*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine March 2017
When you get nice and comfortable with your musical act and have a substantial fan base filling up the bar stools at your gigs, you mistakenly believe that these fans will be your fans forever. Here’s how it works when you’re a “bar” musician. Single people go out to meet people and maybe by chance your band is playing where people go to meet people. But once single people meet another single person they’d rather hang out with doing other things, they eventually stop going to bars. Two empty bar stools. Couples you manage to get and keep as fans eventually get married, have kids, and can’t get babysitters, so they don’t come anymore either. Two more empty bar stools. Even if Bruce Springsteen was playing in my town every weekend I still wouldn’t want to go see him every weekend. I could be out of money, or sick, or taking care of someone who’s sick, or sick of his songs. So, your fan base is always changing, in other words, is always diminishing. I believe the solution to this unavoidable calamity is to get yourself outa town in order to reach out to new people who a) have never seen you before so you’re kind of like a novelty, b) they haven’t hooked up with anybody yet so they actually still go to bars and c) to keep your sanity and belief in what you are doing. Playing in new towns is like getting a new Barbie camper – with so many new landscapes to explore. I can re-use my outfits and meet so many new Barbies and Kens.
One of my favorite regions to play is down South in Georgia and South Carolina. I take an earned vacation from my day job and use it as an excuse to play gigs down there. What’s cool about down South is, they think because I’m from the North, that I must be some cool New Yorker with a cool accent, when in actuality, I’m just a bored New Englander who really just needed to get outa town because the bar stools are empty at my gigs.
I played this bar in Lexington, South Carolina which is the only bar for 50 miles. You would think on a Tuesday night that the crowds would be rather light. Not so! The owner asked me to start early, and play later. Ya’ll dig? The owner said, “Ya’ll let me know when you’re gonna be ‘round these parts agin, ya hear?” Easy money right there.
I played a bar in Georgia where it was all about the tip jar. Because I was from the North, people thought I drove all the way down there just to play that bar, so they were quite generous. We called it the “Love Bucket,” and man oh man, did they fill it. Two nights in a row I made enough money in that jar to pay for the whole trip. One elderly gentleman in a worn-out cowboy hat said, “I’ll done give ya one hundred dollers if you play me some Johnny Cash.” I happily obliged.
I went on vacation one year to Madeira, Portugal and met some nice musical people who even invited me up on stage to jam. It was disconcerting that they could sing in English and I couldn’t sing in Portuguese or do any of that Fado stuff, but they seemed to be OK with it. Through Facebook, we arranged an actual gig together for the following year when I would return to Madeira.
The night arrived, I was in town, and I was drinking heavily with my friends. The island of Madeira is an ancient, secluded place where kings and diplomats and sheiks hang out to let loose. Nestled in the North Atlantic near the Canary Islands, it rises up like one big mountain like something out of Jurassic Park. There’s a Pizza Hut on the island that gives out free samples of Madeira wine, which is more like a port, and potent as heck. Actually, this magical port is served everywhere, and if you don’t watch yourself, you can really get trashed, in about 20 minutes. There’s also this crazy drink called a poncha, which is more than a drink. It’s an event. People get together down back alleys and side roads and have a poncha. They eat peanuts and drink and drink and drink this concoction of fire water (really potent alcohol), honey, sugar, lemon rind and fruit juice. It’s like a scorpion bowl on crack. Yes I had one, or two.
On the island, there are also Irish bars, English pubs and Italian restaurants, all competing for the tourist dollar. We were happy to oblige. We tipped outrageously, which they thought was just hilarious. “Americanos – wasting their Euros again!” There was one local bar where all the cops hung out. They smoked weed right at their table, and passed the stuff around like it was completely legal or something. (I think it is.)
The gig time arrived, I walked up the steep cobblestoned incline to the venue (every road is uphill in this place!) and huffed and puffed right on past. I was plastered! I’m sure they did just fine without me. We’re still friends on Facebook.
But my very favorite place to play in the whole world is on my brother’s veranda in a cute little town in Georgia, which is also the hometown of Gregg Allman. Everybody in town knows Gregg Allman, and has guitars or pictures signed by Gregg Allman. When you play guitar on a veranda in Georgia, everybody comes over and it’s a p-ar-ar-tay. The pay isn’t good, but it’s good for the soul. Time to pack the camper!