Thursday, April 21, 2011

This is a story that I've told on numerous occasions. As with many good stories, it changes a little with every telling. Details become exaggerated, memorable quotes get tweaked and details may emerge within the framework that are, to put it kindly, apocryphal. This story will likely be no exception. This is...The Worst Gig I Ever Saw.

It was the winter of could still smoke in bars, Oland's Export Ale was readily available and the Pop Tart Revolution had yet to announce its arrival. Heady days indeed. My regular bar had recently witnessed a change in management, with the result that many new bands, both local and imported, were starting to play there.  Acts like Mike O'Neill (late of The Inbreds), Joel Plaskett (Thrush Hermit) were starting new solo careers and we were amongst their first few island audiences. The clientele was also starting to change. What had previously been a very mixed age crowd was starting to coalesce into a more  alcoholic horny discerning collection of new music fans. Bands were still primarily weekend entertainment, although off-island touring schedules sometimes meant a Monday or Tuesday gig. The new manager was putting in a great deal of (unpaid) hours to call booking agencies around Canada to find bands that wouldn't mind playing a  bar (capacity 110) for a small but generally enthusiastic crowd...and to their credit, many acts came. American bands were then, as now, a bit more of a rarity, but, they were almost always guaranteed to sell the bar to SRO.

So it was that one afternoon I was sitting at the bar when the manager received a package from an American record label, with a band's touring schedule, some posters and a few 7" singles.

"Holy shit! This is from K Records...The Microphones are touring and they want to play here!", he exclaimed.

"Nice.", I remarked, "K is a pretty good label. "

"Yeah, if this goes well we could start adding more bands from the Pacific Northwest. That'd really open us up for more tours from the west..."

Indeed, it has been my experience that a few good recommendations from the road can seal a bar's fate, one way or another, for future bands and singers.

Word spread around town quickly, as it almost always does..."The Microphones are coming to the bar...they're from Washington....I checked out a couple of tracks, they sound awesome" etc. Posters were placed around town and by the night of the gig a very tangible sense of excitement could be felt in the bar. I got there a little earlier than usual, around 800, to grab one of the booths up front for my friends and I. Within forty minutes our booth was full, drinks were flowing and there was a general air of, "This could be quite a night". If there was an opening band that night, I have honestly forgotten who it might have been. It was the general custom for an opening act to start at 10:00, usually half an hour - 45 minutes, with two subsequent sets to play until 1:30, just before last call. By 11 o'clock, there was no sign of The Microphones and people were starting to worry.  I went to the bar for another round and spoke to the manager, who assured me that the band had just called to say that they would be a few minutes late, as they had decided to go see 'Titanic' at the local cinema. Only in hindsight did this seem portentous.

When they finally arrived about twenty minutes later, the mood in the bar had noticeably shifted from excited buzz to , "Really?...this late....this had better be fucking memorable". So it would prove to be. The duo who started bringing amps and guitars into the bar looked to  be, putting it generously, tired. He was a thin chap, medium height, with scraggly hair and a penchant for ugly polyester long-sleeve shirts. She looked like someone who would loudly correct you for using words like "history" and "twat".  They rattled around the stage for a few minutes hooking up guitars and mic's and then introduced themselves,
"Hello everyone, we're the Microphones, from Olympia, Washington in the U.S....." and with that they slightly launched into a short, atonal thing that apparently had words and music. A short something it was...maybe one minute and then silence. All eyes were locked onto the stage as we tried, collectively, to figure out if that was a song or a very poorly tuned sound-check. Then he walked up to the mic and said,
"grgheytf jifjfmmmmmnble  mmmbnbnnbmmle hrrhhrmmmle bbbnmmmmglelll" (I didn't write it down that night, but, I'm pretty sure this is exactly what he said)
Then another short atonal attempt at something loosely related to a song, after which she said, rather pointedly,
"Umm, hey...if you guys want to enjoy the "party" atmosphere here, maybe you could go out onto the smoking deck...because where we come from, which is Olympia, Washington in the U.S.,people come to listen to bands to hear the music. Oh...and if some of you got here before they started charging cover at the door, maybe you could go up and pay now...."
I'm not kidding or exaggerating about that. It's fucking verbatim (except that I'm leaving out the name of the bar).

As charmed as we weren't by her arrogant, pedantic demeanour, we politely golf-clapped...hoping to at least avoid another uncalled for lecture on bar protocol. We may be a small town, but we know how to listen to music in a bar....
This pattern continued for another twenty minutes, he mumbles, they strum, we look baffled, she lectures us....At midnight they appeared to take a break. Which was, frankly, a relief. I headed back to the bar for another beer and overheard the manager telling them,
"No. If you want to get paid for this gig you have to play at least one more set, preferably a full one."

At this point they both looked visibly confused and the male half of the band went to cry in the bathroom. She fumed and walked around for ten minutes. After this "intermission", he went up onstage first and went behind his guitar amp where he immediately nodded off. (...and I do mean "nodded". The dude was clearly strung out on smack...) She pulled a chair up onto the stage, sat down and said, rather huffily, "Well, I guess we hav to play some more, but, can I just say something? Where we come from, which is Olympia, Washington in the U.S., people like to listen to the band and they show their appreciation by clapping after..."
(I couldn't take it any more...) I yelled, "We know what we're doing. DO YOU?"
A good friend of mine at the table wondered aloud, "What? Do they only play libraries?"
 The mood in the seats had changed to a mixture of disbelief and quiet hostility. The next |set" proved to be a little more musical, as she was evidently playing her own songs. Twice. She apparently only knew five of them so we had to listen to them twice each.  She then stepped down from the stage area, strode over to the manager and demanded payment. I think he gave them exactly enough money to take the ferry off the island and not a penny more. It was worth it just to get them out of our province. The other singer was revived, they took their gear and their unwarranted prima donna attitudes and fucked right off, out into the night, out of the bar and into legend. As they took their final steps down the stairs to the street, a voice from the back of the bar cried out, "Play Freebird!".

The bar laughed, applauded and I made my way from the back of the bar to my seat up front.

In the years since this show, I must have told the story a hundred times. One particularly memorable occasion was at the Manx Pub in Ottawa, where my friend and I held the bar rapt for about twenty minutes as we told the tale, each adding little details and memories that wove themselves perfectly into an old fashioned story telling evening. To return to my opening point: How much of this story is accurate and how much my biased memory? Well, like any good story...the answer exists somewhere between the two.

This story also proves to be one of the exceptions to the rule that states, "You had to be there." didn't. You are lucky if you weren't. Most of us veterans of that night, speak about this gig as the night we got to watch a train wreck in gloriously slow motion. It was worth the bullshit and the lectures just for that.

Not every gig is golden. I've seen great bands fail miserably and I've seen terrible bands rise above their limitations...but I have never and, I feel confident in predicting, will never see a band as wretchedly horrid as The Microphones in 1998.

True story.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tuesday morning. Two consecutive days of posting, big fucking deal...I've decided that I should start writing, if not every day, at least every other day. This will probably result in a lot of meaningless paragraphs that I will delete later...or not. It's too early for that much forward thinking. Tomorrow evening will hopefully be another round of improv games at the Alibi. I have to remind myself not to call it "improv comedy"...because it's not for me to necessarily decide what funny is, or will be. That is rather up to the audience. I will try to BE funny, but, the more important aspect (it seems to me) is to serve the scene and the rules for each specific game or task. I did my first evening of performances a couple of weeks ago. I really didn't know how it would go and that was a very enticing aspect. I could have played it much safer and volunteered for the games that I thought would be in my wheel-hub, but, I really just wanted to dive into the whole thing face first. Some scenes were more successful than others, to say the least, but it felt good and a little risky...which I do enjoy. Similar in some respects to performing music for a crowd. I have a large repository of songs that I can pull out if I feel like going for a less challenging "crowd pleaser" set...and sometimes that's an easy shot. There are other songs that veer off in directions that may not always connect and those sets can be really fun for me...which is sort of a selfish way to play. It shouldn't be just for my amusement...but sometimes it is. Is that wrong? I find it hard to know. Or I find it hard to care. In either case, it comes down to a strange high-wire act with fluid rules. It becomes monotonous playing the same songs every time. There have been rare occasions when I have decided to write a song on the spot. Ask audience members for ideas about the content and style of the song and just fucking wing it. Again, those haven't always been successful, but, they were very enjoyable moments on stage. I think people like knowing that they are getting a unique song that has never been heard, before or since.

I got a little distracted there. Ooops.

Back to the improv thing. I'm reasonably aware of my strengths as a live performer. I think very quickly on my feet and after years of hosting Open Mic's I can usually get a "read" on a room in very little time. It's hard to explain and I certainly never analyzed how that happened. These, erm, "instincts" (for want of a better word) developed over a long period of time and they've stayed with me well after I stopped regular performances. There was a time when I played every Wednesday night for almost three years. And the first few months were rough...almost no other performers were showing up, which meant that some nights I had to play for a few hours...and then after a while a regular crowd started showing up and musicians and singers started to sign up for short sets and over time the Wednesday nights became a real draw. Some nights I barely played at all and I would spend my time on stage having dialogue with the audience. Not quite stand-up, but, something very much within the ball park thereof. I love getting a reaction from a crowd and the attendees at these nights were usually the same people that I would socialze with on other, there was a certain element of safety, which was reassuring...but, I definitely pushed the boundaries of what would be considered funny and tasteful...some nights I would speak for a couple of minutes in between songs and I would just randomly drop the word "cunt" into my sentences, just to see if people were actually wasn't hard to tell. There is still a certain strange power with that word...other times I would quietly noodle on my guitar and eavesdrop on conversations around the bar and then respond to something I heard, usually with a crass one liner. More often than not it would get a good laugh and I felt validated. Now THAT'S egotism. Of course, I hope I'm not giving the impression that I was always on top of my game...there were more than enough nights where I ended up drunk way too early and would end up stumbling and mumbling through a few songs before more or less giving up the reigns of the evening...very selfish behaviour and yet, strangely, very instructive. The highs and lows of those years gave me more confidence in my abilities and taught me a great deal about how to, erm, streamline(?) my performances. While doing so, I helped to establish a (now) longstanding institution. I'm pretty proud of that.

This whole line of thinking has caused me to reflect upon one of my favourite musical performances, the very first John Lennon Tribute show - Friday, December 8th 2000. The whole thing came together rather quickly. In the fall of that year I was working at a seafood restaurant and I found myself thinking, "Wow. It was twenty years ago that Lennon died. " It felt like a real milestone moment. Twenty years had passed from that sad, tragic day...I had to do something. Now, there was a band playing gigs around town that were well known and liked, who played a good number of Beatles covers, (well, they could hardly be originals....) and I was friendly with a couple of the guys in the band. I approached them after a show one night and asked, "What do you think about a whole night of Lennon songs? We could raise some money for a local charity and have a good time into the bargain." They agreed and the date was arranged with the bar management. We had one meeting as the gig was approaching and wrote out the set lists. We never even bothered to arrange a rehearsal...something that seems almost foolish now. The day of the show we met up to load in our gear and another musician we knew had just landed in town from Nova Scotia, a truly nice guy and a great keyboard player. He asked if he could sit in for a few songs and we agreed readily. Showed him the songs that we were going to play and there was only one that he was uncertain about. We had the bartender play it on the stereo and he pretty much cribbed the whole song from that one listen. Amazing. Now, word had spread around our social circle about this night and there was a good amount of interest. By eleven o'clock the bar was fucking packed to the rafters, with a line-up down the stairs, out the door and up the street. No mean feat for a cold December night. We had a few guest singers get up with us and the whole evening was carried along with an energy and, dare I say, "magic" that I have rarely been a part of...before or since. We played every song with love and conviction and the bar crowd were along with us for the whole incredible ride. People were literally dancing in the street outside the bar and the time passed far too quickly. The only sour note (if you will) of the night was that somebody stole one of the tip jars from the bar, with what was estimated to be about $, that fucking sucked. The two bar staff ran their asses off that night and they deserved every penny they earned in tips and a great deal took a few years to arrange another tribute night but, again, they have now become a well liked institution in Charlottetown and I don't feel too immodest about claiming a large part of that.

So...that's what on my mind this morning.


Well...I didn't intend to flatter myself, but, that's pretty much what happened. Nothing wrong with that. Nothing too terribly interesting, either...

Monday, April 18, 2011

The East Coast Music Awards were recently held in Charlottetown and I attended two nights of performances at my regular watering hole. Each night provided a variety of bands and singers and a variety of successes and failures. The most egregious trend that I witnessed would best be classified as "weepy-country-tinged-mope-folk". Four simple chords and generic lyrics about heartache and nature. No discernible personality and the most adequate of musicians...just awful. The aural equivalent of strained carrot baby food. It requires nothing of the listener and apparently almost nothing of the writer/performer. There were enthusiastic supporters for these acts and I can only assume that, much like trained seals, they would clap for anything...this metaphor fails ultimately, because the seals are rewarded for their behaviour. There was no such reward for these hapless fuckers, unless bland  whining stimulates a portion of the idiot brain that I don't posses, however unlikely that idea seems. Adding insult to injury, these performers (I'm being very generous by using that term) were absolutely listless...standing on the stage, head slightly tilted downward, eyes closed in an infuriating pose of "sensitivity". Maybe I'm alone in this opinion, but, failed relationships don't make me want to stand in front of people wearing my regrets like a cheap costume. I'd much rather hear someone screaming, "You hurt me and that makes me angry, you fucking bitch/bastard."  Hell, it doesn't even have to be screamed for that matter, I'd settle for the implication of anger...or any emotion at all other than the affectation of sleep-inducing sadness.

I asked a few people whose opinions I trust and enjoy what they thought of this perplexing trend. Most agreed that the music was at best mediocre and at worst almost insulting in its lack of originality. Perhaps I should have asked a few complete strangers, so as not to entirely skew the feedback, but, I didn't.

Now for the good acts. First, Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case : a band from Newfoundland that grabbed my attention and held it with good humour and the sheer joy of a fun performance. I would need to employ many hyphens to adequately describe their sound, but, I'll go with "Vaudeville-flavoured-folk-pop". The songs had a wonderful blend of familiar and unpredictable, with creative uses of instruments like accordion, trombone, kazoo and banjo along with the more conventional guitar, bass, drum setup. It was the band's first performance at the bar and speaking with a couple of them after their set, they were clearly very happy with the enthusiasm they received. I bought their first CD, 'Honey for Bees' and I look forward to their next trip to the island.  My second night out brought me the revelatory experience of the newly expanded Dan Currie Band. A longtime musical staple of the Charlottetown music scene, Currie has worked in several notable groups including Eyes for Telescopes and Double-Ought Buckshot. With brother Nick on bass and Jonny King on drums, this trio honed a very good blend of 70's power boogie (a la The Faces) with more traditional country and bluegrass. Adding vocalist Belinda Doyle and rhythm guitarist/vocalist Drea MacDonald expanded the sound and scope of the band's original songs into a glorious new realm. Three part harmonies and the second guitar parts allowed this band to fully explore the dynamic possibilities of Currie's well-crafted musings about love, spirituality and the temptations of everyday life. I was instantly reminded of the legendary Stones track, 'Gimme Shelter'...and whether quietly rounding out a simply strummed ballad or belting a chorus with the force of a small tornado, this reinvigorated group looks to have a well earned place amongst the island's "must see" acts.

Unfortunately (and yet predictably), both nights were somewhat shortened by conspicuous lager consumption, which led me to miss certain acts that I was looking forward to hearing...( that seems to be an odd phrase in terms of sensory perception). Haunted Hearts, John Connolly and the Sidewalks are all tried and tested live acts with great reputations for a good reason. All three acts have the ability to lift a venue up on their shoulders with great songs and engaging performances. When I first moved to the island in the late 90's, I carried my Toronto prejudices with me. I was accustomed to a music scene that was very large and very competitive, with an almost absurdly territorial sense. This may not be an accurate memory, but, it's what I remember. PEI seemed incredibly small and provincial (in a very pejorative sense).  What I soon came to learn was just how vibrant and varied this island's musical scene could be. Wildly disparate groups would share the stages of the relatively few available venues and there was never any sense of "this band shouldn't be here", unless they were lousy, (Microphones, I'm looking at you...). My appreciation for the breadth and scope of musical options has only increased as I live here. I am very fortunate to have a large circle of musical friends and my nights out on the town are more often than not enhanced by the many fine groups that have sprung up on my island. The ECMA's very handily reaffirmed one of my most cherished philosophies: "Always be ready to be surprised." It sounds like a contradiction, but, it isn't. That is to ain't.