Updated: Aug 20
I have written columns about all the things that go wrong at a gig. It was fun and cathartic to recall all the weird things that have happened in decades of playing live gigs in a bewildering variety of venues. Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong”) definitely applies to the live music biz.
Stuff breaks, things don’t work. Musicians have car trouble, or get lost or forget showtimes, venues, key changes, lyrics and everything else under the sun. It’s a merry mixture of madcap misadventures and I love it.
Now it’s time to shine our bright light on the audience.
Now, I am fully aware that the audience is the boss. They’re the reason we’re there. Musicians bear the responsibility of providing a good time for the audience. When a performance goes extremely well, the audience deserves a great deal of credit. Their energy brings out the best in the band. If an audience is “lackluster”, the band failed to ignite their attention. So, I don’t blame the audience if they chatter amongst themselves - at least at bar gigs.
So, the audience as an entity remains blameless. But that doesn’t mean certain members of the audience can’t throw a gig into chaos. Maybe, by drawing attention to certain miscreants, I can warn fellow musicians of their presence and maybe even shame some of these monsters into retirement, or failing that, meaningful behavior modification. Here are three saboteurs to avoid:
The Belligerent Requester
For the most part, bands love requests. It means their audience is engaged, and gives the band a chance to show off, increase tips and make everyone in the room feel great. No problem there at all. Sometimes, the band doesn’t know the song requested, and they express regret, and offer to play a similar song, and the matter is settled. Sometimes, though, the requester won’t give up.
“C’mon!”, the Belligerent Requester bellows (often after the band has launched into another song!). “You MUST know ‘My Green Eyed Babycakes! C’mon!”. This cretin’s persistent braying negatively affects both the band and the rest of the audience.
A variation of this boorish behavior is the repeated facetious request for some completely inappropriate song, usually “Whippin’ Post”, or “Free BIrd”. This may have been clever the very first time in history it was uttered, but it’s not even remotely clever now. Trust me, sir (and it’s almost always a guy), nobody thinks you’re witty.
The Insistent Participant
Lots and lots of people have played instruments or sang. Some became quite accomplished, but for one reason or another, have drifted away from performing. But seeing live music awakens old feelings and the former musician longs to tread the stage and again the feel the glare of the spotlight. Certainly, there is ample precedent for the “guest star” to join the band for a song or two.
However, there is usually a protocol for taking a guest spot during a performance. The band should be approached during the break, and establish a rapport and bring the conversation around to maybe sitting in for a song or two. Sometimes, that’s totally cool. Other times, the band may politely decline and there the matter ends.
Compare this civilized exchange with someone bugging performers while their onstage and trying to convince them to bring them on up for a quick guest spot. And the more the performers try and ignore the onslaught, the pushier they get.
This can be very awkward at wedding gigs, where champagne tends to rekindle the need to “get back into performing’. It seems like every groom or groom’s brother “used to be a drummer”, and insists on proving it in front of his friends and family. It ends up providing good laughs and memories for the wedding party though.
The Great Interruptor
This is the most bewildering of aberrant audience member behavior in my opinion. I witnessed an extraordinary example recently. The band is absolutely cooking, in mid-performance, up on a raised stage, and some lady wants to get the attention of someone in the band to ask a question!
In what universe is this a sensible thing to do? It’s bad enough to interrupt someone engaged in a conversation with someone else, but interrupting an entire band in performance? I can only imagine the havoc this kind of person would wreak at a circus, trying to speak with the trapeze artists while they’re flying through the air.
At its best, live music is a glorious interaction between audience and performers. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship that benefits everyone involved. There’s an exquisite rhythm in the room and its resonance permeates all the people in the room. There’s a tacit understanding of politesse and responsibility for both performers and audience, and when everyone understands and plays their role, the magic works!
Beware of the wrecking crew outlined above! They lurk in most audiences waiting to spoil the magic, and break the sacred covenant to serve their selfish desires!
By Bruce Campbell