Story by Jeff Nelson
My parents gave me a record player for Christmas. When my birthday rolled around, mom found all her old records that they can’t play any longer and gave them to me. Stuck between the soundtrack to Grease and a Queen 45-single, was McGuffey Lane‘s first album. It was the first vinyl they ever released, their self-titled, McGuffey Lane, still in the original, well-worn, album sleeve. Hopefully, this puts things in perspective for my relationship with the band.
I grew up thinking they were one of the biggest bands in the world, and to my parents, they were. Once every year in January, my parents and all the other folks from Ohio that thought they were the biggest band in the world come back into town, for Zachariah’s Red Eye Reunion on January 18, 2020.
Some of you may remember Zachariah’s Red Eye Saloon, or Zach’s, as my dad endearingly calls it, as the three-story venue on High Street that housed the local southern rock staples back in the late 70s, early 80s. Though the building has long since been replaced by campus bars with sticky floors and way-too-loud dance music, the spirit of Zach’s lives on. And once a year, around the third or fourth weekend in January, all the people that loved that place come back to town and transport the Express Live! venue back to the spirit of Zach’s on High Street, picking back up right where they left off the year before.
Delyn Christian opened the night’s music, as people slowly filed into the venue, taking on the feel of Zachariah’s Red Eye Saloon for the evening. He started with a brief acoustic set, lead off by The Band’s The Weight. He had about seven harmonicas strapped to his belt, as well as one affixed in front of his face. This was the first time I’d seen Christian play, and he was a hell of a performer. I was told that he has played with McGuffey Lane multiple times in the past, which explains why he was a crowd favorite. As people slowly filled the room, they were dancing and singing along. And he used more than half of those harmonicas in his short four song get.
After Christian was finished, McGuffey Lane walked onto the stage, with John Schwab, the lead vocalist flanked on his right by mandolin player Molly Pauken, and bassist Steve George Reis on his left. At the far end of the stage was Chaz Mechenbier on harmonica, standing in for Kevin Reed, who was recovering from an unexpected surgery. Behind them was Terry Efaw on steel guitar, and Randy Huff on drums.
They opened with I’m in Jamaica, and the first thing I noticed were the harmonies, which sounded great. All the voices complimented each other well, and it showed that they have been performing together for a very long time, because they all worked off one another with ease.
On Bartender, from their album 10, I noticed how many people knew the words to a song from 2010, not one of the “classic” songs from the first few albums. It shows that the people in attendance weren’t just fans from back in the day, they are fans now. A lot of people have followed the band from the beginning, or close to it, and they didn’t just stop once they graduated college or moved away from Columbus. My parents are not the outlier, they are an example of the rule. People love this band, and they have hung with them for four decades, and they will continue to hang as long as McGuffey Lane will have them.
For Old Taylor they brought out David “Boots” Robins on sax to thunderous applause. The addition of these other musicians would be a welcome staple of the night, with most of these guests being people that played at Zachariah’s in the past.
Break Away was a good dance song. The band were having fun, which led to the crowd having a good time on the floor, which fed back into the band. I found myself dancing while I was trying to write notes, and I wasn’t even familiar with the song.
Steve George Reis took the lead for Cowboys Like What Cowgirls Do, a staple in their shows that was released for the first time on their most recent album, Legend of the Red Eye. Reis’ voice added another layer to an already complex performance, helping to keep the evening fresh. To keep this trend up, Terry Efaw stepped out from behind the steel guitar to take a spot in the front of the stage with a classical guitar for their rendition of Mule Skinner Blues, a song I’m told they used to end their sets with back at Zach’s. Now, they use it to bring the energy back up to make sure the crowd doesn’t get too distant.
One thing that was noticeable was the amount of talking going on amongst the crowd. It wasn’t a bad thing at all, because most people use this night as a chance to catch up with old friends. My folks had a group of seven people, all old friends from around Ohio that they don’t get to see very often. Just by looking around the room, this didn’t seem to be uncommon.
So, during slower songs, or less well-known songs, some people may go get a drink, or retreat back to their table to catch up. And that added to a bit of the charm of the night. “It feels like I’m just playing a show with some friends listening. A lot of people here have been following the band for a long time,” Schwab quipped between songs. This didn’t feel like a packed show with hundreds of people, it felt intimate, and that was mostly because of the chemistry between the band and their fans. And this included the fact that people were comfortable enough to take a break from the music and ask someone how their daughter in Cincinnati was doing or reminisce on old times they had back in college.
A logo for Zachariah’s Red Eye was projected on the screens around the venue for the duration of the show, and it felt like everyone was just back in the old venue for the night. Reis was back on vocals for their classic, Outlaw Rider. This was another song that has great harmonies, with superb lyrics. If this night did one thing for me, it reignited my love for southern rock. Everyone stopped talking to sing along during the chorus, and once again, the band had everyone in the venue right in the palm of their hands.
The first official audience participation comes during Music Man, where we are told during the choruses to yell “A LOT MORE BEER,” with the crowd emphatically obliging. After this song, Schwab asks how many people have been listening to them for more than 40 years, and almost the entire crowd responds by raising their glasses and yelling. Again, this connection is special, and it is shared amongst everyone in the room, young and old.
For the second of many guests, they brought out Tom Ingham for Railroad Song. His fiddle dipped the band further into the country portion of southern rock, adding to the ebb and flow of the show. Their song selection was designed to keep things interesting throughout the evening. They could just come out and play a straight up and down greatest hits, and people would probably love it, but instead they drift in and out of country, rock, and southern rock, to keep the show from getting tired.
Usually at concerts there are a few low points. It could be a song from an old band’s newest album, or just a deep cut people aren’t too familiar with. This could have easily been one of those songs, but they decided to spice things up by letting almost every member of the band have a moment to shine. Pauken was able to flex on the mandolin, something you don’t see at many shows these days. They let Efaw show off a little on the steel guitar, and Huff got a few bars to let loose on the drums.
I’m told by my father that the next song, Panama Red, is also the name of a particularly excellent strain of marijuana. (Ed. – we have confirmed this through sources that have spoken to us in glowing terms about the legendary strain. As was said to us, “There’s nothing like the good ‘ol days.”)I can neither confirm nor deny this, but it was an apparent crowd favorite, got everyone on the dance floor back to moving and everyone at the tables singing along and raising their glasses Between songs, Schwab reads announcements from a piece of paper, like wedding anniversaries and birthdays for people that have been following the band for a long time, further cementing that this is a special relationship.
For the next bit of audience participation in Bert the crowd got to yell “I’ll kick your ass” which is always fun. I noticed how fast paced a lot of their songs are. For a band that’s been around for 40 years, they seem to be able to keep the pace up this late in their career, and their fans are right there with them.
In place of a traditional intermission, they brought back Tom Ingham with just an acoustic guitar for Don McLean’s American Pie while the band took a break. It was more a group sing-along than anything, and boy was it fun. After, he sang The Auctioneer, a classic country song by Leroy Van Dyke, with blazing speed. Then, half way through, he kicked it up another notch with a roar from the audience as encouragement.
The band came back on stage to support him for his last song, Rasputin. This is an original of Ingham’s and everyone at the show seemed to at least know the chorus. Again, this was a strategically placed song to get everyone back from the pseudo-intermission, and it worked beautifully. Molly Pauken’s mandolin drove the song, and Ingham used his harmonica in place of vocals near the end.
One of the bigger stars of the night was the band’s technician, who was only referred to as Bushman. The show was plagued with a few technical difficulties, and every time he was able to come on stage and fix things within a minute or two, with a cheer of encouragement from the audience.
They started the second half with one of their ballads, Be a Friend of Mine. At the beginning, it seemed that they had lost the audience, because the room was filled with the sound of people chatting as they started the second set. By the end of the first chorus though, it seemed everyone was back under their trance, whistling between verses, swaying to and fro with the song, and singing along
They kicked things back up to their regular energy with Stagecoach. The moment they hit the first chord, the crowd erupted in applause and everyone was singing the words they had known for four decades. Then, the state lights change to a soft pink as they start Song for the Road, which again shows off the harmonies of the band. It’s probably due to the clientele being older than the shows I usually go to, but this show had the fewest cell phones I’d ever seen. I got a few sideways looks because I was taking my notes on my phone the whole night. People here don’t care about pictures, or anything else, they just want to listen to and experience the music with all their friends, which is something I really liked about it.
When Stay in Love With You started, I watched a few people get out of their chairs or up from their tables to move down towards the stage so they could dance, and the folks already by the stage started to sway and dance more than they had before. I always appreciate a good key change, and I’ve always had a sweet spot for the one near the end of this song. It was just as good live, if not a little better. Another guitarist, Scotty Bratcher, and the Robins on the sax came back out. Near the end of the song, I started to assume it was the encore, because the energy was only going up. It was not the encore, as they still had a few tricks up their collective sleeves, but it was a highlight of the show up to this point. The band jammed and the crowd was jamming with them.
Delyn Christian only played four songs to open the night because he had a separate event that he was playing across town that same evening. Or so we were told…
He came back on stage, much to everyone’s surprise, for My Baby Brings Home a Good Time Tonight. He showed off his skills with the harp, as well as his prowess as a front man. Guitarist Scotty Bratcher was completely let loose, playing old-fashioned slide guitar with expertise. Next, they added the lead singer of the band Sweet Cheeks, Kay Harris, to finish out the show.
At this point, everyone that had been on stage that night had returned, and the stage turned into a party of talent, complete with saxophone solos, slide guitar, more harmonicas than I’ve seen in one place in probably my whole life and three lead singers. As they started Statesboro Blues, it feels like we’ve walked in on two or three bands that are just jamming in their garage, and they are completely in their element.
Christian left the stage and Harris took the lead as they put their spin on the Rolling Stones’ Gimme Shelter. I was completely entranced by the performance, along with most of the audience. Harris’ voice fit the song perfectly, and the more fun the band was having on stage, the
Schwab took a moment to introduce the band as Harris left the stage. Then he breaks into Long Time Loving You, with the entire venue backing him up. Near the end, he completely backed off the mic, letting everyone sing, and the chorus filled the room even without instruments or microphones. The sax was back, and he’s still killing it.
As soon as they started People Like You, the crowd went wild. The energy that had been building since the beginning of the second set was reaching a critical mass, and everyone was loving it. They could have easily just played the first few chords of this song and let the crowd do the rest of the work, and it would have been great. At times, it was almost hard to hear the band over the sound of people singing, and the band was feeding off of it. The key change at the end of this song kicks ass.
Harris comes back out for Ain’t No One (To Love You Like I Do), and again the addition of her voice just layers more onto an already complex set of harmonies, filling the room with four complimentary voices lifted above a sea of fans singing the melody.
Everyone that has been on stage all night comes back out to finish the evening with Green Country Mountains. This is when they are at their best; When they’re on stage with all their friends, all their friends in the crowd are singing along, and they’re just having a hell of a time. People that probably haven’t danced since this same time last January are out of their chairs having a ball. This is the band people grew up with, and they all came back to have another ride, and none of them, band and guests alike, seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Schwab explains they’re getting too old to leave the stage, make everyone cheer for an encore, just to come back out and play a few songs, so they just start the encore directly after the last song. They start with an awesome rendition of Hey Jude, then they broke into Can’t You See by The Marshall Tucker Band. When they ended by going back to Jude, there was a really magical moment.
It felt like at any time everything would just fade-to-black and the credits would roll. Everything seemed perfect for a second, and it was a truly special moment. It was the culmination of the last year, and a look ahead to the ones ahead. It was a celebration of the last four decades and hope for decades to come.
I had the opportunity to talk to John Schwab on the phone for a moment while writing this, and he summed everything up by saying “This is our eighteenth year doing a reunion for a bar that was only open for four years. There are people that fly in from California, Colorado, all over, and it’s just amazing.”
There are a lot of bands, and there are a lot of fans, but I have rarely seen fans with such a passion for band as the supporters in attendance that night, and I have never seen a band with such an intimate relationship with their fans as McGuffey Lane has. For a southern rock group from Athens, Ohio to still be able to pack a house with people from across the country every January, that’s something truly special.
- I’m in Jamaica
- Old Taylor
- Break Away
- Cowboys Like What Cowgirls Do
- Mule Skinner Blues
- Outlaw Rider
- Music Man
- Railroad Song
- Panama Red (Peter Rowan cover)
- American Pie (Don McLean cover)
- The Auctioneer (Leroy Van Dyke cover)
- Be a Friend of Mine
- Song for the Road
- Stay in Love with You
- My Baby Brings Home a Good Time Tonight
- Statesboro Blue (Blind Willie McTell cover)
- Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones cover)
- Long Time Loving You
- People Like You
- Ain’t No One (To Love You Like I Do)
- Green Country Mountains
- Hey Jude (The Beatles cover)
- Can’t You See (The Marshall Tucker Band)
- Hey Jude coda