Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Where the dream begins, Westerfield.

We have been employed to provide the entertainment for a private party. Unfortunately, it’s one of those “Oh, you can do pretty much what you want” parties, which sounds great in principle, but musicians, like golden retrievers and professional footballers, work best under instruction. “We’ll go out and play for forty five minutes, then we’ll take a break for fifteen to review the first half performance” is a mantra recognizable to most of us, although it’s fairly unusual these days for one of us to be pulled off at half time*. Similarly, in the case of sweaty-fingered drummers, “Go and fetch that stick for me, would you?” is a not wholly unfamiliar phrase. Ours coincidentally also has a very nice coat and spends a lot of the gig being told to sit, and if you’re very nice he might let you tickle his tummy. Ahem, moving on before we get too involved in the simile, if you were going to let me do “pretty much” what I want to at a party then it’s a fair bet that each gig would start with a twenty minute version of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” before we raided the beer stash and passed out under a pile of coats, and there are very few paying hosts that need that in their lives. There are also a disproportionate number of musicians in our band who need that sort of thing - disproportionately small, in my view, but there you go. In the case of at least one other band member (no names, no pack drill), I can well imagine that “doing what he wants” would involve smoking a fatty on the sofa while sprawled in front of the sort of DVD you can only get via mail order while an oiled flunky collects his gig money for him and pops it through the door, and to be fair you can see his point. The Other Guitarist, however, thoroughly enjoys these get togethers on a purely social basis and so we feel constrained to turn up in person, whatever the weather, especially since on this occasion our hosts have been kind enough to hold over the party from last year purely on the basis that we and the hog roast man couldn’t make it on the same evening. Not a biggy for the vegetarian wing of the band, but considered a splendidly considerate gesture by three fifths of the line up. That it now coincides with an England world cup game is little inconvenience. It’s an afternoon kick off and seems unlikely to require the sort of creative excuses needed when you simply have to catch the end of the game, half an hour’s extra time and then a penalty shoot-out before taking the stage. On that occasion we were at least embarrassed enough to give half the money back, given that we didn’t start playing until about twenty minutes before closing time, and we didn’t even get a pizza ad out of it either. Thanks a lot, Southgate. (On the upside, the hen party that had gone out on a Wednesday night purely in order to avoid having to watch the football at home were patient enough to hang on for us, which was nice).
It’s unusual for this kind of thing to happen – after all, you wouldn’t expect the Sultan of Brunei to hold off for a year because (say) Keith Richards had fallen out of a tree and couldn’t make the gig, however improbable that sounds – he’d probably just get Sting to do it instead**, and so we approach the show with all due diligence and preparation – ensuring that we know exactly when the food starts, and where the free bar will be situated in relation to the performing area. Knowing your timings and having a pre-prepared route can be vital in shaving vital seconds off that tricky interval-based refueling session. We also ensure that everyone is available for the gig and will be at least in the right post coded area on the night. Last weekend I caught up with an old friend who now does this sort of thing much more successfully (and in a far more lucrative fashion) than we do, who admitted that within his circle of concern there are around five bands of the same name circling the Home Counties at any one time, all drawing from the same well of musicians and faxed set lists. Blimey, we had enough trouble when The Singer went to The States for a couple of months and we filled in as a four-piece without starting to try and organize ourselves like a Sunday league cricket club (“You don’t mind opening today do you, only Ginger’s away with the first team in Tring…”). I imagine that’s why we have the fun we do at parties like this. And why folk’d rather call the whole thing off than go ahead without us. There ain’t no party like a Picturehouse party.

* ker-tissshhh!!!
** I used to work at a video duplication company who got the contract to run off a few copies of one of The Sultan’s kids’ birthday parties. You get more than a few balloon animals and a goody bag with some refreshers in at one of those things, I can tell you. Mind you, if we get annoyed when someone insists that we stop the set half way through to sing “Happy Birthday”, imagine how Bryan Adams must feel.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

"He's not Gene Simmons, he's a very naughty boy..."

Back when I was someone, I often took
to the boards sporting a rather fetching pair of Blues Brother-esque faux ray-bans. Intended to imply a mysterious, elegant and mildly threatening aura, the real reason, purely and simply, was that I was absolutely terrified for most of the time I was on stage. The protection afforded me of not having to open my eyes for a large proportion of the set meant that I could enjoy making the noise for which I mostly responsible for authoring without any of that tedious mucking about to see if anyone was actually enjoying it or not, which most of the time was a serious blessing. 

I am reminded of these more innocent times as The Drummer suggests that we don shades for a couple of numbers at The Pickerel. It’s partially the response of one lively audience member that reminds me that as well as my burgeoning confidence as the early days wore on meaning I was able to throw off the shackles of self-imposed myopia I also had another reason, and one which becomes clearer with the passage of time. I don’t suit shades, and I look (to coin a recently expressed phrase) “like a dick”. Which is a shame, because audience watching can be a most enjoyable way to spend an evening, not least if you have the protection from identification as a pseudo-stalker afforded by your sunnies and can remember to move your fingers at the appropriate junctures so that it looks like you’re concentrating. 

If you’re much less a flamboyant showman than a dutiful sidekick you can pretty much spend your entire career this way - it helps whiles away the hours between solos, for a start. Drummers, from their seated position at the back, frequently have the best vantage points in terms of frock-spotting* and over the years one can come to recognize an unexpected and insistent double bass drum flams not only as an ad-hoc contribution to rock’s rich history of syncopated rhythms, but as an indicator that a girl in great strappy sandals has just walked across the front of the stage. On the downside of course they do generally have to spend an inordinate amount of time staring at the singer’s backside, and in the world of the Rock Dad which we surely inhabit, that’s not always exactly a cakewalk in the park**. 

The keen audience-spotter should never underestimate the level of irritation that may be afforded to the (frequently burly) partners of such spottees however, and so it is important not to stare overtly if you can help it unless you have either a car running outside throughout the show just in case, or have studied advanced microphone-stand combat techniques to at least Second Dan level. Also, it’s best to not bother at all if your spouse, fiancĂ©e, lover or same-sex hetero life-partner has come along to lend you moral support. Not even the most supportive wife will believe you were really going to comment to her in the break about the slutty girl in the red dress and how she was surely going to catch her death in weather like this when they’ve been watching your eyes follow her around the room for the entire first set. You only need to learn that once, I can tell you. 

Not that this necessarily precludes the fundamental basis of all stage/audience interaction – after all, the vanity factor which first drove the musician to stand on a stage and proclaim to the world “look at me, look at me, I’m fabulous!”*** but is now so deeply buried beneath a grubby patina of sticky carpeted pub gigs and overflowing ashtrays in the artist’s mind can easily be re-enflamed by the merest hint that a girl in the audience actually finds him physically attractive! Here, as in all things, caution must be exercised. 

The onstage / offstage interaction scenario is complex and arcane in its execution. As long as everyone remembers that it’s make-believe then it’s all great fun. Talent is a harsh mistress, but still probably a better one than that lass in the halter top who’s been eyeing you up during your solo in Hotel California will be. Unless, of course, you want to meet her boyfriend/husband and/or Mum later on – any combination of which can be terribly distracting. Mind you, if that’s your bag, as it were…. 

Anyway, all of this came to mind as I watched the tall, leggy redhead in the strappy top and the cowboy hat dance in her heels at the front of the gig last week. That and because someone shouted at me “take your sunglasses off indoors – you look like a dick…..”

 *this should not be confused at all with “logo spotting” which is an experience wherein an audience, or proportion thereof, will crane their necks at a forty five degree angle in order to be able to tell what make of guitar you’re playing, what effects you’re putting it through and, in some advanced cases, what’s next on the set list. This frequently requires spinal double-jointery and should be attempted only by extremely seasoned gig goers. And those who don’t like surprises. Remember to warm up thoroughly first. 

 ** It’s what we in the biz know as MacArthur’s law of returns. 

 *** And this we refer to as the Rufus factor.