27 Club Appears at Belly Up

Why have so many promising musicians died at the tender age of 27? The question may never be fully answered, but a half dozen performances at The Belly Up the other night certainly reinforced what we lost too soon.

The evening was presented by Six String Society, an eclectic musical theater production company. In this case, six lead singers rotated across the stage.

The original member of 27 Club is Robert Johnson, essentially unknown and unheralded in his time. Decades after his 1938 death, Johnson’s music was covered by the likes of Clapton and the Stones. Robin Henkel opened the show and set the stage with a handful of Johnson’s acoustic blues songs.

Anthony Aquarius performed a thoroughly credible version of Jimi Hendrix, replete with left handed Fender guitar, which Aquarius eventually played behind his head and with his teeth. The embroidered jacket and headband around the Afro ensured the look, but fortunately the fretboard dexterity delivered the goods. 

The most recent member of the club Amy Winehouse came out with her trademark beehive and a couple brass players; Whitney Shay assayed a handful of songs with aplomb. 

Jim Morrison (Blake Dean) then wandered out. The strength of “Break On Through” and “Light My Fire” sailed through the years almost seamlessly. And this wasn’t the AM single version of “Light My Fire,” there was plenty of room for the band to stretch out in the middle third. 

The second member of the club from Seattle took the stage in his plaid shirt and white oval sunglasses; Kurt Cobain (Austin Poel) dipped into the grunge songbook that put Nirvana on the map. The snarling guitar and equivalent attitude were spot on. 

Janis Joplin closed out the proceedings with a solid dollop of dem old kozmic blues. Lauren Leigh evoked the gutbucket vocal prowess needed to deliver great versions of “Me and Bobbie McGee” and “Piece of My Heart.” The author of the former song, Kris Kristofferson has graced the stage at Belly Up.

Cleverly, they rhythm section remained intact across performers, allowing for quick set changes and little flagging of energy. 

Laura Chavez was guitarist extraordinaire for most of the evening, her prowess on the fretboard was undeniable. Similarly, Jody Bagley was a fixture behind the keyboards most of the evening. Bagley provided a yeoman-like job on “Try a Little Tenderness” (Otis Redding missed joining the club by a few months). 

One of the least recognized but crucial members of the 27 Club is Brian Jones. As the founder of The Rolling Stones, he was the band’s primary architect. But his unreliability forced his ejection from the band he started. Fitting him into an evening like this would be an impossibility.

The evening closed with the entire cast performing “Crossroads.” The song details the myth of Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for musical prowess. It apparently occurred outside the town referenced in the post Led Zeppelin album released by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant called Walking Into Clarksdale.

By thematically connecting these six artists via their premature demise, Six String Society has assembled an excellent set of performers confidently delivering a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

(photos by Brad Auerbach)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.