I recently came to a realization, maybe not a groundbreaking one: Gigs and shows are not the same thing. See? Told you. Not groundbreaking necessarily, but gaining this insight has healed some long-standing disagreements between Jen and I. We’re just shy of halfway through year 2 of our Grand Duo Experiment, and so far we have played a large number of gigs and a few shows in 2015; enough of each to begin to feel the difference. Near as I can tell, there are a few key distinctions between gigs and shows.
- The music is there for ambience.
- There is typically more comfortable seating.
- People applaud politely at the ends of songs.
- Usually, you can order a salad.
- People are there for the music.
- Seating is not a big priority.
- People go “woooooo!” after every song because that’s what they came to do.
- There’s probably booze, and you should’ve already eaten when you show up.
If you’ve spent any time on Planet Earth as an adult, you’ve probably been to both. They both have their merits. I like a salad as much as the next guy, and I applaud politely when some hard-working traveling musician has just laid out their magnum opus to a room full of people in various stages of dinner. But you have to admit, it can get a little strained when Hedwig and The Angry Inch shows up to rip through a melodramatic rock opera on the topic of gender identity while you’re trying to decide between the wild-caught salmon and the grass-fed carne-asada tacos.
I prefer playing shows because the deck is stacked in favor of the musician. People are there to scream and dance and let off a bunch of steam and they focus on the music to help them with that. There are lights, a beefy sound system, and when you get up on stage, all eyes turn to you. No one is going to be annoyed that the waiter can’t hear their order because the performance is the only item on the menu. It’s a higher-pressure situation too: You have to get people interested to be there in the first place, you have to deliver what they came for, and unfortunately, you might not get paid. It’s way more of a dice roll, but maybe because of that, it’s more exciting.
Don’t get me wrong, there are shows that are gig-like and conversely, there are gigs that are show-like. There’s not a well-drawn line of demarcation, but there IS a line, and you can usually tell which side of it you’re on before you play a note.
Here’s a couple of weird things about that line: First, a lot of venues treat gigs like shows. Places that sell salads and maybe craft beers will book you and pay you, but you’d better bring some people in or you won’t be playing there again. So even though people don’t necessarily go there for the music, the venue thinks and acts like they do. Fortunately for Dutch Holly, we’ve been at this long enough now that a respectable number will show up to see us wherever we play. But we’re still at a stage where many people are there because that’s where they wanted to go tonight, and if there happens to be a good band playing, well, that’s great too. You’ve been to this gig. The stage is usually packed into a convenient corner so as to maximize table space, there might be some stage lights and a little sound system adequate for amplifying whatever you’re going to play, but not overpowered enough to squelch conversation. If you do well, people might actually like you enough to go to one of your shows. But if you play too loud, you drive people off. If you play too quiet, hardly anyone notices, and that’s usually OK. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine that playing too quiet would be OK at a show.
It’s also hard to imagine musicians whose shows you’d pay to see playing salad gigs, but they must’ve done it at some point. Can you imagine Florence and the Machine cranking it out on the tiny stage at your favorite gastropub? Beck spinning at your local meadery? Weird as it is to think of that, it’s definitely happened. I think it has to happen too, because if there’s one thing playing a lot of gigs has taught me, it’s how to play to a crowd that isn’t necessarily there to see you. People at gigs are on dates, celebrating birthdays, out for a night away from the kids. Gigs aren’t about musicians so, as a musician, I’ve had to learn how to win the crowd over. Maybe the weirdest thing of all is this: If you want to play shows, there seems to be no better way to prepare for it than to play a bunch of gigs. Plus, you can usually order a salad after your set.
I must admit that over the years there has been some contention between Jen and I about playing live. It usually goes something like this:
Jen: “I don’t want to play here (in Prescott).”
Tres: “But we live here. How can we play anywhere if we can’t play here?”
Jen: “I just don’t like playing here. Can’t we play in Phoenix, or Tucson, or Flagstaff?”
Tres: “What’s better about that? We’re still playing somewhere. Why does it matter so much?”
Jen: “You just don’t get it…”
…and so-forth and so-on.
Marital aside: This is my public apology to you, Jen. I get it now. It was because there are very few opportunities to play shows here, and way more opportunities to play gigs. Now that we travel more, and we’ve done a bunch of each, I totally get it, and I’m sorry if (when) I was a dick about it before. Also, I didn’t realize until recently you’re a “Prince-type” and I’m probably more a “Waits-type.”
Here’s the difference:
For Jen, playing gigs of the salad-ordering variety feels like being the guy who goes in for the kiss at the end of the date and the girl goes “Ew! No!” and bolts from the car. After those gigs, Jen tosses and turns sleeping only fitfully and the next morning she wakes with the full weight of that awkwardness, feeling demoralized, and her strongest desire is to crawl under a rock and die. We have come to call this condition The Loathing. I imagine that Prince suffered a crippling case of The Loathing every time he ever played a place with a salad bar or landscape art on the walls (it has to have happened at some point).
By contrast I’m more of a Waits-type. I imagine that Tom Waits, even if he were not famous, would be sipping cheap bourbon out of a tin cup and grousing out his songs to hobos and crippled dogs down by the train tracks. Come to think of it, he might be doing that right now even though he is famous. It seems he could care less whether there are 10 or 10,000 people in the room whenever he plays, and whether or not any of them pay the slightest bit of attention is completely incidental. I imagine that if Tom Waits were to drive everyone from the room at a salad gig by–y’know–being Tom Waits, he’d probably keep playing just for the fun of it, or because there’s the off-chance a crippled dog might be listening in the alley behind the place.
It would be a gross oversimplification to say that I’m all the way Waits-type and Jen is all the way Prince-type, though. I get pangs of hot-faced Loathing at times, and Jen can be unexpectedly nonchalant about some gigs fraught with wings-and-tapas. There’s one thing we agree on now: We really want to play more shows in the back half of 2015 and beyond. That’s not to say that we won’t still do a bunch of gigs: We totally have a bunch of them booked, right up through November. But we’re doing them now with the knowledge that each gig is a few salads closer to playing a show, and that really helps to keep The Loathing at bay.