The man armed with an an vintage Fender Telecaster and battle-scarred cowboy hat asks, “What time is it!?”
His friends scattered around the room shout back, “It’s time for a team drink!”
Tommy Rocker then takes a sip of what we’ll call FizzyWater from a red Solo cup from a holder clipped to his mic stand. The team-drink callout is one of Rocker’s signature moves in his weekend shows at Tommy Rocker’s Mojave Beach Bar & Grill on Dean Martin Drive.
The business has long stood in the shadow of the Rio; now it’s also in the shadow of Allegiant Stadium.
The club was dark during the COVID-19 shutdown. There was no point in trying to serve its usual clientele of hospitality-industry workers from Strip resorts just to the east, which have also been closed. But Tommy Rocker’s reopened Thursday. Saturday was the proprietor and musician’s third show back.
“I’m rusty,” he said after polishing off a four-hour gig starting at 7 p.m. “I was forgetting words to songs I’ve been singing for years.”
Such brain lapses were hardly the point. The crowd of about 20 customers didn’t notice and couldn’t have cared less. Most hung for a few drinks. Some grabbed a bite — I had a salmon burger. Rocker’s wife, Donna, polished off a platter of chicken fingers.
Meantime, Rocker and his singing/musician sidekick, Joey Vitale, played and sang classic-rock and a few country tunes to backing tracks. Otherwise, the mic at Rocker’s side was left open for anyone to come up and sing along.
It all amounted to the first live-entertainment experience for yours truly since I took in “Zombie Burlesque” at V Theater at Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood on March 17. That was the night before Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered non-essential businesses shut down for the coronavirus outbreak.
It was a different hang at Rocker’s, as anticipated. The bar was closed and the video-poker machines disabled. The staff adhered to social distance directives, seating parties at tables several seats apart and cleaning those tables routinely. Glasses were whisked away and replaced rather than refilled. Rocker’s second mic was wiped down whenever anyone came up to sing (one patron did, and another told a joke).
Servers wore face masks, but the customers didn’t, at least in the final two hours of the night. Those who arrived together were seated together. Rocker said he underwent a total cleaning of the entire property regularly in the days leading to Thursday’s relaunch, and his reopening plan pulled from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Federal Drug Administration, Southern Nevada Health District and Nevada Gaming Control Board.
“We have reams and reams of documents,” Rocker says. “We have studied every directive out there.” The Rockers’ sister restaurant, Black Mountain Grill in Henderson, has remained open with pickup and delivery service through the COVID-19 shutdown. Donna Rocker says 90 percent of that restaurant’s employees have remained on the payroll.
Tommy Rocker has played occasional acoustic sets for the cars parked outside Black Mountain Grill. His cantina’s two bars and gaming machines will open after Sisolak approves those activities to return in Phase Two of the state’s reopening plan.
Sisolak is holding a news conference Tuesday, expected to announce a June 4 reopening date for casinos across the state. If that plan holds, it would allow such businesses as Rocker’s to resume video-poker business. He says bar customers will be seated with one seat between each machine. Those devices are crucial to Rocker’s business.
So is a sense of confidence among those walking into the cantina.
“People need to know that we have followed all the guidelines to reopen, that’s the main thing,” Rocker says. “The customer has to feel safe because nobody knows how long this will go on.”
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats! podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.