It’s a little before 6:30 on a summer Sunday evening at Tulsa’s Full Moon Café. As they’ve done virtually every Sunday for the past five years, musicians Shelby Eicher and Mark Bruner are setting up on a stage so close to the diners that both could reach out and snatch a calamari ring off a dinner plate with little effort.
The two know that by the time their second set comes along – they always do two separate shows on Sunday evenings – the long table in front will be filled with people who’ve come down from the Jazz Hall of Fame’s early-evening Sunday show, and most if not all of them will be fans and friends of the duo. However, at this time the table is occupied by what looks like a large family group celebrating a birthday, and the members don’t seem to know the guys on the bandstand from Adam’s housecat.
At half past six on the dot, the music begins. It’s “City of New Orleans,” with Mark on guitar and lead vocals, Shelby on mandolin, performed in a way that’s both laid-back and sure handed. You could call it conversational, offered up by guys who have something very interesting to say, but would find it unseemly to shout it out.
The approach works, too. By the time they’ve followed up with a Taj Mahal blues song, a gypsy-jazz version of “Little Coquette” and an incredibly laid-back but technically adept reading of Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” the table in front, and the rest of the crowd, is right in their collective pocket.
It is, these veteran players will tell you, just an example of what they call their “music-service business.” That’s what they say they’ve been providing audiences with over the past 15 years, with the Full Moon Café a big part of that business for the last five.
“We can’t overstate the role of the ownership here,” says Bruner, when he and Eicher take a break. “(Owner) Tony Henry has been instrumental in giving us latitude, trusting our instincts and letting us do our job. We don’t work in the kitchen, and we don’t work behind the bar, but what we can do is get people in here and entertain ‘em while they’re here. That’s what we get hired for.”
“We have a service that we provide,” adds Eicher. “We keep people engaged. They want to buy another drink. They want to come here to have dinner. That’s really the service that we have, no matter what music it is that we’re playing.”
And indeed, they play all kinds of music. Equally adept at everything from Western swing and cowboy tunes to straight-ahead jazz, jazz-pop, down-home blues and classic rock, the two never do two shows exactly alike. The only thread that runs through their repertoire, besides a high level of musicianship, is their acoustic approach – Bruner plays hollow-body guitar, Eicher, usually, mandolin or fiddle.
Upon seeing them break out those instruments, some would immediately peg the two as bluegrass musicians. That assumption, however, would be wrong.
“I remember when we were across the street at (the former restaurant) Camerelli’s,” says Eicher with a grin, “and we were playing ‘It Had to be You.’ It was just beautiful. And when we’re done, this lady turns and says, ‘That’s the best bluegrass I ever heard.’”
Eicher laughs. “We just sort of went, ‘Uh-huh,’ because it’s so not bluegrass.”
The two prefer the term “acoustic variety,” which is as good a definition as any.
“It can be very eclectic,” Bruner points out.
“Right now, a real popular thing we do is an arrangement of ‘Norwegian Wood,’ with a section in the middle that’s totally free-form,” he adds. “We each take a solo there. We can be totally creative, and the audience has come to really like and expect that. Although they wouldn’t want to see it on every tune, they want to see how far we can push the envelope.
“And then, we come right back with ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa’ or a Robert Johnson blues.”
Eicher, from Ohio, and Bruner, from Oklahoma City, both got into music at an early age. Eicher started playing dances with his grandmother – “polkas, schottishes, lots of fiddle tunes for square dancing” – as a kid, while Bruner was making a living in a hotel band by his early 20s. They both eventually moved to Tulsa, where Eicher married popular local singer Janet Rutland.
In 1984, Eicher was a member of Roy Clark’s band and Bruner was with Tulsa’s Ronnie Dunn, who was several years away from pairing with fellow singer-songwriter Kix Brooks to become half of the biggest country-music duo of all time. Both Clark and Dunn were summoned to Washington, D.C., that year to perform in the Fourth of July celebration at the Capitol, and they brought their band members along.
“Mark and I met in the parking lot of the hotel,” recalls Eicher, “and it was like, ‘Are you from Tulsa too?’” It was the first meeting for the two.
Clark and his group were averaging almost 250 days a year touring then. But when the country star decided to start spending a good portion of his time off the road and in his own theater in Branson, Mo. – making him the first major act to do so – Eicher found that he was a lot happier not having to travel so much.
“All the years I was on the road, I’d come home, and Janet would say, ‘Hey, do you want to go out and have dinner?’ and I’d say, ‘No, I want to stay at home,’” says Eicher, laughing. “She’d been home the whole time, and she wanted to go to a restaurant. I’d been eating every meal at a restaurant and I wanted to stay home and sit on my couch and watch my TV.”
Whenever he was back in town and off the road for a few days, Eicher would sometimes jam with Bruner, and the two had found that they had similar tastes and a like-minded approach to the business of music. Then, in the mid-‘90s, Clark decided to leave his theater and go back on tour. A disappointed Eicher gave Bruner a call.
“I said, ‘Oh, man, we’re getting ready to go out there and just burn down the road again,’” recalls Eicher. “And Mark said, ‘Well, did you ever think about getting off the road?’
“I said, ‘And do what?’ He said, ‘Well, I was thinking work with me.’ And that’s how it all came about.”
Although they’re both full-time musicians who also take gigs independently of one another – Eicher, most recently, began leading the Western swing group the Tulsa Playboys, while Bruner has longstanding regular engagements with Tulsa guitar hero Tommy Crook – they always reserve their weekends for Bruner-Eicher jobs, playing a dizzying number of different events in addition to their Sunday shows. They even return to the Full Moon on Wednesdays, with either Mary Cogan or Molly Colvard on vocals. Otherwise, they’re liable to pop up just about anywhere around Tulsa, in cowboy outfits playing for the Christmas Train at Camp Dry Gulch in Adair, for instance, or donning evening wear and performing at a private event, as they did for the wedding of former Tulsa mayor Kathy Taylor’s daughter.
To Bruner, that versatility simply illustrates what they’re about.
“It all goes right back to the music-service business,” he says. “If you need someone to fill a slot, and you’d like it to be quality – well, we’ll give it a go.”