Get Outa Town!

*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!

 

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Nightmare Gigs

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine May 2016

Throughout my illustrious and surely un-famous musical career I have been plagued with nightmares between the restless hours of three and five a.m. But they’re not your standard falling, drowning, getting chopped up kind. They are about my gigs. They usually come when I have a big show coming up, or when I am completely prepared for the show, or if I have serious doubts. I had a gig coming up at a prestigious folk venue in Pomfret, Connecticut. In my dream, when I started to play my guitar that night I noticed too late that it had no frets, no little dots, and the strings were arranged upside down. I was guessing where to play the chords, and they were all wrong. I was doing a slow, haunting melody, and one of the band members started helping me out by playing along (with a proper guitar) and turned it into some zydeco foot-tapping thing. The whole place started dancing crazy, while I tried to sing my heart out. There was this plastic cover on the microphone, like a prophylactic, and my mouth kept swallowing it up. This in turn would choke me, and I kept screwing up the words, so to speak. As the place is hopping, and I’m mortified, this horrific thunder and lightning storm comes out of nowhere, and the power goes out. People start screaming and scrambling, and I figure, I’m a professional here, so no matter what, I am going to finish this song. I get to the epic final note, without the help of my Creoles, and the place erupts into hysterical laughter. “What a stupid way to end a zydeco song!” somebody yells, and the laughter continues.

This is the stuff dreams are made of people.

TheScream

I often dream of my Junior High. I am walking the halls like I own the place, and disapprove of the changes and new paint. But in reality, Junior High held such promise for me, except for one fateful night when somebody thought it was a good idea for me and three others to perform as a barbershop quartet a Capella at the BIG high school in town. When you’re 12-years old and can sing harmonies with others, teachers and parents think it’s just so wonderful and cute. Unappreciative, rebellious teenagers in high school… not so much. So we break into a rousing rendition of “Jeepers Creepers” in perfect four-part harmony, just to show them how great we were.

It took the audience about 10 seconds to start giggling – softly and respectfully at first. But then, before we knew it, the place was ablaze with uncontrollable laughter. My barbershop mates and I looked at each other as if they must be laughing at something going on behind us. We finished the song and were rewarded with more laughter, and not a single hand clap. I guess you could call this my first experience with celebrity mortification. This humiliating event appears and re-appears in my dreams, and is right there on the surface every time I start a show. Will they buy and appreciate my music, or will they think it’s a “Saturday Night Live” skit?

Gigs that can easily turn into nightmares include: playing to empty bar stools, competing with sporting events on a TV set right over your head, equipment malfunctions, band members not showing up, and bartenders forgetting how to turn off the jukebox. But there’s more!

Charity gigs can be emotionally rewarding while you give your talent away in exchange for a good cause, but can occasionally be nightmares.

One time we went to Woodstock, New York to do a benefit and our pay was “gas money.” We pull into town, and it didn’t take long for the reefer to permeate. It was everywhere man! The scene: Kids riding bikes with joints hanging out of their mouths, seriously good musicians on every corner with bongs next to their tip jars, nostalgia boutiques with Janis Joplin and Jimmy Hendrix tapestries covering the door. Far out stuff here.

It is still 1969 in this town.

WoodstockMeKevGuy

There’s this 100-year old dude who rides around on quite a fancy 10-speed with all kinds of voodoo stuff hanging off it. He calls himself Grandpa Woodstock, and flashes the peace sign more than New Yorkers flip the bird.

Protestors show up every day on the green with freshly made signs advertising the cause of the day. Our day was “Free Gaza” day. People in this town are either pacing back and forth for a cause, sitting on a bench eating ice cream, strumming a guitar, or just flat-out wasted on the sidewalk.

So we get to the venue (a church) and expect hundreds of these modern moguls to pack the place and rock out for the cause. There are only a couple places for live music in the entire valley so our hopes are high.

Not to be.

Turns out, people just didn’t want to hand over the $20 cover charge to help out the church – no matter who was playing in there for free. We played a Woodstock-inspired set to five people. One was the pastor. We never got the gas money. We drove back to Connecticut in a blinding rain storm at 3 a.m.

Sign of the times I guess.

Another nightmare gig to EVER agree to is the abominable “Play for the Door” gig. This means there’s a cover charge and the band is presumably paid what is collected at the door.

Lies. Lies. Lies.

Unless you’ve got one of your own groupies watching every move the door-collector guy does, the band ain’t getting nowhere NEAR what’s collected at the door. It’s their word against yours. If you count 50 people in the room, at $5 a head, then you would think if you graduated Junior High, it equates to $250 for the band. When they hand you $100 at the end of the night with a nice smile and a thank you so much, you can cry foul all you want, but stupid you, you agreed to this stuff.

One time at a bar in New London this exact thing happened, and the drummer got so mad he literally punched the bartender (or slightly missed him, can’t remember.) “You’re full of crap! We can count! Give us what we’re owed!” But unless you’re going to break the poor bartender’s knee caps, you really have no choice but to take what you’re given. Better than nothin’!

This other time at a bar in South Windsor, we were again, playing for the door (STUPID!!!) Having learned from our mistakes, we actually left our own scout at the door, to count every dollar. The door-collector guy kept letting people in for free, and this was immediately reported to us. We approach the guy.

“Why aren’t you charging these people? We’re the entertainment and we get the money collected at the door.”

He says, “I can’t charge my regulars or they’d never come back here again.”

Turns out, every single person who walked in the door that night was a regular, except for my brother and the sax player who showed up late.

We made $10.

Sweet dreams people!

Book Em Danno

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine March 2016

I adjusted the microphone stand to align my silver Seinnheiser so it pointed straight at my upper lip. Not too high, not too low, not pointing up and not pointing down. I screwed my water bottle holder precisely half-way down on the left side of the stand, not the right side. I swung my electric Fender strat over my head, stood up to the microphone, and waved my guitar to the left to be sure I wouldn’t knock the stand over, or whack my bass player. It was 15 minutes to show time and the bar was filling up.

The waitress seated a party of four directly in front of the stage and I smiled at them. A coiffured woman in her sixties said to the group but mostly to me, “Oh No! There’s a band? We’re going to go deaf!” I quickly scanned the room and saw there were literally no more seats to be had so I politely interjected, “We’re not loud at all. It will be nice dinner music for you.” Huffy-Puffy lady was not convinced.

Would you like to know what I REALLY wanted to say?

“Listen you old fogey, enjoy your shrimp but, do you have ANY IDEA the steps I had to take to set up this microphone in front of your ungrateful self? HUH?!? It’s not just a microphone. If you would look past your salad fork you’d see it’s also guitar amps and monitors and speakers, which involved the heaving of those said speakers on top of whimsy old speaker stands that may loosen and come crashing down smack dab in the middle of your carafe. And it’s not just the the bags and bags of super heavy maple-shelled drums and copper symbols and metal stands with delicate screwing knobs that were also lugged in here at 11 a.m. so we wouldn’t get in the way of ‘your party.’ We also did a sound check hours earlier so your delicate ears weren’t subjected to any squealing or pounding snare drums. In order to set up this microphone you see before you, first we had to learn how to play our instruments, then we had to become a band, then we had to rehearse once a week after working all day at our day jobs, and then we had to hone down an entertaining show – FOR YOU. Then we had to PROMOTE the fact that we now ARE a band, and then we had to BEG the manager for this grand opportunity. You see my dearest, this microphone in front of you should actually be referred to as the eighth wonder of the world.”

As most musicians know, booking gigs is worse than root canals, the mere thought of colonoscopies, and stomach flus that come out both ends – combined. It’s like what Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire says: “It’s an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about.”

But let me tell you about it. Here’s how it goes down.

You scan Facebook event invites, newspapers, and especially this wonderful publication – Sound Waves Magazine – to see where other bands are playing. You see if there is anybody in those bands who will talk to you and you ask them who the booking contact is at the venues they have bookings. You call the venue and ask for that person. That person is never there so you ask when they will be there. You call back at the designated time, but miraculously they are still not there. How do they make a living if they’re never at work? You set a plan to drive to the venue and spend a few dollars at the bar so you can talk to the booking contact who should be there who maybe just never wants to come to the phone. You get there and ask for the booking contact, but they are not there. So you ask…again… when they will be there. They say they don’t know. Obviously, all booking contacts are independently wealthy.

So then you move on to the next lead, and the next, and the next, and they all pretty much work out the same: NO GIGS and out a lot of gas money.

Sometimes venues want you to send them a package in the mail with a demo CD, a “Fact Sheet,” and a nice glossy picture. So, you scrounge up the money to record a demo CD in a studio, a photographer for a photo shoot, and a print shop for the 8x10s. Then, you make up some facts in a Microsoft Word document and list all the places you have managed to play. You buy some ink and paper for your home printer and print out the facts. You go to Staples and buy some fancy colorful folders to put the facts, the picture, and the demo CD into. You also buy some 10×13 yellow clasp envelopes to put the colorful folders into. You write the mailing address of the venue on the yellow clasp envelope and drive to the post office. You pay the post master to deliver your yellow clasp envelope. You wait two weeks to call the person you addressed the yellow clasp envelope to but get his voicemail so you leave a message informing him that he should have received a brightly colored folder in a yellow clasp envelope for booking consideration. YOU NEVER HEAR BACK. EVER.

Sometimes venues have fancy forms on the Internet for you to fill out where you list your band name, upload an .MP3 (from the demo CD if you can figure out how to burn it off the CD and attach it to the form), and you enter in your band’s web site. Sometimes, free Facebook band pages aren’t enough, as well as other free services such as SoundCloud, ReverbNation, or BandCamp. So, in order to have a REAL band web site, you have to make up a domain name for your band and register it with a service like Go Daddy so they can make your band name into a URL (the stuff behind http://.) Sometimes you have to add “TheBand” to the end of your domain name because there are only so many domain names to choose from. Then, you have to find an Internet provider to host your band web site, but you also need an Internet provider at your house so you can build the web site and upload it to the other Internet provider so when people type in your URL, Go Daddy knows where to send the people who look at booking consideration forms. But in the meantime you have to learn how to build web sites so you can have a band web site so you can type it into a form so the booking contact at the other end of the form can ignore it. Sometimes it’s just too complicated so you have to hire your next-door neighbor’s 12-year old son to build it for you. But regardless, you NEVER hear back from the people behind the form. EVER.

For this particular gig mentioned at the beginning of my whining here, it took THREE YEARS of going into the venue, not getting to talk to anybody, finding out the booking contact had changed and the new one preferred emails, so emails were sent, to no response, ad nauseam. The BIG LONG AWAITED BOOKING DAY came on an unexpected Sunday afternoon while having lunch at the venue, with no particular agenda. I was just hungry.

The bartender said, “Hey – when the heck are you playing here?”

“Apparently never.”

“No wait, she’s here, let me go get her.” She went and got the billionaire from her yacht or the back office or something. We talked. She booked us for three gigs, one every other month.

Well that was easy.

So, Party of Four? Enjoy this show that was super easy for us to book. And by the way, the microphone WILL be quite loud.