I've been trying to fulfill my desire to see live music lately, but it seems that a lot of bigger bands want something called 'money' to see their shows. Although I've heard of 'money,' I'm not sure what it is or where to get it, so I've been going the cheap route and checking out small gigs to see beginner bands and young kids working out their act. You see bad haircuts and hear bad rip-offs of Metallica, Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins, but it's good fun. Sometimes it can be painful to watch, but you see some great young players and bands.
There are many stages in the progression of a band, from a loose group of guys practicing in a basement or rehearsal studio, to a bunch of paralyzed geeks standing on stage in some shitty bar, to the group of strutting studs in the big halls and venues. It can be pretty hilarious to watch the awkward kids emerging for the first time to step on a stage. Even if a band is tight musically, there is a big leap from playing in a rehearsal space to playing in front of people. "Holy shit, they're looking at us! What do we do?"
The straight fact is that a band, especially one made up of young, inexperienced kids, will look foolish their first several times out. There's nothing that can be done about it; there is simply a learning curve that everyone has to get over. And yet I wonder: is there anything I could do to help these kids? Certainly I couldn't help them with their music. That comes from talent and practice. But could I give them advice about what to do and what not do on stage? After five beers I decide the answer is yes.
On-Stage Antics: Tips And Suggestions
It's a problem for shy guys to get up in front of a group of people. I talked to a young guy at a shoe a few months ago. He was about to get up on stage and he and his buddies were very nervous, but excited. They were talking about getting some chicks after their set. They got up and played, but could barely face the audience. They were stiff and withdrawn. You could see them shaking. They played all right, getting through their songs without any major mistakes, but there was no connection. They didn't put on show; they just got on stage, played some songs and got off. Then they were confused about why no chicks talked to them afterwards.
So tip number one: You need to have confidence, and if you have none, fake it. Seriously, people can tell if you're scared. And even if you're almost at pants-shitting levels of nervousness, you've got to pretend you're cool and maybe a little bad-assed. Don't go overboard and start sneering and shit, but maybe try slapping each other hard in the face before going on. Straighten up. And for the love of Jimi, look at the audience. They are here to look at you. Look back at them. And if you're scared, pick a spot in the room where no one is sitting and look there. At least people will think you're looking at the audience.
If you need to stare at the guitar frets to be able to play, you're probably not ready to be on stage. Practice more, and don't get on stage until you can stare at someone sexy at the back of the room without making any mistakes.
If you're nervous, avoid long pauses. If you stand there looking at each other between songs going 'Was that okay? Okay? Are you ready? Steve? Are you ready?' you will look like a bunch of rookies. If you make mistakes, do not talk about it on stage. Do not look at your drummer and say 'Sorry Steve. My fault.' If another member of the band makes a mistake, do not look at him or mention it between songs. Punch him out back stage, but do not let anyone in the audience know there was an error. I'll bet you my air guitar that no one in the crowd noticed.
'But we need to tune up between songs.' Fine. Tune up, but make it quick and do not let it become an obsession. Do not tune up between every song. I remember seeing a band that would tune for upwards of a minute between each number, and would still be out of tune. Just play.
Show a bit of emotion. Don't get all weird, but don't be a zombie up there (unless your act is a Zombies cover band). I saw The Smalls play on their final tour, and I remember the guitar and bass player getting up on stage, all smiles, interacting with the crowd, and they played the whole show looking like they were having a great time. The singer, however, never made eye contact with anyone in the room, kept a mopey-dopey expression on his face, and looked like he didn't want to be there. By the end of the show, I hated his guts. Maybe it was his 'style,' or his 'act,' but I didn't like him. A friend at the same show said he thought the guy was too stoned to know where he was. Either way, we liked the band because they looked like they were having fun, and we wanted to rail-spike the singer.
Sometimes even nasty emotion is better than no emotion. The Misfits, in one of their reunion incarnations, featured a smiling and happy Jerry Only and a dour and angry Doyle. Doyle looked like he was going to take off his guitar and kill Jerry. Who knows, maybe he really wanted to, but I think it was part of the act. And it worked.
Speaking of singers: If your guitarist is also your singer, this won't apply, but if your band has a singer that doesn't play an instrument, pay attention to what he does with his hands. This is really important. If he doesn't know what to do with his hands, he'll look like an idiot. If he has both hands on his mike, fine. If he keeps his hands on the mike stand, that's cool too. But if you see him holding the mike with one hand and slipping the other hand into his pocket, you've got trouble.
Here's what I suggest. Go to a hardware store and buy half a pound of small nuts and bolts. Every time you see him put his hand in his pocket, throw a bolt at his head. It will break the habit fast. I remember the singer in one band who was trying to break the habit, and would slip his hand in his pocket then immediately out, or would sometimes just touch his pocket. As a member of the audience, it was really distracting and embarrassing. He was a good singer, too.
The cardinal sin of singers, however, is playing air guitar. If you ever, ever see your singer playing air guitar, hit him not with a bolt, but with the claw end of a hammer. This is the worst thing I've ever seen on a stage. The band sounded great, they looked great, everything was going really well until the big riff on the chorus when the singer starting to play along with the guitars. Boom. That's it for me folks.
Seriously, if the guy wants an instrument that badly, get him a tambourine. If he still plays air guitar, get rid of the tambourine and tape his hands to the mike stand before you go on. He'll have to walk on stage holding the stand, but that's his own fault.
I don't care if your singer is Axl Presley Jagger. If he plays air guitar, you will all look like idiots.
Band or act? You will eventually learn that there is more to being on stage than simply playing music. You will develop an act, and start performing instead of just playing. Many bands will try to push showmanship further by incorporating some sort of gimmick into their show. This could be done with things as common as lights, clothing or uniforms, all the way to pyrotechnics, Iron Maiden's massive stage designs or KISS's costumes and makeup.
There is nothing wrong with a gimmick. Even a bad gimmick can be good for campy fun. The thing to keep in mind is that the gimmick must be sustained. To not allow the gimmick to break down mid-show. Do not mock your own gimmick, unless that too is part of the gimmick. Examples:
A great instrumental rock band from Vancouver (the name escapes me) decided to push the idea that they didn't have a vocalist. They had no mikes on stage except those for the drums, and did not speak to the audience at all. Instead, they used a slide projector with prepared slides to introduce themselves. They carried on with the slides all the way to end of their set, with a slide that said 'You've been great. We look forward to coming back.'
On the other hand I saw a band that laid down an extra-dimensional routine, saying they were a band visiting from Dimension X or something like that. They played it for a while until their costumes go too hot and they pulled them off. At the end of the show the routine had broken down completely and they were just another band standing in the tatters of their failed gimmick.
Think about it. If Slipknot took off their masks the first time they got too hot, the band would not have made the big time. I swear by my nuts on this, and I bet they would agree as well.
I could go on all night about this stuff, but my six-pack is gone. Don't sweat the bullshit and try to have fun. Your early shows will suck. There's not much you can do about it. Just try to enjoy the ride and have a good time. Learn from your mistakes and don't be too hard on yourselves. If you have a good time, the people in the audience might have fun too (unless you suck). And if the people in the audience have a good time, who knows? Maybe some girls will talk to you after all.
2007 Nolan Whyte