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But there’s a problem. It's a couple, ten feet away, who are positively braying. They’re well into each other, and oblivious to the band. The bloke clearly thinks he’s on to a good thing; the girl is REALLY LOUD. What’s onstage zips right over their heads. Their loss – they missed a lovely set.
My friend's a bit embarrassed. The support act are pals, invited up to play in Brum by her band, the headliners. And the crowd are not exacly treating them with respect. So she feels uncomfortable, and so do I. My attention shifts away from the braying couple, to the rest of the room. There’s a LOT of chat. This is really pissing me off now.
"You're probably wondering
Why I'm here
And so am i
So am i...." Frank Zappa
When the headliners come on stage, they go down a storm. This is their crowd, and, at last, everybody shuts up during the songs, listens appreciatively, and applauds in all the right places. But, you know, this just isn’t right. You would have thought the band’s crowd would have wanted to see the acts the band had brought onto their own hometown bill.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen decent acts struggle against yakking, bellowing airheads. Every musician I've talked to greets it with weary resignation.
After all, if the gig is amplified and you want to have a conversation… well, you’re going to have to shout, aren’t you?
But that leads to noise wars. If it’s rock or dance, a band can crank it up, to impose themselves, until nobody bothers to even try talking. That’s overkill, and I hate it. I, sort of, caught one such gig a while back in Moseley, where the PA was cranked up so loud it actually drove people from the room. You could hear just fine downstairs, or even in the street. That’s confusing attitude with volume, and it’s stupid.
"SHADDUP!.... shhhh, shhhh....
Now, is that any way to behave at a rock and roll concert?
You don't want to hear that for the next half hour, do you?
Give the singer some..." Jim Morrison, onstage with the Doors
I prefer to listen to music without fearing for my ears, but you can't always get what you want. If the essence of the performance is good playing, emotion and expression, maybe offering up decent lyrics with a bit of a story, it would be really nice if audiences could manage to give the act some breathing space - and some respect.
|Propping up the bar at the Tower of Song|
I can even understand how people get to think they can disrespect a performer. There is a brutal logic to the process; I get it, but I can’t agree with it. Live shows do have a pecking order: the big boys are top of the bill. But that does not, or should not, imply a lack of respect to acts lower down the bill. Nor does it excuse ostentatiously strolling in after the support act has finished --- or, and this happens too many times, ostentatiously walking out en masse at the end of a set, when your mates are done.
I talked about this when I was interviewing Jasper Carrott two weeks back, fresh from the gig that sparked this blog post. Here's his take:
I think it gets worse if it’s a free gig. A while back I rolled up to the Station in Sutton Coldfield to catch one of Ben Drummond’s solo nights. He was great; he always is. Unfortunately, the table of brassy orange-skinned shouty women on their night out were anything but. Now, this particular booozer has lots of rooms; the monstrous orange regiment could have settled themselves down elsewhere to shriek and cackle, no problem. But no, they didn’t. They sat there and howled while Ben worked his butt off.
"If I only had a dollar
For every song I've sung
And every time I've had to play
While people sat there drunk..." John Fogerty
Another time, the extraordinarily fabulous Jo Hamilton was showcasing at the Yardbird in Birmingham City Centre. Half a song into her set I had to ask the bloke next to me, at most ten feet away from Jo, to keep it down. He did, mercifully, and when Jo was done, I thanked him. His response: ‘No worries, pal. I’m a musician too, and I know what it’s like!’. Words failed me…
Media people can be even worse. If it’s a showcase for a new act and there’s free booze and food, you’ll get a crowd all right, but they’ll just get half cut and bray while the poor act has to grin and bear it. I recall a night – Phonogram were building up a fabulous singer called Paul Brady, decades ago, when I felt truly embarrassed to be part of Birmingham radio.
So here’s my manifesto. If it’s the kind of gig where the band want you to scream and shout, hey, everyone’s a winner. If it’s a night where you want to be pinned up against the wall by the PA system, and have a head full of cotton wool the next day, that’s just fine too. Knock yourself out, yak all you want - nobody's going to be bothered.
But if the act has something to say, if it's all about the music, or wonderful, personal lyrics, then…. please…. shut the hell up and listen. Chances are you’ll hear something good. And if you don’t like it, step out or go to the bar at the back, and talk quietly. Let the musicians, and those who want to hear their music, do what they came here for.
In prepping this post, I talked all this through with a number of people, and one observation in particular made me think - sometimes the crowd is awful because the venue is awful. Maybe that was partly what was wrong with the gig I described at the top of the post. If you're not comfortable, and the venue is explicit in its intention to relieve you of as much money as it can in as unpleasant a way as it can, then you just might be justified in feeling pissed off. But that still does not excuse dumping on the guys onstage.
New talent steps up to perform for the first time each and every day. It’s hard getting across at the best of times, and harder still if it’s the first few gigs. You, in the audience, might just be seeing something special for the first time. Yak and you’ll miss them. Belt up, and then, if you’ve seen something promising, you can say ‘I was there’ with some authority, can’t you?
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