It's Thursday night at The Camp, and the band Sweettooth takes the stage. The fifteen or so people in the crowd look on as the bass player announces that for tonight, it's just him and the guitar player. "We're going to play anyway," he says.
They begin to play, and after two minutes a drummer climbs behind the drum set already set up on the small stage that has hardly any room for anything else. It's obvious the three have never played together before, but they all quickly become a unit, grabbing and grasping played notes and rhythms, together conversing in the common language of music. Three songs into Sweet Tooth's set, the owner of The Camp, Bob Camp, emerges from behind the bar where he had been serving drinks, walks over, and grabs a microphone on stage. Possessed by the ebb and the flow, Camp, by singing, exorcises the lyrics flowing from the music of the newly formed trio.
With a voice as deep and moving as the Mississippi river that runs no farther than 1,000 feet away, Camp sings with the 20/20 vision you'd only expect to come from a Delta bluesman. "You got a stranglehold on me, baby/You've had it on me since the day we met." When the song's over, and his duty is done, Camp takes his place again behind the bar, and the band plays on, eventually yielding to other bands as the music continues into the early morning hours of Friday.
In a world of music that exists purely for the profit of media conglomerates and slippery businessmen (see Universal Music Group and the career of Ashlee Simpson), local music hangouts like The Camp are beacons of white light in a world of darkness. Because local music in Cape Girardeau is not a huge money maker, business owners like Bob Camp are forced to weigh their own love for music against the bottom line of their own businesses, something that not every business owner is willing to do.
Bob Camp, along with business partner Rick Werner, opened The Camp four years ago after seeing an ad in paper for the property at 701 North Main in Cape Girardeau. The property itself has a long history as a part of the local music scene in Cape Girardeau. For Camp, the only point of opening up for business was for the music.
"I set up shop as "The Camp" at that location on May 15th, 2001 and started booking bands immediately. Although [the previous owners] had booked some great shows, I've been more successful than most of my predecessors in presenting an eclectic mix of music."
Most businesses are forced to favor more established local acts when booking performances for their bars and restaurants. While it's not done with outright malice toward new bands, this does make it difficult for new bands to become known in the area. Bob Camp is unlike many other local business owners, because he doesn't always look at a band's drawing power before booking them.
"Seriously, there are some bands that have never drawn a crowd at The Camp that I have continued to book because I saw their desire and remembered when I was in their shoes. Ironically, the bands that are drawing the best crowds are also the bands that seem least complicated business-wise," Camp said.
"We try to give just about every new band a chance to play at The Camp," Camp continued. Some of them develop into quality bands that can get gigs elsewhere. Some of those bands come back and play The Camp. Some don't."
For a business owner to look at a band's desire and favor it over money in his own pocketbook is a very unique quality. Like any other business owner, though, Camp does have to consider the business from time to time.
"I prefer the bands that draw the big crowds. I have to make enough to keep the store open. It's a real battle from week to week to keep it open sometimes."
Because business owners and bands have different agendas (business owners need to make money to stay open and the bands often just want to play) it would be an easy guess the two sides would often oppose one another, especially on the local scene where money is tighter. Jared Smith, a veteran of many local bands and currently a guitar player for "Minds Above," has not seen any clashing over the opposing viewpoints.
"From my experience, it seems that they [the business owners] are really into the music. I've seen the owners sorta rockin' out and enjoying the music just as much as the people there. Of course they hope to attract more customers and such, it is a business, but I think they are conscious of the quality of the bands here and they want to give them a place to play. Plus now a lot of the bands are going away from the "bar band" style and are being able to play more original tunes, and I think the owners are helping promote that very well too," Smith said.
Darren Burgfeld, a musician who has been involved with music in Cape Girardeau since 1993 and who is currently a member of the "Tone Def All-Stars" and "Side Show," has seen a definite change in the way many business owners in the area give out gigs, as well as how they view bands and how they can help business.
"It is a lot easier now than it was 10 years ago, due mainly to a new wave of management and owners embracing local music rather than seeing it as a diversion away from their business," Burgfeld said.
"I can remember playing at clubs with Kernal Mustard [a local ska band from the mid 1990s], and it was strictly a monetary issue. Things have thankfully progressed, and now we are fortunate enough to have folks that care about music as well as their own success. I think they [business owners] realize now that local musicians can develop a crowd's love for the venue as well as for the music," said Burgfeld.
With all of the changes that have already occurred in the Cape Girardeau music scene in the last few years, it seems that the situation will only continue improving for local bands. Self-sacrifice is not normally seen in the realm of the business world, where profit yields more power than anything else, but that is what Bob Camp has been doing and will continue to do, not only giving musicians a place to play, but also helping people find the same love for music that he himself has.
"It seems like I never get quite up to the poverty level in earnings, but I've always been involved with booking and promoting live music and done quite a bit of playing myself," Camp said. "Music is my business. Without the bands I'd have no business. My business partner Rick Werner is in the bar business. The bar business would still be at 701 N. Main without the bands-I wouldn't."
While The Camp wouldn't be in business in without the bands, it's safe to say that without Bob Camp, many bands wouldn't be in business, either.
King is a featured contributor to OFF! Magazine.