Five songs into a set that may last three hours, Kenny Roby is buried in the bustling first verse of "The Committee," the 11th song from his forthcoming fifth album, The Mercy Filter. Unbeknownst to the crowd slowly gathering at the seven picnic tables along the tin-lined walls of Sadlack's back porch, his mind isn't with the song right now. It's about 200 yards to the right, moving in at about 40 miles per hour and closing fast.
Still chugging through the verse on a plugged-in acoustic sunburst, Roby is listening to the cackling carburetor of an old motorcycle rolling down Hillsborough Street. When it hits its peak, he turns a chord change into several sixteenth rests, letting the flagrant interruption wheel on by before burying himself back in the song.
The Wednesday night crowd trickles in and out, a motley crew of the Hillsborough haunt's regulars and a few that have shown up with the express purpose of hearing Roby.
It's not much of a stretch to imagine lots of people showing up in a much different place to hear Roby: If a chip or two would have shifted years ago, maybe a break here instead of tough luck there when Six String Drag was hitting it hard, perhaps it would have been Roby staging a triumphant homecoming at Meymandi Hall last month. Or perhaps his solo shows would include the words "sold out" on the marquees of vaulted halls like the Vic Theatre.
But Roby's happier than hell to be at Sad's tonight, wiping sweat from his brow with shirtsleeves and taking sips of Sprite from a Styrofoam cup between songs.
"Oh, I love playing here. It's a great chance to play acoustic guitar and not be in a listening room environment," says Roby about an hour before stepping up to the microphone. "People come and buy beer and give me tips, and I want them to have fun, to be comfortable."
Roby--sporting curls and a nascent beard--looks at this five-week Sadlack's residency with a populist's eye, speaking frankly about his appreciation for people that listen to his music and sometimes give him money. He admits that every time someone buys a record or leaves a $10 tip, that's probably an hour of work for them that they've now just given him. Tonight is the first night of the residency, and--each week for the next month--he'll play songs from every album and some covers (tonight, it's a Prince medley). When the spirit moves him, he'll play one of his five albums (two Six String Drags, two Kenny Robys and now one The Mercy Filter, due sometime after September) from start to finish. He's putting in work.
"What time is it, Steve?" he asks Steve Scott, an old friend a picnic table away.
"Eight o'clock," Steve shoots back, patting his dog, which stares at Roby for the next few hours, even when Roby starts barking during a song.
"All right, they've had an hour."
Before finishing the last word, he's already into the major chords of "Rather Not Know," the opening track from his perfect 2003 album of the same name. He rolls through the first three songs without hesitation, but he checks a shrink-wrapped copy of Rather Not Know sitting atop the right speaker after the third track. He doesn't miss a line the whole way through, but he does miss a note or two. He fumbles the coda of one song and looks disappointed in himself for a second. Then he just laughs.
"Oh well, I guess if you're going to play 48 songs, the end of one doesn't matter too much."
Kenny Roby plays at Sadlack's at 2116 Hillsborough Street at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, July 13, 20 and 27 and Wednesday, Auguist 3.