Twelve years I toiled in the D leagues of the Portland band scene. I may have gotten up to C level a time or two, but most of it was clearly in the D leagues. Farmers Markets, Private parties, and an occasional corporate event or business opening. I think the most I ever banked from a 3 hour gig was $100. Not bad by some standards. Money-wise that’s as good as some A-B league bands do. But clearly we were operating (intentionally) at the lower levels where mistakes are not a big deal. My goal was usually to get through the night with no quinker-dinkers and I got to the point where I could pull that off more often than not.
I was fortunate enough to ‘play up’ and got to work with some really good mentors who (thankfully) had patience. Along the way you learn some valuable lessons. Here are a few I thought I’d share, for whatever it’s worth.
The singer gets to pick the songs This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it’s often followed.
Travel light You can tell the smart guitar players because they aren’t packing around 500 lbs of shit to every gig. They keep it simple. I watched the best guitar player in Portland show up for a gig one time at Bridgeport Village with The Patrick Lamb Band. He was carrying about 3 things. His guitar on a shoulder strap, a small ( quality ) tube amp, and his pedal was in a bag along with a few cords. That’s it.
Myself, ability-wise about 15 steps down from him, had a habit of showing up for the Annual ZeeRocks corporate gig with my truck loaded to the brim with gear. Let me be the first to admit, the extra gear did not help. And it took an hour to assemble and I was exhausted when I was all done. Worse, I had to remember how to use it all during the gig…. to the point where I’d play the song wrong. You see that’s the point. If you can’t play the song right, then forget about all the other stuff. Priority 1 is learn the song and play it with no mistakes.
Keep the songs moving Some bands/duos do this exceptionally well. Nobody does it better than Tim Ellis and Jim Walker. They can string a medley of 20 songs together without ever stopping. It’s truly amazing. Too often I’ve run into a band member who see a microphone and seizes the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a stand up comic. It usually goes over like a lead balloon. Dude, you’re not funny. Another band member couldn’t stop fucking around with the PA and it drove me nuts. It’s like the entire gig was this 3 hour sound check. That messed with my mojo, but you do what you have to to get along. The point is, the listener wants to hear the next song, not your jokes, or a continuation of the sound check, or anything else.
Coming unprepared to practice is rude When one former band member announced that, “Yeah, I gotta go home and woodshed that one” for the 3rd practice in a row, I was ready to SCREAM. By contrast, nothing is better than coming to practice and cruising through new songs and having them sound pretty good the first time. Enough said.
Keep the gear simple ( see also, Travel light ). The more pedals and extra stuff you have to tweak, the more than can go wrong technically and throw your song off. I know this from personal experience. One of the worst flaws I had as a player for most of the time I played was having to tweak my pedals in the middle of a gig. Cardinal sin. All that stuff should be dialed in and operating it should be second nature during a gig. You can observe the good players doing this.
Put your best material in the middle of the set list. I finally learned to do this after realizing it was fallacy to think that you’re going to play a Farmer’s Market and there will be some sort of ‘grand finale’ that you will go out on. Fact is, most people show up to these sorts of events somewhere in the middle, so that’s where you want to put your best stuff.
Don’t take breaks right when you have some momentum going The set list is a guide, not the Bible. Be flexible. If your band has the mojo going and people are getting into it, keep playing. Just because the set list says set 1 is over and it’s time for a break doesn’t mean it’s the law.
Don’t spend a bunch of time in practice re-writing the arrangement Agree to either ‘do it like the record’ so that everyone has the same reference point coming in, or else document the arrangement and give it to everyone beforehand.
Don’t play too loud Better to have people asking you to turn it up than turn it down.
Be flexible with your band mates’ goals It isn’t he 1960’s anymore. Playing with another band is not a form a cheating. The pay is low, so naturally musicians who need the money are going to try to get as many paying gigs as they can. Sometimes the customer wants a duo. Other times they want a full 5 piece. The best musicians I know play in several different configurations… whatever the gig calls for. Give your band mates some room to breath in the area and try not to get your undies in a bunch when a band mate gets an opportunity to play with other musicians.