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There's nothing particularly hip about the Sandbar Lounge in North Beach. Dark green walls decorated with beer signs, sombreros, and lava lamps surround three pool tables, a long oval bar, and what passes for a small stage, a tiny space sandwiched between doorways leading to the women's and men's bathrooms and lit primarily by the neon glow of the "Chicks" and "Dicks" signs that direct beer-guzzling patrons to their respective johns. It's less a tourist trap than a working stiff's bar (even if the stiffs are mostly college educated and in their twenties and thirties). And it's where I've come to hear the Gardis, the area's hardest-working, roots-lovin', non-English-speaking rock and roll cover band.
On this particular evening, as I make my way to the bar, the Argentine threesome -- guitarist and lead singer Gardi Pais, bass player Gaston Zukowski, and drummer Pelu Rivero -- is tearing through their version of the Buddy Holly classic "Not Fade Away." With words by Buddy and beat by Bo (Diddley, rock and roll's most plagiarized guitar thumper), the song was a favorite of the working-class British-invasion bands, most notably the Rolling Stones, who reimported it to the United States. I scan the bar's beer list for a different kind of import.
Settling into my chair and suds, I gain full appreciation for what the boys are up against. The Sandbar, unlike, say, Churchill's or Tobacco Road, is not primarily a music venue. The chatter at the bar can be distracting, as can the action over by the pool tables, which, on this night, includes a shapely blonde who, with her tight-fitting jeans, cut-off tank top, and black boots, looks like she might have just slid off the hood of a red Lamborghini. Needless to say not all attention is focused on the Gardis.
Which is too bad, because they're good. Really good. Playing tighter than the smirk on Mick Jagger's mug, the Gardis reinvigorate the Stones' R&B-infused version of "I Just Wanna Make Love to You." Their rendition, like the Argentine Marlboros Rivero smokes, is simultaneously familiar and foreign, not so much transcription as translation.
"I never listened to that old stuff," says Rivero between sets, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other, "so I do my own thing on the covers." Pais, who prefers simply to be called Gardi and who, like his British heroes, did grow up listening to African-American blues, defends the tradition. "Bo Diddley," declares the lead singer from behind omnipresent shades, "is a genius."
Of course the Gardis, who also compose their own music, admit that playing covers is more a concession to the market than an ideological statement. "Argentines come and hear us," says Gardi, who looks much younger than his 40 years. "They like Sixties and Seventies rock, like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Especially the Rolling Stones." Surveying the room again, Gardi adds that "Anglos like it, too." Rivero and Zukowski nod in agreement. "We get paid because we do covers, but so what?" shrugs Rivero. "We love it. We love to play."
Last year the band had more than 200 gigs, mostly in small clubs and watering holes like this one, sometimes as a trio, often accompanied by percussionist Gustavo Rosso. "A lot of musicians don't realize what a great training ground the bars are," offers Gardi, sneaking a peak at a Dolphins-Chargers preseason game on a television behind him. "If you can play here, you can play stadium shows."
While they haven't quite developed that kind of mass appeal, they do have a following among those who regularly run aground at the Sandbar. "These guys are great," says a middle-age man in shorts and a T-shirt, putting his arm around Gardi, of whom he speaks in reverent tones. "I grew up in New York City, going to places like the Café Wha? and seeing people like Dylan and Hendrix. This guy is that good."
The old hippie's flashback strikes a chord. With me, at least. I'm reminded of a couple of pieces of vinyl in my collection: one, a live set of the Beatles at the Star Club in Germany in the early Sixties, a couple of years before their U.S. triumph; the other, a recording of rock-lounge king Johnny Rivers doing his thing in person at the Whisky à Go-Go in Los Angeles in the mid-Sixties. The discs share a common aesthetic: a lack of pretension on the part of the performers that may, in fact, be early rock and roll's most appealing quality. And a staple of the now largely defunct rock and roll bar.
The Gardis possess it in spades. "Print the truth," begs Rivero facetiously. "Without me this band is crap." Eyeing the clock on the wall and downing what's left of his Corona, the soon-to-be-32-year-old drummer muses that if he doesn't get a record deal this year, he's going to do something drastic. "I'll devote myself to jazz," he swears, "cut my hair and get fat." Nobody believes him.
Excusing themselves for the second set, the Gardis, the sleeves on their sleeveless black tees rolled up permanently, launch into a bluesy, funky, ballsy version of "I Wanna Be Your Man." The selection quickly gains an audience. A guy in his late twenties sporting a goatee and baseball cap picks up his air guitar and begins to jam. A blonde in a white sweater vest slinks up close to the improvised stage. The obligatory calls for "Freebird" ensue. I order another round of bock to go with the rock. All in a night's work.