Sunday, September 29, 2019

I've Looked at Crowds from Both sides Now

I was involved in an online discussion this week after someone posted in a music forum asking what the good folk of the internet thought was a reasonable amount of money for a covers band to ask for if performing for two hours. As you can imagine, the responses were measured, responsible and thoughtful to a tee. No, of course they bloody weren’t. Digressions included the suggestion that covers bands were the work of Satan, why anyone would want to play to an audience of people who buy their music in Tesco in the first place, and how music is a gift which should be freely offered and lovingly accepted. I’m paraphrasing, of course, apart from that one about the so-called Tesco audience, or ‘Clubcard Man’ as I like to call him[1].

Now, I actually have some sympathy for the former position, in that if you search in the press archive of my career[2] you can find an interview in which I express basically the same opinion. A local heavyweight on the band scene had a quiet word with me at the time and I accepted his reasoning and position without necessarily agreeing with it. You could that sort of thing back then[3], before all this electronic malarkey made it easier for people with no experience, knowledge or common sense to opine endlessly about stuff they know nothing about – that sort of “I don’t understand it and so it isn’t a thing” attitude. The sort of people who pooh-pooh the idea of Moon landings, or Beatles remasters.

I don’t want to tell your business, but I’ve seen a few things in my time, and so I feel it is only fair to share with you my wisdom and experience, gleaned over the course of, oh, about the last two weeks, as it happens.

The Pub Band.

Scroll back far enough and you will find the very first entry on this blog, which details a trip out to a provincial town, the consumption of a KFC and some interaction with the locals. Flash forward (checks, sighs) thirteen years and the process is alarmingly similar. Some of the set list is even the same. Only this week I pointed out that when we started playing 5ive’s “Keep On Movin’” it was in the charts. Since then they’ve had time to split up, reform (twice), collaborate with Brian May and release four (four!) Greatest Hits albums – that’s one more than their actual album albums. Whereas we...well, if our mission is, as some online commentators believe, to strangle the nascent indie scene in it’s birth pangs, we’re not doing a very good job. As I write we are a week away from Sound City Ipswich, a multi-venue celebration of original talent. I, on the other hand, am watching a shirtless man in a pub car park explain that people are afraid of him. It’s not all glamour in this game, I can tell you. Apparently I should be doing this exclusively for the sheer joy of making music and basking in the glow generated by the shine in people’s eyes as they look on fondly. I reflect on this as I drive home to pick up the case of leads that I have forgotten to pack earlier[4], watching the fuel gauge slide inexorably into the pink. Maybe if I smile at it, it’ll refill itself?

TOP TIP: The idiot check is your friend. Think “What would an idiot leave behind..?”
The Hired Hand.

I am required and requested to attend, at Mr. Shevlin’s behest, a gathering of The Chancers – a combo assembled in order to better promote a selection of his recorded catalogue in the live performance arena. I am to play rhythm guitar, keep my mouth shut (he’s heard me sing) and not trip over the furniture. He has sent me the prospective set list on Spotify – in the olden days he’d have had to put a cassette in the post and fax me the chords[5] – so I can play along with it in the comfort of my own home before we get together and he can let me know that they’ve changed the key of most of the songs and can I play bass on these three? Nevertheless, he buys me lunch after practise on at least two occasions and lets my dog on his sofa while we run through the songs until we drop. At the gig itself, since I’m also playing in the other group on the bill, I cunningly disguise myself by wearing a different shirt and a hat, thereby melding seamlessly into the background until people hardly even notice I’m there. That guy who said I looked like something Shev had found by the side of the road and brought back from America aside, that is.

TOP TIP: You don’t realsie how much heat is expelled through that bare bit at the back of your head until you put a hat on it. Bring a spare shirt.

The Original Band.

Once you’ve admitted to writing the songs, you really have to own them. And sing them, and play them – frequently all at the same time. Also the phrase “This is a new one” is often redundant in that for many of your audience – if you are lucky enough to have one in the first place – they’re all new. This is also why many people don’t like going to see bands that they haven’t heard, or even heard of, because they don’t want to take the chance that they might not like it. It’s a bit like Morris Dancing, or incest[6]. We are lucky enough to have an open venue willing to put us on (once the pre-theatre dining crowd has cleared out), a supportive local radio DJ or two, and since there are seven of us in the band any venue that we play in looks like it’s getting a good crowd in early doors, at least up until we get up on stage, at which point it tends to look as if there are now many more free tables than there were before. Three of us were in a pub in Stowmarket playing ‘Take It On The Run’ last week, and now here we are doing three part harmonies on a song called ‘Easy Money’ which its author wryly introduces as being “...about being in a band.” Mr. Wendell takes the second verse. “Jimmy Boy sells used cars, but the owners never know...” and I silently fill in my response “His fairies keep him sober for the day.” I don’t know why, it’s not even the same melody, but it’s stuck there now. I think that’s why they don’t let me sing other people’s stuff. Toward the end of the set there is a lengthy slow ballad. “Are we emoting?” asks La Mulley. “We are” I reply firmly. “This song has been played twice on local radio in the past two weeks” I announce. “Which is once more than ‘Down By The Jetty’, and if you know anything about Radio Suffolk that’s quite the achievement.” It’s also a testament and tribute to the goodwill of broadcasters in the field who are willing to play a six minute track by an unsigned band, and without whom we’d all be culturally worse off. I mean, you can’t even Morris Dance to it. To close, we unplug and array ourselves amongst the audience and play an acoustic song. Luckily there are some free tables at the front. “Thanks for taking us on” I say later as we’re being paid[7]. “No worries, we’ve had a good night” she says.
TOP TIP: Be yourself. There’s already one of everybody else. Ironic, I know, coming from someone who spends some of his gig time pretending to be Kevin Cronin.

The Singer-Songwriter.

“Do you know anyone who could do a twenty five minute set to open the show” came the question from a local impressario. “Yes” I thought to myself “I bloody do!” Back around the time I used to get interviewed by the local paper and asked to give my thoughts on whether covers bands were a good thing or not I used to do that sort of thing at the drop of a hat. I used to wear a hat in those days you know. I volunteered myself and was pleased to be offered the commission. Now then - if you thought standing on stage playing some songs you’d made up out of your own head was a nervy prospect in company, imagine doing it all on your own, just you and a guitar (or piano, or accordian, or triangle – although songs performed on the latter do tend to be all in the same key). If you’re particularly intent on making things easier for yourself, and have been inspired by seeing Steve Kilbey or Marty Willson-Piper perform recently, try borrowing a twelve string guitar and using that. The extra tension really puts an edge on things. I’m talking here about the high-tuned octave ‘G’ that if you’re not careful, could have someone’s eye out if it pings mid-show. It didn’t. I performed a six song selection of my back catalogue to a standing ovation[8] and totally failed to sell any Merch. Neither of the CDs and not one of the three books I had on display in the foyer. And I had to buy my own sandwiches.

TOP TIP: There’ll always be someone who talks loudly and at length through your set. We have a name for you people at Singer-Songwriter Club[9].

The Crew.
If you’re the sort of person who has read this far, you’re probably aware of that meme – I think it’s attributed to Henry Rollins – regarding the behaviours appropriate to a performer when dealing with the stage hands. Essentially, they should get paid more than you, and Don’t Be A Dick. One could argue that no-one goes to a gig to watch the stage crew, and that's why the musicians get paid so much but that's the tinder for a whole different kettle of online conflagration right there. As Jackson Browne so memorably put it in his song ‘The Load Out’ “They’re the first to come and the last to leave” and I can tell you from personal experience that a ten hour shift can be extraordinarily tiresome if not ameliorated by the sort of drummer who offers to lend you an appropriate microphone and a clip-on tuner when the pick up on the twelve-string guitar you’ve borrowed turns out not to work after all. Run the power[10], allocate the channels, vacuum the carpet, tune the guitars, find out if the singer prefers a boom or straight microphone stand, have a spare guitar lead, a tuner, a capo. A spare guitar even. If you’re doing your job properly, they won’t even know you’re there. Have a set list to hand with the guitar changes (if any) marked on them. Go to the toilet before the set starts because if you go in the middle that’ll sure as hell be when the guitarist breaks a string, or that drink someone’s perched on the edge of the stage falls over into the power supply you’ve carefully Gaffa taped down beforehand. All of these things and more should be borne in mind. And after the show is over, you have the pleasure and privilege of loading all that equipment out and into the van, possibly in the rain, while the performers gladhand each other[11] and sign things. On the other hand, out of all of the roles that I have played and described – and here’s one for the online community to chew over – guess which one I actually made money on? Backatcha Rollins.
TOP TIP: An onstage proposal of marriage provides an ideal opportunity to tune the guitarist’s instrument while he’s not looking

[1] Since just now.
[2] My Mum’s house.
[3] And you could put anything in your dustbin, and the bin men would come right up to your drive and cart it all away. Not like today, with your coloured recycling wheelies and that. There were only three channels, and you had to get up from the sofa to change them. You never see white dog poo anymore do you? Etc etc.
[4] I thought “The last thing I should do is forget to put my gig case in the car.” And so, sure enough, the last thing I did before leaving the house…
[5] But, you know – the bins, eh?
[6] Joke. It’s from that quote attributed to (variously) Sir Thomas Beecham, Sir Arnold Bax, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw that you should try everything once. And since I’ve looked that up, the phrase “Incest and Morris Dancing” is now on my Google search history. Honestly, the things I do for you people.
[7] The wages of sing.
[8] It was a non-seated venue.
[9] The first rule of Singer-Songwriter Club is YOU DO NOT TALK THROUGH SOMEONE ELSE'S SET AT SINGER-SONGWRITER CLUB. The second is 'No Smoking' 
[10] Someone will always ask if there’s any power at the front of the stage. The correct answer is ‘Yes’.
[11] Not a euphemism. At least not at the gigs I get to play.