If you ever closed your eyes and listened to Charles Hairston sing, you might not have believed that the resonating, soulful R&B voice was coming from his five-and-a-half-foot frame. His stage presence easily overshadowed his stature and by the end of the first song, sweat beads would be glistening on his forehead. Hairston poured himself into the music, delivering songs with every ounce of passion he could muster. He'd make his way into the crowd to make a young woman feel beautiful or a shy guy feel cool.
"To Charles, everybody was a friend," drummer Chris Allen remembers. After watching Hairston perform with the Monday Night Allstars at the Double Door Inn, you'd leave knowing those cover songs were being performed as good as they could be, thanks in large part to the joyful voice coming from a man who also danced his ass off all night to make sure the crowd was entertained.
And it all could have stopped when Hairston died of cancer in February 2009. The band could have called it quits right then. Maybe some fans expected them to, but not Hairston. In a 2008 interview with Creative Loafing, Hairston knew he wanted the band to go on. "They're talented enough, they can do that," he said.
Percussionist Jim Brock remembers the moment when Hairston was gone. It took the band about 15 minutes to decide to continue. They knew this wasn't just a gig, but a tradition. And just like Hairston's performances, it was all about the music.
It's been a rocky road since then, but over the last year, the Allstars have settled into a steady lineup that includes original members Brock and bassist Rick Blackwell along with Allen, saxophonist Ziad Rabie (who replaced John Alexander in 2012), guitarist Dustin Hofsess (who replaced original guitarist Joe Lindsay in 2009) and singer Shana Blake, who has been filling the shoes of Hairston for the last year. Much like Hairston, Blake and her smoky, Joss Stone-esque vocals embodies blues and soul with a presence that makes you pay attention. Finally, the band feels like it's back on solid footing.
Back when Hairston was singing, you could easily consider it to be his band, so finding someone to fill his spot wasn't easy. Three singers came and went before Blake took the gig. In that time, Alexander and Lindsay left, though their departures were not directly tied to Hairston's death and they held no ill will toward the band. But crowds were beginning to wane.
Rumblings of the band splitting up were going around after Hairston's death, but, after a particularly sparse night, Allen remembers encouraging everyone. The band plays on Monday night, even if there's only one person to listen. It's tradition. When Blake first joined the band last October, she had initial skepticism. "I just didn't consider myself an Allstar," she says. But the 38-year-old singer brings new energy to the almost 20-year-old group.
"The set was still the same and was getting a little stale," Allen recalls. With a woman at the front, a whole new world of songs opened up. "We could do an Aretha Franklin song," Allen says with a laugh.
With new songs came new energy. With new energy came new crowds, and most significantly, the old fans started to notice, too.
Jim Kiser, with his grayish hair slicked back, remembers the old days. He's been coming to the Double Door Inn since 1997 - often taking a nap before the show to make up for the sleep he's sure to lose.
"I ran into Jim [Brock] six moths ago," Kiser says, admitting his attendance ceased after the lineup shuffles. "He said I had to get down here and see what was going on." He's barely missed a Monday since. During set breaks, people continuously praise Blake's talents while she humbly thanks them.
The Monday Night Allstars know they made the right decision nearly five years ago. They agree that Hairston's spirit lives on in the music they play. They aren't only musicians, but friends, and that bond is expressed in their performance every week.
"He was always true to the music," Rabie says of Hairston. "Two or 200 [in the crowd], Charles was always the same and so is Shana." They still hit the stage the same way - with a "let's jam this thing up and have fun" attitude - and he thinks Hairston would be happy with the direction the group has taken.
In Hairston's days, it might be the second set before the crowd started to get up and dance. These days, it happens right away. On a recent Monday, long-time Double Door bartender Mike Martin started to close out when he heard the band roll into a rendition of War's "Lowrider." He stopped what he was doing to give a closer listen. According to fellow bartender Reid Clark, it says a lot that even long-time listeners are having their ears perked up.
When asked if there's a particular Monday night that sticks out to him over the last year as sounding especially good, Brock's answer is "tonight." He jokes that the answer will be the same next week. As the group gets sonically tighter each week, the jams are getting more on point. Even after all these years, Allstars can improve. Brock stays cool on the congas while Blackwell holds down the low end, occasionally belting out a verse or two. Hofsess offers his own take on a Hendrix solo while Rabie finds the pocket for his sax. When Allen starts to sing from behind his drum kit, you wonder what else he can do.
And then there's Blake. She's living each song as you watch her belt out notes with pure emotion, beyond any lyrical meaning. This is why people come to see the Monday Night Allstars.
Because there's not a lot happening on Monday nights, there's often a revolving door of guest musicians sitting in. A bigger horn section might emerge, or a piano player might sit for a few songs - as long as the music is great and the crowd is having fun.