Empty-Handed at a Dive Bar Blues Show

I went to a blues show at a dive bar on a Monday night. The lead singer bore a passing resemblance to Woody Harrelson and sang about booze and fist fights and heartache — all the classic blues subjects — with a giant grin on his face, like he was keeping a secret from us. 

Us, the crowd, was me and a gang of gray hairs. Limping, long-haired old cusses with puffy, alcoholic noses. Accountant-looking guys wearing John Prine t-shirts tucked into cargo shorts and high white socks with sneakers, the kind of socks you just know in a gold toe. The women were short-haired and lively, as if long hair had been inhibiting them for decades and now they were lighter, freer, and ready to party. 

Halfway through the set, I finished a full-bodied brown ale and tossed my empty plastic cup in the trash. I quit drinking, being it was a Monday and all, and after a few minutes I found myself in an unfamiliar social crisis: I had no idea what to do with my hands, as if my entire concert personality depended on holding a cup. It was like falling in a dream. The helplessness was real even though the stakes were not.  

I scanned the room for inspiration from the more seasoned concert-goers, and what I saw was bleak. Turns out, there are only a few things to do with empty hands at a concert.

Put your hands in your pockets. This was the preferred move of the corporate old guys in high socks. It solves the obvious problem of your bare hands being out and exposed while the whole venue watches you figure out what to do with them. But stuffing your hands in your pants signals to the band that their impotent performance can’t inspire you to engage in the slightest. 

Imagine a Catholic confessing an extramarital affair to a priest, tearfully explaining that he is living with crushing guilt and shame because he has a secret girlfriend in Tulsa. Now image the priest asking him if the barbecue’s any good out there. Putting your hands in your pockets at a concert has the same transactional energy.

Cross your arms and bob your head. There’s a lot to like here. You get to cover your hands with your elbows and groove along with the band. Everybody wins. Almost. Standing cross-armed projects rigidness and reservation, judgment even. And it gets confining fast. Have you ever tried to cross your arms for more than ten minutes? You might as well wear a straitjacket. 

Dance. The rowdy gals were all about the dancing. They clapped (sometimes on rhythm) and swung their arms and hips like marionettes at the end of an epileptic’s string as they declared their love for fake Woody Harrelson.  

Drink in hand or not, dancing in public is a high-risk, high-reward situation. Dancing is easily the most fun thing to do with your hands at a concert. It’s also by far the most embarrassing, especially in a world where everyone is filming everything all the time, which is, of course, another thing you can do with your hands at a concert if you aren’t drinking.

Drum your thighs. Full disclosure: I spent most of my empty-handed time slapping at my legs. It’s a great ploy. You should steal it if you can pull it off. Unlike dancing, it takes no talent, but, if you do it right, it looks like you might be a musician or have some musical training. As a serial thigh-drummer, I’ve had people ask me if I’m in a band. I usually tell them I played the trombone in middle school. That answer satisfies their curiosity and rarely inspires follow up questions. 

The leg-drum method has one downside you should be aware of. If you drum your thighs, there’s a chance you’ll hit someone around you. I got outside of my personal space during a catchy little tune about a hermit with a talking frog and, in a single exuberant swing, struck the paunch of a white-bearded biker-type in a leather vest. We made uncomfortable eye contact for a moment before he huffed away.

Drink a water. When I was growing up, I had a friend who figured out how to win at a fighting video game by repeating the same move over and over and over again. He won a lot, sure, but he was a chore to play with. That’s how I feel about the water strategy. 

Yes, you’ve solved your hands problem. But it’s a cowardly, contemptible trick. Join the rest of the empty-handers and risk something. Make a commitment. You might learn something about yourself.



Tom Brewer is a marketer and an author who lives in South Carolina with his patient wife and their pair of ornery mutts. His fiction has been published in Heart of Flesh Literary Journal and will appear in the November issue of Synthetic Reality Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @Tom_W_Brewer.

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