On a cold, wet and rainy December evening on Lexington’s northeast end, people have come out to Al’s Bar and Beer Garden on North Limestone to cap off the work week by grabbing a drink, getting a bite to eat, listening to some live music or possibly all of the above. But by local watering-hole standards, something seems ... different.
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The first thing you see on the bar as you walk in isn’t bottles of beer, but trays filled with servings of macaroni and cheese and cups of carrot sticks, free for the taking. The sounds of billiard balls colliding at the bar’s pool table are coming courtesy of a trio of toddler boys, who would much rather use their hands to roll the balls into the pockets than mess with pool cues. And the sound from the stage is a rock arrangement of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt” performed by a quintet of teenage musicians who are not only too young to drink, but a few might have needed to get a ride with a parent or other licensed driver.
Even though Al’s Bar is usually a 21-and-older establishment that regularly hosts a wide variety of musical acts and open-mic showcases as many as five nights a week, one Friday night a month, it hosts the Al’s Bar Children’s Series. Beginning at 5:30 p.m. and lasting between one and two hours, Al’s Bar continues to cater to its regular crowd while creating a family-friendly atmosphere that welcomes those 18 and younger (in some cases, way younger) to give kids a free sampling of live music and young musicians their first taste of the stage.
The next children’s series installment will be Jan. 19.
This is the second time Al’s Bar has hosted a youth-centered musical showcase. The bar organized a short-lived event called Rock and Romp in 2008 Adult musicians would entertain an all-ages crowd on a monthly basis. Lester Miller, co-owner of Al’s Bar, said he didn’t have any kids at the time, nor the type of friends-with-kids network that parents tend to form. Now a father of three, Miller felt inspired by both the Rock and Romp concept and by getting to expose his own children to live music to kick off the Al’s Bar Children’s Series in fall 2016.
“The kids are really excited about it,” Miller said. “It gives them a chance to kind of run around a little bit. I think the parents enjoy it because they get to expose their kids to music and they also get to hang out with friends and have a beer. I think it’s a cool thing. I think it works for parents and children alike.”
The Lexington Children’s Showcase has hosted performers in genres including classical, hip-hop, jazz and rock. Local performers have included members of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra (which also hosted an instrument petting zoo at the venue), the Westbrook Trio, Willie Eames and Big Chill, and some very young, aspiring musicians with the NoLi (North Limestone) MusicWorks program. More recently, the series has hosted Lexington Music Education’s Rock School! program, allowing for close to a handful of young bands to play cover songs and jam out in front of a live audience in a popular Lexington music venue.
“That’s been sort of a nice marriage,” Miller said. “That works well because it gives the students a place to perform and gives them a venue for performing out. It gives the parents a chance to see them play. It’s kind of a symbiotic relationship.”
Among the spectators on this particular night was Sandy Casey of Lexington, who was there with more than a half-dozen family members to see her 15-year-old grandson, Andrew Casey, play bass in one of the Rock School bands. Casey said the venue was somewhat unexpected for her, but the atmosphere and the night’s purpose quickly won her over.
“I was kind of surprised when they said, ‘We’re going to go to Al’s Bar,’ and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’” she said, laughing. “It gives him good experience.”
That viewpoint is shared with 14-year-old musicians Griffin Shively (guitar) and Ben Weeks (drums), both members of the Rock School.
“What they are doing here is pretty good, and I like it,” Ben said. “It’s giving kids a head start.”
In addition to giving young musicians a place to play, it gives kids in the audience an idea of what’s possible. The Fleming family lives in the neighborhood of Al’s Bar and brought their two sons, Braxton and Skylar, down to another Children’s Series. Both boyslove the free mac n’ cheese, but Skylar, 8, immediately wanted to learn to play guitar after seeing some second- and third-grade musicians perform on stage.
Miller said moments like this are a huge reason why something like the Al’s Bar Children’s Series is so beneficial.
“So much of confidence and trying new things is just realizing it’s something you can do, that other kids are doing it and other people are doing it,” he said. “It’s enriching their lives and exposing them to things they can do.”