One of the bands I play with did a gig recently at a rather small bar/restaurant in southeastern Connecticut. As we were scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m., I showed up around 8:15 p.m. to load-in and set up my drums. A guy who I presumed to be a manager was outside smoking a cigarette.
“I hear you guys are great,” he said.
“Yeah,” I responded, “we’re going to destroy the place” — by which I meant that we’d entertain the hell out of the bar’s patrons.
He offered a nod of excited approval, led me inside to the small area in which we’d be setting up and playing, and pointed to a handful of tables that would be moved once folks had finished eating. One group had just sat down and another was seated soon thereafter, putting me and my bandmates in a somewhat typical albeit frustrating holding pattern.
“That guy looks like a dessert guy,” the bass player said, pointing at one diner and losing hope that we’d be released from our holding pattern any time soon.
It was after 9 p.m. when were finally given the go-ahead to start setting up. The manager moved two tables and a booth out of the way and I claimed my spot against a brick wall and beneath a big-screen TV — not exactly the backdrop a band wants to perform in front of.
By around 10 p.m. we were playing, and no sooner had we started than people got up and started dancing wildly — inspired by the music (and uninhibited by alcohol).
One nice thing about being a percussionist is that a drum set serves as a barrier where none other exists between musicians and audience. Still, inevitably, someone dances into a crash cymbal, as happened at this gig.
You do realize that I’m hitting things with sticks, don’t you? I imagined myself saying to the offending drunk. Fortunately, no harm was done to equipment or dancer.
By the end of the night, the place was in a relative frenzy. Young people were liquored up and snaking through the joint in a spastic conga line, one of them stopping to offer me a boozy high-five each time he approach my position.
It was loud and it was sweaty and I’m fairly certain that no one who was there remembers what was on the big-screen TV. We’d made good on my promise to destroy the place, and the manager, his colleagues, and the patrons were thrilled. There was excited and sincere talk about when this could happen again.
The next night, I played at a different club with a different band. This place actually has spacious stage, a house PA system, and a soundman. My bandmates and I had all the time in the world to set up, do a soundcheck, and relax before taking the stage — which was supposed to happen at 8 p.m.
The venue’s manager, though, wanted us to wait until more people showed up. Aside from the bar staff and some band members’ family and friends, there was no one there. And so we waited until 8:20 p.m., at which point one of my colleagues said he didn’t want to wait any longer.
Throughout the course of the evening we might have played to a dozen people, not including the aforementioned club manager, bar staff, and family and friends. There was dancing, but not of a kind spontaneously inspired by music and booze. These were swing dancers, practicing their hobby to the soundtrack we happened to be providing.
There is a difference between the two audiences. One group was moved to express themselves and the other had planned on doing so. And while one was more spirited (if perhaps a bit too close for comfort), the other was detached — appreciative but not necessarily moved emotionally by the music.
And while the manager at the second place seemed generally pleased with how things went, if not a bit disappointed by the lack of turnout, he didn’t have a look in his eye that said this absolutely must happen again.
Each band, no doubt, will play at each venue again. And I expect to have similar experiences. The two ensembles are very different and attract and speak (through different musical styles) to very different audiences, one full of energy and enthusiasm (and drink) and driven to react emotionally and physically to a performance, the other motivated in a sense to be the performers. Each band’s repertoire has a lot to do with that, as does the general demographic that’s attracted to each.
The audience members at each gig who went largely unnoticed — though not by me — were the folks who sat or stood and listened intently to each band’s — and each musician’s — performance. And above all these are the folks whose quiet energy helps fuel my performances.
— David Brensilver