands: how many people have a Vibrators album in their living room?