Music is playing on the showroom floor of Marsh Woodwinds' new home on Person Street in Raleigh. That's nothing new, really: For 25 years, Marsh has serviced horns for Branford Marsalis and Maceo Parker. But this time, it's not coming from the old box speakers hardwired into the walls or from an instrument someone's trying for the first time.
No, it's coming from overhead, from players that sound like experts. The low-end rumble of an electric bass and the left-hand sounds of a Wurlitzer organ pulse through the ceiling. The playful high notes of the organist's right hand dance down the stairs. The people below are paying attention. "Dave sure can play that thing, not to be an organ player," says shop owner Rodney Marsh, talking to a customer from behind a long glass cabinet of reeds and parts. "I get behind that thing and I sound like somebody at the shopping mall."
In the next room, Peter Lamb—a salesman and repairman here—can hear the music, too. He fidgets while talking to the customer he's helping, trying to finish this conversation and get upstairs fast. He's not being rude: His two hours off of the clock started 10 minutes ago, and he wants to join the jam. Lamb finally ducks out to his car, grabs the black case that's holding his tenor saxophone, and rushes up the stairs. When he opens the door, the jam's already over. Trombone and piano player Dave Wright and bassist Steve Grothmann—the founders of The Countdown Quartet, the Triangle's top horns-guitars-rhythms-and-keys institution since 1998—are already sitting in the corner, drinking from cans of Miller High Life and talking about how hot it is up here. Lamb, the youngest member of The Countdown, is miffed he missed the music. For a band that's exactly a week away from its last gig, these guys can't get enough of each other.
Back downstairs, sitting on a couch in Marsh's much cooler kitchen, they all agree. There's no real reason to break up right now: No one's mad. No one hates the music they've played since their first weekly residency back at Sadlack's, when they were actually a quartet. No one resents the time they've put in. Well, that's not entirely true, they reckon: Maybe a few of the approximately 50 musicians who have been members or sidemen with The Countdown over the last nine years resent their time in the band. But not these three.
For every bitter former member, there are dozens of great Countdown stories. So many, in fact, that Wright used to keep track of them in a band-eyes-only diary. They laugh about the one member with a taste for vodka and sloppy joes (and the gas his habit caused, which he always apologized for). There's the audience in Hickory that was into getting naked or fighting one night. And the stage in Columbia, S.C., that leaked water down on the instruments.
In South Carolina five years ago, their van broke down and they wound up at a garage on a dirt road that cut through the woods. The shop had already closed for the weekend, but the mechanics were still there. As they fixed the van raised on a hydraulic lift, the band stood beneath and played a set. Morgan Davis, one of several dozen former Countdown drummers, used the van's undercarriage for a drumset.
"One mechanic's wife called, and she didn't believe he wasn't at the bar," remembers Grothmann, chuckling. "They should have gone home, but they fixed it. They bought a couple of CDs, even."
Wright, laughing just as much at the couch's other end, remembers drinking "eight to 15 beers" at shows. When The Countdown toured with Southern Culture on the Skids, he'd fall asleep immediately after his own set. Two hours later, someone would shake him awake to join Southern Culture on trombone for the night's last two numbers.
Indeed, The Countdown Quartet's dealt with nearly every hassle and laugh the road can hand a touring band. They've also faced every insult a Raleigh band can expect: Outside of the region, they've continually been referred to as a Chapel Hill band. And, because there were often more than four members in the band, Grothmann says they were labeled as "another one of those Chapel Hill bands that can't count," following, of course, in the footsteps of Ben Folds Five.
But the biggest misconception about The Countdown revolved around the other area band with horns and an old sound, Squirrel Nut Zippers. Having Zipper Jimbo Mathus play guitar on all three albums they recorded for Yep Roc didn't help.
"We're not a Squirrel Nut Zippers spin-off band, but people write that," says Grothmann. "They were their thing, but me and Dave started the band with a completely different aim and approach and people."
The connection wasn't always a bad thing. Grothmann recalls that, in the band's early days, they could land high-paying gigs out of state, even if the audience didn't get exactly what the booking agent—and, in turn, the club—had promised. That is, a swing band.
"When we first started, man, this lady up in Richmond was booking us to play these swing dances. We show up, and I'm wearing jeans and a T-shirt and a pair of tennis shoes, and people there got on zoot suits and chains and everything," Wright remembers. "And I'm sitting there going, 'Huh. What's going on here?' We might play three or four of those tunes, but then we start seeping into some other things."
But those "other things" are what's made The Countdown Quartet so enjoyable for so long: They've been stylistic zealots and American music mavens, covering jazz, country, swing, soul, blues and early rock and then recombining them into bright, ringing originals.
"Some of the early stuff we did was like a combo version of Rebirth Brass Band-type grooves. We did a lot of trad-jazz with banjo," says Grothmann. "But we never meant to be solely a 'New Orleans' band. I really think we did a unique Carolina thing: Dave Wright brought a lot of straight-up R&B, '50s rock 'n' roll and pop-song arrangement..."
On the stage and on record, their exuberance was contagious. Even sitting here today, it still is. Grothmann, Lamb and Wright make The Countdown Quartet sound like the most fun they could ever have, but Grothmann, Wright and Dave "Smokehouse" Andrews (the orginal guitarist who's back now) have two kids each. Being tired at a day job from the gig the night before doesn't make home life easy. Lamb is eager to add that he has no kids, but that doesn't mean he's begrudging his bandmates. He understands their decision, but he's mostly bummed that he's going to keep missing chances to play with them.
"Working here, I get to hear so many musicians come in and play, and I've known a lot of musicians, but there's no one I like playing with as much as these guys," he says. Lamb says the Countdown has at least one more album in it. "Playing with other bands is just not as much fun as playing with The Countdown."
The Countdown Quartet plays its final show at Sadlack's Heroes Saturday, Aug. 11, at 7 p.m. Admission is free, and the band invites everyone they've ever played with to bring their instrument.