For the past few years, anyone who's walked across the Ashland Plaza on a Monday night has done so to the sounds of the Robbie DaCosta Trio drifting out of the second-story windows of Alex's Plaza Restaurant and Bar.
It is a vintage sound — the strains of '50s rock 'n' roll, rockabilly and Motown — with a little bit of just about any other type of music one can imagine thrown in to keep things interesting. It sounds like a good time. It draws people toward it like a song by a Pied Piper, down to the bottom of the Plaza and up the stairs to Alex's — and, ultimately, out onto the dance floor.
The sound of Tom Stamper's drums reach the pedestrian's ears from the farthest distance. Moving closer, the high-end treble of DaCosta's clean, vintage guitar enters the mix. From the sidewalk directly below Alex's, one can begin to make out the vocals. The bass doesn't start to thump in your chest until you are halfway up the stairs that lead to the bar.
On stage, DaCosta looks his part in a loose linen shirt and a white porkpie hat. He plays a red, hollow-body Gretch guitar that features volume and tone knobs fashioned from a pair of dice. When he plays, he plants his feet wide and adopts a stance that bears more than a passing resemblance to photos of a young Elvis. When he sings, he leans in to a large, chromed microphone like something from the golden age of radio.
Behind him is a guitar amplifier that looks like it's been around since Chuck Berry first played "Maybellene." (It's actually not quite that old — it looks to me like a well-worn, tweed-upholstered, Peavy Classic from the '70s or '80s.) To his right, bass player Joe Cohoon cradles an equally ancient-looking upright bass as he peers across the stage at DaCosta, brow furrowed in concentration, waiting to see what song and which chords come next.
No musician in the region plays more nights out of the year than DaCosta. He keeps such a busy gigging schedule that he has to be able to mix and match band members occasionally. (It's a small town. Bass players and drummers are in high demand. Everybody has other gigs). For years, the remarkably prolific Jeff Addicott played bass on most of DaCosta's dates, but he reduced his commitment to the band at the beginning of 2013 to make time for other projects.
Cohoon stepped into the role soon after, embracing the unique challenge of backing a dynamic bandleader with a repertoire of songs that runs into the several thousands. (Addicott claims that DaCosta knows 4,000 tunes.) DaCosta doesn't make set lists — and the band doesn't rehearse. He told me that "once in a blue moon" he'll decide ahead of time what the first song of a set will be, but that's not his usual M.O.
"I just walk out on stage "¦ I don't think too much about it," he says. "I just feel it."
He says that he plays the room — plays what feels most appropriate to the crowd, the setting and the moment. As the relative newcomer, Cohoon has to learn thousands of songs on the fly. DaCosta will call across the stage to him, "key of D" (or A or G or whichever), and away they go.
These are fully professional musicians with decades of experience. DaCosta points out that Cohoon, Stamper, Addicott and piano player Dal Carver (who often sits in with the band) "are amazing musicians to play with because their ears are so tuned to listen to each other."
DaCosta adds that playing with Stamper for the past eight or nine years has been a large part of his musical education.
"The wisdom he has, his musical taste, what he digs "¦ I've just learned so much from him."
The Robbie DaCosta Trio plays at 9 p.m. every Monday at Alex's, 35 N. Main St., Ashland.
Jef Fretwell is a musician and freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at email@example.com.