Working musicians know that the key to a positive gig experience isn’t just in how prepared we are, but how well we are able to deal with and respond to the things we never thought to prepare for. We know not to flip out over a bad monitor mix or because the Jagermeister is the wrong temperature; we are professionals. We do our best to keep a positive attitude and roll with the punches.
Some nights though, those punches just keep coming and no amount of rolling can save us from the beating it would seem fate intends us to receive. If you’ve been playing live for any length of time it’s probably happened to you already, and if not, you can enjoy (at my expense) the harrowing tales of…
Gigging at the Edge of Reason!
Episode 1: The Kids Don’t Pay
A few years ago, the band I was in at the time took a one-off gig at an all-ages show in Terre Haute, Indiana. Near the border of Indiana and Illinois, Terre Haute is the home of Indiana State University, the Federal Death Row complex, and the intersection of US Hwy 40 and US Hwy 41. It’s kind of a big deal.
The gig was at a venue obviously used commonly for the purpose of all-ages shows; ample room for stage, sound, and crowd, but zero bar and zero tables. It was clear from the start that this was going to be an under-21 scene almost exclusively, which was fine with us. Totally awesome and forward-thinking Indiana state law restricts anyone under 21 from entering a venue that serves alcohol, so if you want to reach those kids, this is the kind of place you have to play.
The ‘Haute was two hours away from our “operational base” in Indianapolis, but we managed to get there with plenty of time to load in and set up, do a quick sound check, and await the opening of the doors while we kicked around with the two other bands and talked with the the junior high- and high school-aged kids who were beginning to collect in the parking lot. This was a smallish bill in a smallish town; one we got added to with short notice so we hadn’t spent much time promoting it, but by the time the music was about to start there were around 75 kids hanging out by the doors. I started thinking that it was winding up to be a pretty good show. This many people in a small room can be a blast to play for, and young people enjoy music with an abandon and enthusiasm that is infectious to a live performer.
Plus, they aren’t buying booze, which leaves that disposable, expense-less pocket cash free for the purchasing of band merch.
Finally, it was time. The opening band took the stage. The door guy opened up, ready to collect $5 covers from the waiting throng. Cymbals swelled and amps fed back with foreshadowed intensity, and the kids…
No, seriously. They just kept sitting around in the parking lot and on benches by the door.
Confused, the opening band started their first song, maybe thinking the crowd’s attention had to be earned before it could be expected; That once the kids heard the rock and the roll, they would decide to come in and get their faces properly melted.
After playing their whole set to the walls, the opening band defeatedly tore down, loaded up their van, and broke out faster than you could say “this place doesn’t serve beer.” I normally frown on that kind of behavior, but I couldn’t blame them. No one seemed to care that they played – why should anyone care that they left?
I mean, I’ve played to an empty house before. Some nights there just isn’t the turnout you expect. Sometimes when you’re out on the road, you end up playing where the local acts and venue did absolutely no promoting whatsoever leading up to the show, and you spend the night serenading for the bartender, door guy, and other band’s girlfriends. It sucks, but it’s part of the game.
But this wasn’t that. There was a crowd 20 feet away. On the other side of a wall.
The second band, already disheartened, played through what must have been only one third of their set, because they too were done and gone within about 20 minutes. It was brutal. They played as though looking through some ghastly trans-dimensional nexus at a crowd of people who came for a show but never noticed one was happening in their midst.
I asked a number of the people outside why they weren’t going in to watch the show, and their answers ranged from “I don’t have enough money,” to “I’m just meeting people here,” to “I have to leave soon.” When I asked them “Why did you come to a show if you had no intention of actually going to the show?,” I received only awkward shrugs in response.
When my band finally played to close things out (you couldn’t really call it “headlining”), we managed to attract around a half dozen stragglers inside to watch, and we gave them the best, most energetic performance we had in us. Brave enough to pay for the experience, they deserved at least that much. Afterward, while packing up our van, some of the “outsiders” said that they could hear us from outside and that we sounded good. I don’t know.
I still don’t know. It was the weirdest thing. Maybe we just hit a pocket of kids who really, really aren’t used to paying for music. (I should probably search bittorrent sites for free downloads of that show.) The only thing I can think of is that this venue had become something of a hangout for young people and they sort of showed up there on weekends whether they had any interest in the music or not.
We did see a modest jump in Facebook likes after that day, though.
…And that is the story of the time one of my bands played a venue next to the coolest parking lot in Terre Haute, Indiana.
What you’ve just read is the first installment of a series of short gig stories that I hope to share on this blog from time to time. Actual names of people, bands, and venues will be left out to protect the innocent (namely me).
Share your Hell gigs or weigh in on mine in the comments section…