This past Saturday night I played a gig in a bar north of Chicago as part of a blues/rock quartet. I played bass. The other instrumentation was pretty much the standard format I’ve been playing with for the past four years or so, guitar, keys and drums. There wasn’t much of a crowd, but we had the people who were there up and dancing for most of the night until it was time to pack up and head home. The owner and bar help were happy and so were the customers. We collected our pay, parted ways cheerfully and I was home by a little after 2 a.m. When we started at 8:40 things were sparse, but we made the music and brought it together, which is what professionals do even when it looks like a losing bet. You never know what is going to happen, or who is going to show up, so you do your best regardless.
We made our own luck with the situation we were given because we delivered the goods regardless of how many people were there. This meant that the people who were present responded and we pulled them from the room where the bar was into the one where the band was set up. We were fortunate that the place was set up with a large open area between the two rooms. Some places I’ve performed in, quite a few of them really, aren’t set up this way and the bar area is almost cut off from the dance floor and band stand. The places with that set up generally are ones that weren’t designed to be bars, and are often a couple of store fronts that have been rented and combined to produce a larger capacity. This can create a difficult situation for bands performing in these venues. People like to have easy access to their libations.
You also never know who is going to show up where you’re playing. This may sound like a cliché but as with most clichés there is a kernel of truth there. I have an acquaintance who is a very skilled guitarist who lives on the east coast. He and his wife have a duo, kind of a Tuck and Patti type of thing where she sings and he plays. They play restaurants, corporate gigs and various other events together. They were playing somewhere a couple of weekends ago and in walked Stevie Wonder who was so taken with what they were doing he asked if he could sit in with them. My friend posted footage of one of the tunes they did together on Facebook and it was clear that the three of them were having a great time together. Will it lead to them moving up in musical circles? Maybe yes, or maybe no, but it certainly made for a cherished memory that they’ll have for the rest of their lives.
Granted, we’ve all done gigs in tiny little towns where the only folks who are present are locals who don’t have anywhere else to go. I was in a band in Peoria, Illinois that specialized in doing gigs in tiny farming communities where there would be only one or two establishments at a crossroads or two street town. They were fun gigs and the audiences were always appreciative. They were also almost always tiny clubs where the crowd was made up of dedicated regulars. We’d play our hearts out just the same, regardless of who showed up or didn’t for that matter, and we’d get asked back because we did it. It really doesn’t matter, you perform every time to the best you are capable.
Many of us do, however, have stories like my friend’s though, enough so that we should all listen to them and heed them well. After the movie “Walk the Line” came out I was playing with a cowboy rock and roll band. I was loading my bass rig into a club in Texas owned at the time by Willie Nelson’s stage manager, and there sitting alone at a table was Joaquin Phoenix. I was busy, but we locked eyes and nodded hello to each other and I finished my load in. You really never know and you really don’t want to be surprised on a night when you’ve decided nobody is there so why work it. You work it every time you open your case and set up to play. It’s what you do and who you are, so whatever you do, don’t mail it in.