Calibrations

Another kind of crash in the swamps of South Florida

Ever on the lookout for the next big thing to arise from the miserable swamps of South Florida, the Calibrator, along with his trusty companion Sabu, headed for Alligator Alley in Sunrise on a recent Friday evening to check out the singer-songwriter stylings of one Bradley Ditto.

Though Alligator Alley has been up and running for nearly seven weeks now, Friday night was the club's official grand opening. The headliner was Leon Russell, a proven talent with a stellar musical résumé as long as Sabu's beefy forearm. His act was for professional reviewers only. Hacks like the Calibrator stick to the undercard. That's where all the fun is, anyhow. For an anonymous opening act, failure is always a distinct possibility. And when that happens, well, there are few human spectacles quite so painfully raw or fascinating as the sight of a workaday, bush-league musician going down in flames in front of a couple hundred callous people with no regard at all for some struggling artist's feelings or aspirations. In a world of forced smiles and otherwise suppressed emotions, unbridled cruelty can be a compelling commodity. Some nights it seems like the only thing left that's real.

The Alley was fairly packed when the C-man and Sabu walked through the front door just shy of 9 p.m. Business at the fledgling establishment seemed to be going well. Perhaps 200 people were on hand. It was the kind of crowd that proprietor Carl Pacillo had in mind when he ponied up half the money to buy the joint. Surely for Bradley Ditto, the crowd represented nothing so much as needed exposure. The man has four albums out with another soon forthcoming and had signed an exclusive representation agreement with Miami entertainment attorney Allen Jacobi four days earlier, but still his name was largely unknown within the cool, dark confines of Alligator Alley. In neo-folk circles he might have some credibility, but in mainstream music clubs and record stores, Ditto doesn't mean squat. Here then was an opportunity for an eager, veteran troubadour to expand his following.

We quickly seized the last available table in the room, a small, round piece of furniture in a back corner right next to a cheerful barmaid named Justine who, conveniently enough, manned an iced tub full of cold, bottled alcohol.

Ditto was already on the stage, tuning his guitar. He was dressed in dark clothing. His black hair was long, straight, and perfectly styled in the manner of one of those famous animal trainers in Vegas. A PA announcement was made to the effect that Leon Russell's arrival at the club had been delayed five hours, but all was now well. Then the announcer introduced Ditto, who assumed the microphone to a round of polite applause.

It was harsh going from the beginning. Though, in the Calibrator's measured opinion, Ditto came on -- and stayed on -- a bit heavy with the exaggerated mannerisms and melodrama, he appeared to inspire nothing from the crowd except an almost palpable sigh of indifference. The cold response could not possibly have been blamed on lack of effort. To his credit Ditto stuck with his folkish, vaguely Dylanesque original material. He delivered each song with wide-open, full-bore passion. His voice strained and pleaded for understanding. His words of love and life rolled out of the massive speakers beside the stage with convincing force. He seemed a tortured soul clearly wracked with harrowing pain. No one -- absolutely no one -- seemed to care. Sabu roughly nudged the C-man a couple songs into the set. "I thought I saw somebody listening," he muttered, "but I was wrong."

After a third song -- or "testimonial," as the Calibrator soon began thinking of them -- failed to elicit an enthusiastic response, Ditto queried his captive audience. "How you doing, folks?" he asked. It was a simple question, the same one entertainers have been asking their audiences in one form or another for a thousand years. Generally it's a sure-fire way to see if anyone is actually listening. In this case the response was an ominous, almost surreal silence. Ditto was in trouble.

He forged ahead. His act became a study of bravery, endurance, and his own rapidly evolving brand of indifference. There's no money in the music business for quitters. So with eyes softly shut, he plowed through the remainder of his hourlong set. Near the midway point, the Calibrator turned to Justine. "How you likin' this guy?" he asked her. Justine scrunched up her nose, squinted, and shook her head back and forth a couple times like she was shaking off a whiff of pig shit. Sabu snorted some pathetic approval of her response.

A balding, meaty fellow named Pete dropped by our table. He was affable and claimed to be an avid follower of the South Florida music scene in general. In some capacity that the Calibrator didn't quite catch, Pete said he was working for the club. Whatever his actual title, he was a host of sorts and possibly a doorman. After a few passing remarks, Pete leaned in confidentially toward Sabu. "A lot of people are getting antsy," he allowed, peering nervously over his shoulder. "They want to see Leon Russell."

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