Dan Adler on his inability to concentrate at Bertha’s Mussels in Fells Point.
Fun fact – a dog’s attention span can last about two to fifteen minutes. Fun fact – I’m not sure I have one that long. Other than the normal millennial spurs I get, to go from working on this review to Snapchat to Facebook in sporadic five-minute cycles, I usually attempt to stay relatively focused to tasks, but based upon the concert I ventured to recently, this relationship with my dopamine levels seems to be conflicted.
This was my second time at Bertha’s. My first time at Bertha’s was for a very, well, Hopkins reason. I was taking a class on Jazz History, and the class required us to write concert reviews. Reviews might be a strong word to put on it – I filled out a form my professor created and added some random tangents about a venue. Also, the venue is one of the only bars in Baltimore to have a standing jazz group every Tuesday and Thursday night. Thus it made sense to go to Bertha’s, as it – with its iconic EAT BERTHA’S MUSSELS stickers – is an institution in Baltimore.
To be honest all I remember about the experience was this. At some point a band started – the Jeff Reed Trio I believe – though I’m not sure when it happened. We ate mussels, surprisingly not the highlight of the evening…they were pretty dry. The beer was normal, the conversation was good, and the band played on. It struck me at the end of our night how little I could remember about the show. I had been to jazz bars before, I like jazz music, and normally the highlight for me had always been the music. For all I knew, the night could have been exactly the same if the band never played but a recording was turned on in the background.
Yet, the thought turned in my head that I missed out on something. I’ll be honest, I’m not the most socially-ept in the world (I’m an engineer), and I thought I just never took the cue to focus on the jazz-part of Bertha’s. Was it my inability to focus that had caused this mishap? Have I alienated my self from the jazz world? Will I ever be accepted again?
So finally, I took a Tuesday night to play chance with redemption. I challenged myself to pay attention to the band the entire time at Bertha’s…and not get the mussels. I traveled with a friend down to the Fell’s Point bar (and yes, I did Uber…we’re on okay terms after my 4.6). This round there was a different trio with lead Mike Kuhl, a bassist joined by a trumpet player and Eric Kennedy on drums.
Walking into Bertha’s sponsored the same vibe as last time. Not a very crowded bar – what can you expect from a Tuesday night? The band was not playing, most likely in between sets. Suddenly I felt a brief scene of PTSD that my same experience was about to occur, unsure of whether I would be able to direct my attention span when the band started. My friend and I sat, ordered a drink – no mussels this time. I had my journal out, ready to go.
While waiting I engaged in a conversation with my friend and more people poured into the bar. The conversation grew and at some point the band started. And at some point the band stopped. The audience did awkwardly pause conversation in between the band’s songs, a reverse of the typical…and suddenly a light bulb popped into my head. I wasn’t the only one with a concentration conundrum.
There are two types of live music bars out there. Chris’s Jazz Café, in Philadelphia for instance, is about the music. When the band goes up, on a raised stage awkwardly shoved into the back of the room, the hum of the audience subsides and the music takes over. People focus on the group and pause because at Chris’s the mindset is on the music.
Yet the second type of music bar – the one like Bertha’s – is first and foremost a bar. With its stickers and populace, the people who come on a Tuesday are there for a drink and socializing, not necessarily for the jazz. So maybe, though I was expecting a night filled in music, and was originally disillusioned with myself for missing it, the reality was that I wasn’t at the right type of venue to get what I wanted. If you venture to Bertha’s expect just that, a night out with friends, and some background music. Just make sure not to get the mussels.
Bertha’s Mussels is in Fell’s Point Baltimore. The Jeff Reed trio plays every Thursday night, and the Mike Kuhl trio plays every Tuesday.
Dan Adler is actually bad at concentrating, but tries as much as possible to make the most out of the time he’s focused. You can check out some stories from that time period on his blog at dadler.co/engineering-beauty.