In 1986 “Rocky,” then manager of the Blind Pig, was going to ditch its Friday afternoon happy hour. “Pontiac” Pete Ferguson told him, “Give us fifty bucks and let us pass the pitcher a couple of times, and we’ll pack the place.” “We” was Ferguson’s honky-tonk band, Drivin’ Sideways.
Rocky called him on his offer, and the band moved over to the Pig from Mr. Flood’s Party with Chris Goerke on bass, Brophy Dale on guitar, Steve “Dixboro” Cummings on pedal steel, and Dave Stockwell on drums. That first happy hour was so successful that not only were people squeezed to the rafters but the Jim Beam ran out. By 1988 former Blackfoot and Southern Rock All-Star Jakson Spires was on drums, either Chris Casello or Bob Schetter on guitars, Mark “Shamus” O’Boyle on pedal steel, and Goerke still on bass and backup vocals. The happy hour, Pete says, became a “launching pad for the weekend’s festivities. Everybody seemed to know each other, and the place was always packed with dancers.”
In the driver’s seat with his strong vocals and ripping commentary, Pontiac Pete covered the themes we love so well: alcoholism, lust, obsession, insanity, and the misery of heartache. Such crowds were packing happy hour that the pitcher got passed a couple of times and the band split a third of the bar receipts, which paid $50-$75 apiece. When Sleepy LaBeef came to town, he used Drivin’ Sideways to back him up. In 1998 the band opened for Merle Haggard and John Anderson. Pete says his best night was when “six different people came up to me and said, ‘Great show — you made me cry.'” Drivin’ Sideways sang for people who’d had their hearts tossed into the tree chipper of life. “I learned to love country music at gunpoint at a bonfire in Lodi,” says Ferguson. The songs he sings are full of movement as well as emotion: belly rubbers, honky-tonk, rockers, and weepers, all performed with love, seriousness, style, and humor by friends.
In 1999, after thirteen years, the Blind Pig ditched happy hour, and Pete moved to New York. Upon his return in 2001 he found that Jakson Spires was on tour, so he got Mark Newbound to play drums. Chris Casello had moved to Nashville, so Pete asked longtime friend George “Fun Fingers” Bedard to play guitars. With O’Boyle, Goerke, and keyboardist Jim King, they started playing happy hour at the Cavern Club. Flashback almost a quarter century to a headier time on the Ann Arbor music scene, when live music could be heard five nights a week in at least four bars: this same lineup, except for Goerke, composed Ferguson’s first band, Pontiac Pete and the Bonnevilles. As sidemen, Bedard and O’Boyle trade leads and licks on songs like Elvis’s “Little Sister” and Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” vaulting Pete’s evocative vocals to frenzied levels. And they frolic through the histrionic pantomime of his own “Bachelor Padded Cell.” Whatever Pete comes up with they play, and the combination of his vast repertoire and his desire to entertain makes for varied and unpredictable set lists and a writhing dance floor.
Drivin’ Sideways takes over the Cavern Club’s Friday happy hour on December 23. See you there!
[Review published December 2005]