Stella Blues is tucked away on the east side of a New Haven street where parking is hard to find and the garage costs nine bucks. On a Friday night before eight, few people are standing around the small, dimly lit bar. Recorded blues and funk music plays through speakers, but soon the stage will feature local bands. Stickers plaster the bathroom. On the wall of the back patio a small message written in marker reads: “Kill fascist scum.”
A few minutes after eight, the three members of Righteous Continental place their guitars down near the small stage. The bar owner approaches bellowing, “Weren’t you guys here last night?” The band members smile at the joke. Ryan, the guitarist and lead singer, sports a light goatee with a big afro. He looks like the white Jimi Hendrix reincarnated. Tim, the bassist, is reserved, quiet, and well kempt. The drummer Mitch is sharp-witted, equipped with a nihilistic sense of humor and passionate interest in film.
This odd mix of personalities work well together. Mitch and Ryan first met the day that they recorded the first half of their album. Mitch says, “we had never played together before that day.” They simply clicked. Even onstage they sometimes jam for three hours, reading each other through looks to transition properly. “In the last year we really kinda came to find, you know, where the different cores of our sound come from,” Ryan adds.
Before the show begins they walk steadily down the freezing New Haven street to get pizza. They’ve played at this bar before, they’ve eaten this pizza before, it’s all quite familiar. Ryan talks about his preference of analog equipment over digital, saying there is a difference despite dissenting opinions.
At Marco Polo, they order their slices and coffee and slide into a booth. The hot pizza comes first, served on paper plates; their coffees last. After passing around the shakers filled with garlic and parmesan and pepper, they eat their pre-show meal. The talk shifts to girls, during which Mitch gives a warning about staying away from an ex. He speaks from experience. Ryan claims he’s not really pursuing anyone. Mitch then asks his bandmates if he should invite the girl he matched with on Tinder to come to the show.
Facing the bitter cold, they walk back to the bar and out to the patio. Another one of their friends is out there, clad in a vintage, Air Force, dark blue peacoat—Cold War era. Cigarettes get passed out and Mitch helps light Tim’s with the glowing ember of his own. The talk picks up about cinema. Mitch asks everyone to name their favorite Coen brothers’ film. Various titles are thrown out as they huddle together on the wooden deck.
The opening act begins and the band moves back to the main bar area. Julian Sherwood, a singer-songwriter and drummer, takes the stage. He’s playing a solo set on a Squire Jazzmaster through a small amp. It’s somewhat unusual for a singer-songwriter to play solo on an electric guitar.
“This is a bit of a small-world kind of gig,” Mitch said earlier. Righteous Continental know all the bands for this gig personally, Mitch playing in another one tonight as well. The bandmates gather to watch Julian. Tim hangs close to the stage, watching solemnly, before taking a seat at the bar. The band doesn’t talk much, they just listen. Julian goes through his set and the room slowly fills with more people. Leather jackets and flannels begin to swarm, with most girls clinging to their boyfriends.
Once Julian finishes, people get up and shift around. The next band starts loading their equipment onstage. The guy in the blue peacoat sits at the drum set; he’s now wearing a black v-neck. The guitarist has long hair, wears really tight pants and a leather jacket. The band begins and the bar fills with a modern take on the classic punk sound from acts like the Sex Pistols and The Clash.
After the set ends, guitars are once again exchanged, and Righteous Continental lay down their pedal boards and tune their instruments. The young sound guy with a pale cap talks with Ryan. Mitch sits behind the drum set. Ryan’s on stage right. Some people start to stand around the small stage. The rest of the bar is clustered with other fans and musicians, hanging around the bar and tables with a beer in hand. Tim introduces the band and the air fills with searing solos of blues. The four pizza-eating friends are now full-volume musicians.
Ryan’s face contorts. His fingers travel up and down the fretboard, changing dynamics as he goes. Tim stands like a brick, laying down the bass line link between Ryan’s lead and Mitch’s drum beat. Solid and bold, Tim solos on the bass, making you rethink the extent to which such an overlooked instrument can rock. Mitch plays with strength and passion, intermittently watching Ryan intensely, trying to read him for the next cue. Their set list is a mash-up of original songs and classic covers. The windowpane at the back of the stage shifts colors: purple, green, red, and blue. Ryan stands illuminated by a yellow stage light. Red and green speckled light prints their faces, covering their skin like psychedelic camouflage.
Tim finds his voice, Ryan his intellect, and Mitch relief from angst.
After playing “Psychoactive,” the title track and single from their album, the set ends and the band starts to break down the stage. Mitch runs outside to smoke a cigarette with blue peacoat. Tim and Ryan pack up their guitars. Above them, the same yellow spotlight and speckled lights still shine, now just a static decoration. The girl from Tinder never showed, the small crowd dissipates, and the musicians step offstage and back into the dimly lit bar.
Headline photo courtesy of Noah Hulton.