There are a lot of things that can make a gig great and a lot of things that can make a gig bad. I learned how to avoid and deal with some of these things that made a bad gig from some harrowing experiences
The first really bad gig I had was on my first tour and was due to me being unprepared and high. It was somewhere near Vancouver and I was opening for 1000 Mona Lisas, Smoother and Molly’s Reach. My hometown friend and colleague, Kevin Spencer was there and I was telling the story of starting this new one-man band gig which involves me hearing Ben Harper’s, “Burn One Down” for the first time. (a more detailed account of that story can be found in Lesson 2). He said, “I love that song! Why don’t you do it, tonight?”
“Well, I’ve never done that song before but I think I can pull it off.” I replied.
Right before I was about to go on stage someone offered me a few puffs of a joint. This was my first time in British Columbia and for those who don’t know; BC bud is pretty potent. I was really high.
By the time I got on stage I had pretty much forgotten how to play guitar. I was barely melodic and having a full musical breakdown on stage. To top things off, our tour manager, Brent started arguing loudly with the bar manager. The show was going so badly that I stopped mid-song and sheepishly declared, “sorry, I can’t do this tonight.”
I came off stage to no applause and was pleased to see that very few people noticed my breakdown as the argument between Brent and the bar manager was much more exciting.
(the 3 for 5 tour enjoying lettuce pitas)
Another thing that can ruin a gig is hecklers. And being from a rough place like Hamilton, I learned to deal with it pretty quickly.
A memorable time was playing with my buddy Wax Mannequin when a local drunk started up yelling during my songs, in between them and otherwise. He obviously wanted attention so I gave it to him. I started talking with him and eventually got him to come on stage, gave him a chair to stand on and a microphone and let him talk until he got either tired or embarrassed. He left the stage and I continued with no further interruptions.
When I finished the show Wax complimented me on how I dealt with the guy. I had helped him really made a fool of himself. The truth is I don't like doing it but that is how I deal with hecklers. Give them the attention they think they want. It works and I don't like doing it.
Sometimes the people who run a venue are just sketchy but they tend not to last as musicians talk and no when to stop playing somewhere. On a tour in the early 00s, my loyal friend and bookie, Joey Balducchi booked me to play Sal’s On Seventeen in Calgary. I was scheduled to play three sets which I didn’t like doing but a gig is a gig.
I set up my gear and played my set. I’m not exactly sure but it seemed like people were buying and selling drugs. It was uncomfortable but in those days if I wanted the tour to continue, I had to play every gig. There was no contingency.
My set finished and the bartender told me that the manager needed to see me. He barely looked at me and said, “Listen, your gig is done. You’re just not very good. We have real, professional bands here. Kitchens and Bathrooms are playing here on Thursday."
This was a weird thing to say for a few reasons: I don't think he watched my gig, they barely had a sound system so it wasn't that professional and though Kitchens and Bathrooms was a decent enough band, they were colleagues from Hamilton who played to the same size crowds as I did! They were hardly rock stars.
He gave me forty dollars (a fraction of my agreed fee), I packed up my gear and slept in my car that night. Though sleeping in my car was never comfortable, I slept right through as I was so exhausted. The next day, my friend Ebony Robert's saved me from another night in my car and a near nervous breakdown by inviting me to stay at her family's home in rural Alberta. She fed me, changed the oil in my car and even let me shoot her gun (which was fun). It was a reminder not to be proud and always accept the hospitality of my friends.
Maybe the worst gig was on my first properly solo tour. This was the first time I’d traveled across Canada on my own and unfortunately there was nothing to learn from this as it was the result of pure circumstance.
I got to Halifax and my first of two shows, at the Khyber went alright, in spite of a Halifax ‘indie-rock celebrity’ coming mid-set and speaking loudly throughout. I got through and sold a few CDs which always makes a gig seem like a success.
I was thankful to stay with another Hamilton bud, Stephen Kelly, whose band, “Three Orange Whips” gave Gorp our first paid gig. He fed me, let me crash on his couch and we even recorded a song. He did warn me that my second (afternoon) gig would probably be ill-attended as there was a big festival-type gig that everyone would be attending, including himself. This wasn’t ideal but I thought, how bad can it be?
When I got to the gig, in which I was the headliner it was a pretty sparse crowd but at least there were a few people in attendance. The opening act when on stage and as soon as she finished she told me that she was going to the festival that everyone else was at.
I went on stage and played to a grand total of three people, one of whom was the bartender. During my second song, the couple that were sitting at the table waved at the bartender and left which left the bartender and me. I finished the song to silence. The bartender asked, “did you want to continue?”
“Well I may as well practise, I guess.” I responded.
The bartender went in the back somewhere and there I was playing to no one. This was a real low point in my career and I wave of depression come over me. I finished the song, packed up my gear and cancelled my gig the following day so I could go home early. It really did a number on my self-confidence.
Getting paid in counterfeit bills, playing behind a chain-link fence to a bunch of bikers, being so drunk and tired I repeated the same song several times. This could be the longest essay ever if I delved into the terrible gigs of my career. Though these fakes are amusing now, it wasn't at the time. Here is the thing; the really bad gigs made the kind of bad gigs seem like gigs that were just alright and made the good gigs even better.