I’ve played over a 100 shows a year for over 20 years, that’s a total of more than 2000 shows! Not all of them have been good. I’ve played when I was so sick that I was hallucinating, I’ve played at an outdoor festival on a 120 degree stage, with a black backdrop, in the blazing hot sun. I’ve played a nonstop 3-hour set only to have the bouncer kick me out (still to this day I don’t even know why) before I could get paid, and I’ve played to a literally empty room. Well, there was one person there, the bartender. There are 5 shows that stand out to me as the worst gigs ever. These include the gigs that I have actually played. I once drove 5 hours to a gig just to learn that the show was double booked. I’ve run off the road in a snowstorm and never made it to the show. I’ve had pretty good gigs that turned out bad like when I had my car window smashed during the show. I’ve even had gear stolen from me right off the stage while I was playing. I once played an amazing show with a band that hated each other… deplored…despised eachother (we sold more Cd’s that day than any other gig in my life). For some reason I always find a way back up on to that stage to share my songs.
I used to perform regularly at this pizza joint in the Fox Valley. It was a cool place, but the customers always got so drunk. This was back when you could smoke in bars. The smoke was so thick you couldn’t see 5 feet in front of you. I was playing my songs when I felt something hit my leg and I heard someone yell out, “play some covers!” I looked down and didn’t see anything so I kept playing. I was pretty used to people heckling me for sticking to all original music. At the time I kept all my effect pedals in a padded gun case. All together it housed and protected about a thousand dollars worth of music gear. The show ended. I packed up in the fog and shut the gun case. There was a faint smell of Tobasco hot sauce in the air. I didn’t really think much of it at the time. I just wanted to pack up so I could do the 2 hour drive and make it home before sunrise. Three or four days later I opened up the gun case and discovered that the thing that hit my leg was a Tobasco bottle. The unsatisfied heckler threw it at me, it bounced off my leg, and shattered when it hit one of the metal effects pedals. The hot sauce oozed it’s way into the pedals and it ate the paint off; disintegrating the circuitry and destroying them. The liquid soaked into the protective padding and formed a grey fuzzy mold that covered the entire case. To this day I can’t eat Tobasco sauce.
In that same year I was playing at a bar in a ski resort. When I walked in they were cranking some seriously hard rock, not really my genre. I hauled in my P.A. system through the snow, set up, and I began to share my brand of Cosmic Folk with a Tribal Twist of Jazz. It did not go over well. People were yelling, “you suck” during my songs. At one point, in the middle of my song, I Love Sundresses, the bartender walks up onstage, stands next to me, and says loud enough so that you could hear it through the microphone, “can you just pack up your stuff and leave now? We’ll still pay you, just go.” So I did.
There’s a little island on Lake Superior that is home to a ramshackle of a music venue where I played one summer. I was playing with a band and we took the ferry out to the island. When we arrived in the early afternoon everyone there was already plowed. We had to step over a women who was passed out on the floor to get our gear to the stage. Immediately the owner comes out and starts yelling at us telling us that we needed to start playing because the audience was getting mutinous. He threatened that if we didn’t start and play for 6 hours we wouldn’t get paid. We needed that money to pay for the ferry back to the mainland. During the show some “dancers” fell on one of the monitors and it fell off the stage. We kept playing. Another patron spilled a beer all over my bass players case. At one point in the middle of an extra long version of a song, to help fill in the 6 hour show, I had to lean over to the banjo player and ask, “what song are we playing again?” Finally, the night was over and we were invited into the owners office to settle up. We were so tired we could barely stand. As he sat there behind his desk with his girlfriend sitting on his lap we asked if we could get paid. He then went into an hour long story about how running a music venue is so hard and he doesn’t make any money. Every five minutes or so he would lean over and look at his girlfriend and say, “God I want to F%^&* you so hard”. She would reply, “Oh Billy, (name changed for privacy) but your married.” Then he would continue his story to try and justify why he couldn’t pay us the amount we agreed upon. We missed the ferry back and ended up sleeping on the beach that night.
To make some extra money I play dinner music in the summers at a high end golf resort. I was playing a private birthday party where the guest of honor invited fifty of his closest friends for a round of golf and some dinner at a thousand bucks a person. I was set up next to the Crown Royal Whiskey Fountain. Throughout the evening this one inebriated guy kept coming up to me while I was playing and would say, “This Sucks.” He would stand there wavering for a while and then he would say, “play something good… Amp it up!” Amp it up would become his favorite thing to say and he probably said it another 50 times throughout the evening. At one point, while I was playing, he stood in front of me, grabbed the mic, and started singing his own song as all his cronies laughed and took pictures. Later in the evening the guest of honor asked me to take a break so he could say a few words into the microphone. I obliged. He sat down and others started to grab the mic. One guy starts telling a joke about a man f%#@ing another man in the butt while he in turn is getting f%#@ed in his butt. He turns to look at me, and says the punchline, “the guy in the middle was a redhead!” I was only half listening up until that point, but I heard enough to know that I was the butt of the joke (I’m a redhead). The birthday boy handed me a hundred dollar bill and said, “no hard feelings hey?”. I packed up and left. I hit a deer with my van on the way home.
I once had a gig with my band in the worst sounding room in all of Wisconsin. It was a cement echo chamber with the stage facing a wall with two huge wings of to the side where the audience hung out. My bass player at the time was having some gastrointestinal problems. About mid-set, somewhere in the middle of a song he had to throw up so he dropped his bass on the stage, tripped over it, and fell off the stage. He managed to crawl to the exit door where there was a garbage can and he barfed into it. Slowly, as the rest of the band kept playing, the smell of puke wafted into the entire room. The smell triggered others to start throwing up and we finished the set to a puke fest!
Whenever I play a gig I consider different criteria to decide how well it went. Was there good sound? Was the audience into it? Was it good exposure? Did everyone have fun? Did I play well? Was it a good crowd? Did I get paid well? And so on. None of these gigs fit any of that criteria. In the moment it was horrendous. Looking back I can laugh. The take away for me is that not every gig is going to go great, but I have a story to tell and it can always be better. It reminds me of the old cliche’, “what doesn’t kill us, makes us stronger.”