Robbie “Gade” Polomsky is on his way to a possible world record, and what a long, strange trip it’s been.
On Monday, just 11 days short of reaching the milestone of 500-straight days of performing, the streak was jeopardized when a disturbed man entered Gade’s house, creating a scary situation in a North Tahoe neighborhood.
During the more than an hourlong standoff, Gade did what he always does: He took requests from the police surrounding the house, playing Pink Floyd and John Denver songs.
“The mood was so tense with a dozen cops surrounding my house with guns drawn,” Gade said. “I thought that I could lighten things up a bit and serenade them. Honestly, I was almost more stressed about being late for my gig that evening than I was about the intruder locked in my house. I needed to keep my streak going.”
A pandemic sidelined performing artists all across the world. But Gade, who was greatly influenced by The Beatles, had too much passion and energy to “Let It Be.”
A long, winding road of music led him to Lake Tahoe years ago, and June 18 will be his 500th day in a row of playing shows, either at venues or on sidewalks and parks and outside restaurants.
The invincible minstrel planned to submit his streak to Guinness World Records and then take a day off after reaching the milestone. But maybe not.
“It doesn’t look like it now because I’m booked every day this summer,” said Gade, who figures he averages six hours of performance a day, closing in on 3,000 hours of playing guitar during the 500 day streak. With double and triple duty on some days, he estimates he’s played 575 shows.
To verify his record with Guinness, he has recorded daily videos and secured affidavits from venue owners. Gade said he will submit his mark when he takes a day off. There is no Guinness World Record listed for most days of consecutive performances.
However, on April 10, 97-year-old jazz drummer Tino Contreras of Mexico City set the record for being the oldest musician to headline a live-stream concert.
Gade’s music career has been multifaceted. Early on in hometown Bowling Green, Ohio, he played bass in a blues band, and backed touring artists such as Chuck Berry, Albert Collins and Luther Allison. Then became an electric guitarist in rock ‘n’ roll bands, moving to Lake Tahoe where he famously shared the stage four times with Jimmy Page in 1991. A songwriter, he plans to soon make a second all-original album with a most notable drummer for the sessions: longtime friend and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Doug Clifford.
He also worked two decades as a concert and festival promoter. He says he is making up for those years of not performing by extensively playing now. Over the weekend, he played seven shows in three days.
Gade’s streak began Feb. 4, 2020. After venues shut down in March, Gade played his guitar on the Tahoe City Coast Guard pier and had an epiphany. “Somebody on a kayak rolled up a bill and tossed it on the pier and at that moment I realized that I could probably make a living playing solo acoustic guitar,” he said.
The consecutive-gig enterprise as a solo acoustic performer was spurred by adversity. A lifelong skier, Gade damaged his feet by wearing possibly ill-fitting ski boots. He had several joint-fusion surgeries and in 2016 one of them went wrong. Gade will never ski or run again, however, his recovery period provided time to practice guitar all day.
“I had to sit with my foot elevated for a month and I said I am going to ditch my pick.”
Gade, who used to exclusively use a pick, now only uses one when he’s in a noisy venue or when his fingers crack or sometimes bleed.
Gade had “dabbled” with Mark Knopfler’s fingerpicking style. But he learned and practiced the Travis technique, which uses the low strings for rhythmic bass notes – apt for making a guitar sound like two instruments at the same time. Gade also can play piano songs on guitar by artists such as Paul McCartney and Elton John.
On a pier, the minstrel’s sounds of music crossed the water and attracted kayakers, sometimes as many as a dozen. The response was so rewarding that he resolved himself to play outdoors every day.
When he performs he becomes energized and he forgets about the pain in his knee and feet.
Gade sometimes plays long instrumentals, allowing him on-the-job practice time to work out melodies. He can play the entire seven-song run – starting with the wistful “You Never Give Me Your Money – that concludes The Beatles’ album “Abbey Road.”
Gade said he knows 120 Beatles songs and more than 1,200 overall. He refers to a computer app for lyrics but knows all the melodies by ear, a gift he’s had since he was a child.
His father insisted he learn to read music and play accordion.
“I could never get hang of reading music so I memorized songs,” Gade said. “I’d get the vinyl of Frankie Yankovic’s polka classics and I’d just learn the songs. I went to a lesson and just pretended I was reading. And I never got busted by my teacher.
“Playing by ear, you develop an ear, and a lot of kids nowadays, they don’t. You can learn a song on YouTube in a half-hour where it would take me a few hours picking up the record needle, trying to understand Mick Jagger’s lyrics or in car with cassette player trying to rewind it to the exact spot.”
The Grateful Dead was famous for extended jams. Some of the songs lasted 20 minutes. Gade came up with the notion of playing segments of 20 Dead songs in 20 minutes.
A listener on a sidewalk recently rewarded the performance with a generous tip.
“God bless you,” he said. “That was the first live music I’ve heard in a year.”
“I’ve heard that comment nearly every day,” Gade said.
When there is a sparse crowd, Gade occasionally invites a person to play his second guitar and take a lesson. On Sunday, he taught a Cranberries song to a 13-year-old girl.
“After she learned the song, she played on stage for the first time in her life,” Gade said. “Unfortunately her lesson was interrupted by a gentleman who had a little much to drink.”
The man fell, knocking over a speaker. Then he stumbled off, eventually falling face first into a bush.
“She ended up getting three lessons: No. 1, How to play the song. No. 2, How not to get distracted when a customer falls and knocks over your speaker. And No. 3, Don’t drink alcohol at the gig. Great preparation for when she is playing in bars in a few years.”
During a break from his six-day-a-week sets at Moe’s Original BBQ in Tahoe City, Gade took a walk on a pier with his Taylor guitar. A couple of women, both Sacramento residents and European expats, asked Gade to play a song.
The guitarists suggested a handful of tunes but the women said they didn’t know them.
“Can you play an Italian song?”
Momentarily, Gade appeared stumped. Then he went into a tune famously sung by Elvis Presley, “It’s Now Or Never.” Afterward, he explained Elvis had taken the melody from the Italian classic “O Sole Mio.”
The women appeared thrilled, said they frequently visit Tahoe and asked where they could find Gade perform.
“That’s how I get my fan base: one person at a time,” Gade said. “And people are very generous when you play requests.”
Gade will gauge an audience to try to play to its taste. A room filled with youngsters might get nursery songs, such as “Wheels On The Bus.” A room filled with senior citizens might hear “Wonderful World” or “My Way.” Tom Petty and Neil Young are Gade’s two of go-to artists. Like James Taylor and Cat Stevens, Gade does not on rely harmonizers, pedals or pitch correction devices.
“Plug in and play is my motto,” he said.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, a popular morningtime place for Gade to busk – street perform — was at the cafe at Waterman’s Landing. Then he started going to Syd’s Bagelry, which served takeout. He would follow the afternoon sun rays to nearby Heritage Plaza. When it snowed, he also played under the covered patio in front of Rosie’s Café.
Venues where he performed outside were Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort in Tahoe Vista, Alibi Ale Works in Truckee and Incline Village and Moe’s Original BBQ in Tahoe City. He plays inside those venues, too.
“I want to thank Alex Mourelatos, Curtis Clark of Syd’s, Eric Pilcher, Zach Maidment and Fred Schneider of Moe’s and Aaron Zendner, Kevin Drake, Rich Romo, Rylan Cordova, Sasha Severance and super talent-buyer Dennis Alexander of Alibi Ale Works,” Gade said. “If it wasn’t for them, I’d be going insane during the pandemic.”
Gade also performs in a duo with Nancy Barker, who plays bass and keyboards and also can play any song by ear. “We sound like a full band,” Gade said. “I am in awe of her skills, and sometimes I just stop playing and become a fan listening to her amazing solos.”
An iron horse guitarist, Gade someday might be known as the Lou Gehrig of musicians. However, he has a personal connection to credit his inspiration.
The brother of Gade’s former girlfriend is a sailor named Reid Stowe, who hosted him all over the world in places such as on the Caribbean island of Dominica, the Coast of France, and even Chelsea Pier in New York City.
Stowe had a voyage that lasted 1,152 days. He never stepped on land in all that time. He lived on beans and rice, the fish he caught and vegetables he grew on his on-deck garden.
“On days when there was a blizzard, I’d think about Reid,” Gade said. “Playing 500 days is nothing compared to what he did.”
To see Gade perform, he can be found Wednesday through Monday in the afternoon at Moe’s Original BBQ, Tuesdays starting at 5 p.m. at Alibi Ale Works in Truckee, Wednesday nights on the white sand beach at Mourelatos Lakeshore Resort in Tahoe Vista and Thursday nights at Alibi Ale Works at Incline Village, with occasional gigs at Garwoods and Bar of America. He also gives online guitar lessons and posts his live show performances every day on YouTube LINK and Facebook LINK.