Musicians Behind Bars

Local talent not only graces our stages, but pours our drinks

Kelsey Barker
Kelsey Barker

Would you like a gin and tonic with that guitar riff? How about a rum and Coke with that rhyme?

“In Eugene, you’ll see a bartender onstage everywhere you go. We all play music,” says Casey Lynch, Level Up Arcade manager and bartender.

Lynch is a prime example. Known to most as KI Design (emcee and ringleader of local hip-hop crew, The Architex), he has played countless shows, including a weekly residency — “Private Stock” at Luckey’s Club — going on four years now.

If you’re a regular at any downtown bar or spend time in the Whiteaker’s newly dubbed “brewery district,” you’ve probably been invited to see some local music. It’s likely that the handbill casually slid your way came from the same charming person who poured your whiskey sour.

Possibly the most valuable aspect of musicians working within booze culture is the ability to be gainfully employed without feeling compromised. It is the constant struggle of the artistic mind to find financial stability without feeling like it came at the price of one’s integrity.

Lynch admits that he stumbled into the job by performing in the same bars that eventually came to employ him. He says the opportunity to self-promote is a benefit of tending bar. “As a bartender, you get to meet everybody from lawyers to the homeless,” he says. “Though I do more hip hop than bartending, more people recognize me from work.”

The local celebrity status can be helpful, but the perks of a job in Eugene’s nightlife don’t end at self-promotion. Kelsey Barker, Sam Bond’s Garage bartender and bassist for Hot Pearl Snatch and Steel Kitty, left a job as a breakfast waitress, feeling tired and unappreciated.

Looking for a change, Barker took on a part-time position at Sam Bond’s, holding down the auxiliary back bar on weekend evenings. Two years later, and now a fulltime bartender, she says she feels better suited to the late hours at the Whiteaker hotspot.

“It’s easier to stay motivated,” Barker says. “At Sam Bond’s I am surrounded by local art and live music. I’m happier here, and when I’m happy, I’m more creative.”

Barker isn’t alone in her desire to flee from the bustle of daylight hours. Lynch says he finds himself to be considerably more creative after closing up the bar and heading home.

“When everyone else is asleep, I’m still up making beats. Your 4 am is my 5 pm, man,” he says, laughing.

Sara Billdt, Blairally Vintage Arcade bartender and Coyote frontwoman, chose bar life over day jobs four years ago and hasn’t looked back.

“It’s helpful not to work in a super oppressive or overly strait-laced environment,” Billdt says. “Who wants to work where they feel like they have to hide who they are?” Billdt sure doesn’t, and why should she? A quick stroll through the Whiteaker bar arcade confirms Billdt’s allusion to a workplace that encourages self-expression.

“Blairally’s clientele is comprised largely of neighborhood folks, who all seem to play music or be some sort of artist,” Billdt says. The crowd definitely looks the part, as tattoos and imaginative local fashion are as readily available as frosty pints of high-yield local brews.

Of course they can’t partake at their “real jobs,” but what about onstage?

Surely every bartender indulges in a couple pre-show pints. We don’t call it “liquid courage” for nothing. However, when posed with the question, Billdt grins. “I actually always play sober, myself. I can’t imagine playing guitar for a crowd while drunk.”

Lynch admits to having approached the mic at all different levels of intoxication with a wide array of results. He does say a couple drinks can’t hurt, though.

“I’d never fault someone for needing to be ‘on the right level’ before they perform. That’s fine. It’s about whatever works for you,” he says. “I’ve played with guys who needed to be wasted and guys like Sammy [local rapper Sammy Warm Hands] who just drinks lemonades all night, and kills it. You do what you gotta do.”

Obviously imbibing is not a prerequisite for creativity, but for some musicians alcohol will always be a part of live music.  “Performing is so liberating, in and of itself, but it can be much easier to let go and enjoy it if you’re indulging,” Barker says.

Lynch nods in agreement. “You can give in to a feeling or experience instead of getting caught up in wondering, ‘Hey, do I look like an idiot right now?’”

Casey Lynch