This article is not a how-to, and I'm not trying to give any pointers, so don't be angry if you get to the end and you haven't learned anything. It's just a story about the rock and roll dream.
A few weeks ago, I got a call from my friend Andy, who told me his band was about to play their first show. He asked me if I wanted to come along and check them out, and he told me he'd get me in for free if I gave them a hand with their gear. I said sure, since I'm always happy to go out and see a few bands, especially when it's not costing me anything. Also, I think there's something special about seeing a band perform their first gig ever.
The night of the show, Andy and his partner-n-crime, Dan, picked me up. I should tell you right now that these two guys have got balls. They've got great big hairy brass balls, and I'm talking about daring, determination and fortitude, not about their actual genitalia, which I've never seen. Andy and Dan are from a small town in England, and they felt that they didn't have a chance to get above the local pub/covers act routine in the area, so they decided to sell all their shit and head to a city where they could break through. The two cities they looked at were Los Angeles and Sydney, Australia. After a bit of research, they picked Sydney.
Due to immigration laws, it's only possible to spend one year in Australia in most cases, unless you are sponsored by a family member or a business. That means from the moment the boys touched down on Aussie soil, they had 365 days to get set up, audition members and get a line-up together, jam out and learn a complete set of songs, gig local bars and clubs, get the attention of a record company and finally get signed, so that they wouldn't have to leave the country again. You want daring? That's daring. You want determination? That's determination. Hell, that may even be a little bit crazy.
I actually met these two guitar-slingers when I tried out for them on bass. They had me jam with them for almost a month before they said, Look Nolan, you're all right, but we need someone with a bit more polish. Actually, they needed someone good. I mean, I'm an okay player, but I'm not get your band signed in twelve months or your money back good.
The night of the gig, the boys drove out to this rough-looking bar, way past the airport (standard for a first gig, I think). I asked them how they managed to get a show so far out of the way and they told me they did it the old-fashioned way: they recorded a four song demo at their practice facility and drove copies out to every bar they found listed in the local rock magazine (probably forty or fifty places). This was the only place that had called them back.
We met the other members of the band there, and got all their gear inside. There would be no sound checkthey were second on a bill of four bands and would be expected to plug in, do a quick levels check and play.
By the time the first band was playing, the lead singer still hadn't shown up. It seems the others players were used to this from him, but they needed him there fast. They also needed the forty friends and relatives he promised to bring with him to fill in the audience. He finally showed up about half an hour before the band was due on stage, and he came in force. There were only about a dozen people in the stage area watching the first act, but the singer brought two dozen more people with him.
The first band finished up, and we got all the gear up and plugged in. The sound tech started going through the levels of the drums when the power cut out, leaving the stage in total blackness. Something had blown, and there was no electricity at all to the stage area. The boys cleared out of the way, and the bar staff got to work, climbing under the stage with flashlights, trying to correct the problem. It took about twenty minutes to get everything back up, while the band stood at the side muttering about bad omens.
Screaming Thunder (not the band's actual name, but just as cheesy as the one they picked) was supposed to start playing at nine, and they didn't get their sound check done until nine fifteen. The crowd was patient, because it was almost entirely made up of their friends. They finally got going, and their first song went well, although the guitars sounded somewhat thin. After the second song, Dan, the rhythm guitarist, told the sound tech his monitor was off. They couldn't get it back on. For the rest of the gig, a staff member was crouched in front of Dan's monitor trying to get the damn thing to work.
Andy was having similar troubles. Andy uses several effects pedals, and a bad connection somewhere between them was causing his sound to cut in and out. The songs sounded pretty good, and the crowd was having a good time, but there were long pauses between each song as the boys tried to straighten out their equipment. The delays interrupted the flow of the set, so it was hard to get a steady pace to the show. During the songs, the players stood stiff, too concerned about the equipment problems they were having to cut loose and have fun, and too nervous to rock along with the set of good tunes they had written.
When it was over and they got off the stage, they got a big cheer from their supportive audience. Most people didn't seem to notice the problems they were having, and the strength of the songs got them through the difficulties. The people in the audience were able to focus on what was in front of them: five talented players, working their way through a dozen well-written songs.
The first thing Andy said to me when the equipment was out of the way was this: Did that sound as bad in the crowd as it did on stage? Since the guys had had nothing but technical troubles from before they even started playing, that was what they focused on. Each player had a different thing to worry about. Their dialogue sounded something like this:
Drummer: Oh guys, I screwed up the first song so bad. Man, I really blew it.
Bass Player: Man, that's nothing. I made big mistakes in every song.
Singer: Yeah, I was way off. Oh shit, and I forgot the words, too.
Rhythm Guitarist: I couldn't hear myself, so I didn't even know what I was playing.
Lead Guitarist: My guitar kept cutting out. I sounded horrible.
And then, every player in unison: I'm sorry guys. I let the band down. Even after all of their pals in the audience told them they sounded pretty good, they still focused on the negatives. But as the stress of playing their first show wore off, the pain and suffering of technical troubles and minor mistakes disappeared and was replaced by one feeling: relief.
That's the way it goes. The pain of doing it for the first time was gone, and with encouragement and advice, they were looking forward to playing their next show, and making it better. Little mistakes and electrical problems won't overwhelm talent and good song-writing. And just like one show won't make you, neither will it break you, unless you let it.
So the boys relaxed and made some toasts, and patted themselves on the back. It couldn't have gone much worse, and they still put on a good show. The only thing to do would be to keep working, keep practicing, and get ready to play another one.