Chris Buhalis is taking a few weeks off in May from his weekly Tuesday-night gig at the Ravens Club to travel to Italy and sing at a Townes Van Zandt festival there. It’s hard to imagine a non-Anglophone crowd trying to wrap their heads around Van Zandt’s more abstruse lyrics, but if anyone can put them across, Buhalis can. While he’s there, he tells me, he wants to stop in Florence and see Michelangelo’s David. “Seen the Mona Lisa too?” I ask, quoting Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” “No,” he says, “but I have heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues,'” finishing the third stanza of that great blues standard. “We’ll play that one in the second set.”
Buhalis is a tradition bearer: he knows a seemingly unlimited number of songs and tosses them out when he thinks people ought to hear them. During a set at the Ravens Club, he asked if I’d heard the Oklahoma “red dirt” songwriter Tom Skinner. I hadn’t, but I really liked the Skinner song he sang, “Christal,” about a ramblin’ girl who left him to “fill his days with things like words and melodies.”
I’m always fascinated by these feats of musical memory, by the ability to come up with the right song at the right time. At the Ravens Club Buhalis may repeat a few songs from week to week, but mostly he plays “whatever comes in my head. I’m not coming in here to do my ‘act,'” he says, miming a bit of air guitar.
Much of the audience is pretty tuned in to what Buhalis is doing. There’s a townie crowd that has moved over from the Old Town Tavern, where Buhalis also plays, now that they can afford craft cocktails (or who go to both places). They sit at the bar and gradually gravitate toward Buhalis as his sets proceed, and by the end he gets a good round of applause. A contingent of grad students sits mostly at the high-tops on the opposite side of the room; they may be less interested in the music, although they want it to be there.
The mix is good, and the room is nicely laid out—you can be close to the music and hear it all, or you can sit at the back and eat at one of the few worthwhile places downtown where almost all the entrées are still less than $20.
Though Buhalis doesn’t stress the political element, it’s unmistakably there. Guy Clark’s “Immigrant Eyes” (“The thing I like about songs,” Buhalis says, “they’re a lot like people—walls don’t work on ’em”) and Blaze Foley’s bitter “Oval Room” (“He’s the President, I don’t care,” the lyrics of the Reagan era declare) showed up on one night’s set.