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Tuesday night live

Deep-cut honky-tonking at the Merc

John Fullbright singing at the Mercury Lounge on Jan. 23

Greg Bollinger

There was a time when I was in it for the principle, but now I’m all about profit and gain. That’s why I order a shot of Jim Beam and a bottle of Miller High Life. Because it’s simple and dirt cheap, and this is Tuesday night at the Mercury Lounge—not a mixer at the Waldorf. A Merc shot-and-a-beer special is the name of the game.

I set my phone alarm for T minus 75 minutes into the future, because I’ve got a band to watch, and I need my mind sharp, supple, and quick. And though the shot tastes soft and smooth like the scarlet clouds of a Tennessee sunset and the High Life is cold, nimble, and crisp, this isn’t just any old band setting up. This is Mercury’s Tuesday night band. In exactly 75 minutes I will order another High Life.

The Merc is dark and red, the palette of blood and punk rock. On Tuesday nights the Merc chatters with activity. It’s just 10 degrees before top-dead-center of mid-workweek, and thank the Tulsa County heavens for that. Tuesday night is assumed to be dry and empty.

Jacob Tovar, Wink Burcham, and their associates have been blowing the doors off Mercury every Tuesday night for over two years, but recently there’s been a change. Wink and Tovar have been out the past couple of weeks—and John Fullbright is playing in their stead. Tonight it’s a little less honky-tonk and a hair more Billy Joel, but only incrementally so. A tipsy couple still breaks out into a two-step in front of the stage, as usual.

The Tuesday night Mercury experience is somewhere between an old-time country show and a ‘60s rave-up. Tear-in-yer-beer cowboy ballads crescendo into wild stretches of Western improv. There’s an electricity in the air, and the momentum is read out on the faces of the musicians.

And, while we’re on the topic, why is it that all good pedal steel players look like they’re conjuring a demon? One that might, with the slightest provocation, tip the Balance of Good and Evil towards the latter?

I explain to the laughing taxidermied coyote across the bar that I have invited three friends to join me tonight. One has blatantly flaked, and the other two will not show until five minutes after midnight, exactly five minutes after the band has stopped playing. I believe this is also, somehow, a classic Tuesday night at Mercury experience. Tulsans don’t want to get out on a Tuesday night, and if they do, they drag ass. Their loss.

I can name at least five people who have recently discovered Tuesdays at Mercury and who now regularly seek it out, and I see familiar faces week after week. I had long been a fan of Tovar’s solo shows, and of Wink’s, but the first time I saw them in a band together was something entirely different. Like pieces of some alien puzzle that unlocks a door to a secret dimension, Tovar, Wink, and their band are greater than the sum of their parts.

I can also say that I have witnessed the conversion of adamant haters of country music after bringing them to see Wink and Tovar on a Tuesday night just like this one, not too long ago. No, they did not go right out and buy a pair of boots and a Johnny Paycheck record. But they pivoted. I saw it happen in real time.

It’s a war of attrition. Tuesday night has that power. People hate country music because they don’t understand it. To see it in this setting is to see country music without the posturing. Anyone can resonate with that.

By midnight, the band has torn a new hole in the ozone. My last 75-minute alarm goes off, and I order my final High Life of the evening and tab out. My friends show up right on cue, and we sit down to chat as a dozen or so people stream out of the bar to smoke. I explain that they missed a killer set. I explain how I can’t really describe what type of music the band played, but that it’s good, and it’s kind of like country—but not. I say how pumped I am about this weekly thing that happens here. I reassure them this is not just the booze talking, either. That this is the real deal—and I have a drink-pacing system that requires a timer.

Wink Burcham and Jacob Tovar—or whoever’s in their stead
Tuesdays, 9 p.m.  | Mercury Lounge
1747 S. Boston Ave. | Free

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