Most of my gigs fall into one of these lineups: guitarist and singer for a blues band, lead guitarist for a rock band, guitarist and singer for an acoustic duo and rarely, a solo guitarist and singer. I am comfortable with all of these lineups except the last one. While my guitar skills are fine, my singing is, well, not as good as my guitar playing. Most of my solo gigs are basically accidents: the other guy forgot about the duo gig, a bar had someone cancel at the last minute, or a friend needs some cheap live entertainment.
The cheap live entertainment offer led to the worst gig I ever had. In this case, it wasn’t a friend, it was my wife. At the time, my wife was working for a social service agency. A local senior center had a monthly gathering that was sponsored by one of the area social service agencies. The sponsorship involved providing snacks and entertainment in exchange for a chance to speak to the crowd about their service.
My wife’s small agency got a call that they were this month’s sponsor, a day in advance. Her boss scrambled to get things in place but could not find an entertainer. “Doesn’t your husband play music?” Being the good employee, my wife volunteered my services and I stress VOLUNTEERED.
With few details, I load up my car the next day and head to the senior center. Luckily, there was a parking lot right next door because this was located in a part of town that parking was a premium.
The senior center appeared to be an old Moose club or Masonic lodge. A tall building with one big meeting room on the first floor. As I arrived, I began loading my equipment in the vestibule. I peeked in the main room. There were maybe 100 seniors finishing up their lunch.
My wife was already set up in the back on the big room and she connected my with the lady in charge. She directed me to the front of the big room to set up.
As I began setting up, there are a few smiles from the audience but just as many blank stares. This wasn’t the active senior crowd, instead it was more of the old cranky lady across the street.
Just as the cake is being served I finished setting up. My wife talks to the crowd and introduces me. I start with “Before You Accuse Me.” It’s an easy, open E tune that has been covered by tons over the years. Plus the vocals fit my limited range.
I finish the song.
“Thank you,” I say in the mic, which generates a few polite claps. Next I launch into “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly. I figured this is probably a song from their generation. But the facial expressions are the same. It was like I was speaking a different language.
While I’m playing the song, my mind starts racing. It’s a Buddy Holly song. He’s been dead for sixty years. How old are these people?
No matter what, when I look into the crowd, my eyes focus on this one lady. She has a snarl on her face like I just shit on her cake. Every time I look around, my eyes go back to her and I focus on her look of disgust.
It Doesn’t Get Better
After the Buddy Holly song, I play some blues tunes which is the bulk of my repertoire. Usually no problem for a bar gig but it’s not moving anyone here. By this time, I’m sweating bullets. I try to talk between songs with very little reaction.
In between songs, I can hear some comments from the first table. The snarling lady says “I wish he’d play something I heard of.” Someone else says something like, “I guess he’s not doing any contests.”
I continue playing with very little applause and lots of stares. The weird thing is they were engaged. All of them watching me. I kept thinking, “why don’t you people talk to each other and ignore me!” When does a guitar player ever want to be ignored?
Then it hits me. I remember my wife mentioned they often have DJs play this crappy gig. That’s the problem! The DJs not only can play the songs they know, they do games in between the songs. The audience wanted a show, they wanted entertainment.
I’d like to say I launched into my medley of hits from the 40’s to 70’s, told Henny Youngman jokes and improvised a pop culture trivia contest which won the crowd back.
But I didn’t.
I could only do what I knew. Play my three chord blues tunes.
Finally, the gig ends. Four hours of hell! Well….wait a minute. It was actually only an hour. It may have been the longest hour of my life. The only good thing – it was over. I give my farewell greeting and the crowd gave a polite, though tepid, applause.
As I break down and do my load out. Members of the audience come up and say nice things. I think some of them meant it while others just felt sorry for me. But nobody complained. All of the younger folks working were complimentary but, they were working, not there to be entertained.
I’d like to say I just misjudged the crowd but I don’t think so. Nobody asked me back. Even for free. I failed.
What Went Wrong
The gig ruined my day. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. What could I have done differently? Do I really suck that much? As I dwelled on it, I began to really understand the situation better.
These people grew up when performers were truly entertainers. Think about it, Frank Sinatra was a great singer but he still told jokes, had banter with the band and talked to the audience. This audience saw variety shows on TV that included music, comedy, magic, sketches, dance, etc. This generation doesn’t look at their phone for entertainment!
Sure, they didn’t enjoy what I was doing, but they probably would not have enjoyed Neil Young sitting there and playing acoustic guitar either. I’m not saying I am as good as Neil Young by any stretch of the imagination! The point is, this audience needed a show, not a performance.
Knowing what I think I know now, what would I have done differently? Considering I had less than a day’s notice, other than turning the gig down, there is not much I could have done differently. But there are things I could change in my solo gigs in the future. I could incorporate some jokes in between songs. Create some contests. Do a few parody songs.
Understanding the audience and what they are looking for is important for the performer. I bet I would have had a very similar reaction if I played for a group of Kindergarten kids. Again, they want to be entertained and watching some dude play the blue probably would not satisfy them.
Although this gig gives me some bad memories I really feel I have a better idea of my role as an entertainer. There are reasons some guys play four nights a week and others play four times a month. It’s usually not the musical talent as much as knowing the crowd and meeting their expectations. It’s a business transaction, find a problem or need and offer the solution.