Playing to one man and his dog…

Crowded House

Empty Pub, Crowded House (clockwise from top right: Neil Finn, Tim Finn, Paul Hester, Nick Seymour – this was the band line-up that recorded their classic Woodface album)

…without the dog.

I had an interesting experience this Saturday, playing a solo gig in the White Lion in West Kirby. For the first time ever (and I’ve been playing the odd gig here and there for the past 7 or 8 years), I was faced with the prospect of playing to an empty room (adorable/adoring wife Amy aside). We had turned up at 7:45 to get set up, hoping to see at least a smattering (give or take a modicum) of familiar faces. The downstairs “lounge” (we call it the lounge to differentiate it from the “upstairs” bar – there being three steps separating upstairs from downstairs) was busy, but we recognised these people as being the just-stopped-for-a-drink-en-route-to-somewhere-else crowd.

Sure enough, by 8:30 the room was empty. Amy sat alone with her mobile and a pint of Brimstage Brewery’s Trapper’s Hat, forlornly texting her friends in the vain hope that some of them might take pity and come down to keep her company. As the 9:00pm kick-off time slowly approached, the door swung open and half a dozen girls, barely of a drinking age and dolled up for a night on the town, came a-screeching and a-clattering in. Not the type of crowd I usually attract but maybe… perhaps… alas, they had only come in to visit the White Lion’s toilet facilities. Soon, all was quiet again.

We debated having a word with the management and seeing if we could reschedule. I still had time to save face (what little face I’d managed to retain over the years). We could pretend I’d been taken ill and had to cancel – there was no-one there, so who would know?

Or I could pick up my guitar and play.

By 9:00, a couple of the tables were occupied. I didn’t recognise the faces, but perhaps, just perhaps, they had come to the White Lion to hear me play. So I picked up my guitar and played. “Might as well please myself”, I thought, and so I sang the songs I knew best, by the artists that I love the most: Crowded House, Squeeze, James Taylor, Eagles, eighties bands like Soft CellTears for Fears and Duran Duran. I even threw in a handful of my own (“What ya gonna do? Walk out? Both of you?”), figuring that if they like my influences, they’ll like the results of those influences.

And hey! People arrived, they stayed, they listened, they clapped, and I started enjoying myself. One thing about playing in a small venue to a small but appreciative audience is that I could actually hear myself sing and play – really handy if you actually want to hit the right notes (for a change)! Instead of bashing away ’til my fingers bled, I got to finger-pick my way through a lot of the material, which is what I tend to do when I’m at home. I began to think hey, I’m actually pretty good!

After a while, I decided I needed a comfort break. “I’m just gonna go for a wee”, I announced to the crowd. As I came back, I ordered another beer at the bar. Eddie, the friendly barman (as opposed to Derek, the sometimes-a-bit-surly barman) asked “are you gonna do some more?” “Yeah, guess so,” I responded, “what time is it?” “Quarter to eleven”, Eddie replied. Practically last orders! I’d be playing for almost two hours – the time had just flown.

Some lessons learned there: “the show must go on” is an obvious one. I’ve never bottled out of a gig before and I guess the day I do is the day I should hang up my boots, I mean guitar. “Play what you know” is another, along with “you can’t please all the people all the time”. Quite often, I’m trying to second guess the audience, playing a far too varied and eclectic set which maybe ends up really pleasing no-one. But hey, I like Crowded House, Del Amitri, Aztec Camera, Travis, Soft Cell. So what if they’re not cool? Neither am I. But I’m not bad when it comes to performing great songs by great but uncool artists.

And that’s the final, most important lesson right there: I’m not cool, but I’m not bad either.

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12 thoughts on “Playing to one man and his dog…

  1. At last, Gazza!! Second guessing the audience is the worst thing you can possibly do… as you say, play what you know / want to play. Ultimately, these nights can be made not by your choice of songs, but by YOU enjoying yourself. It is infectious, it draws people in and focuses the people watching on your performance, not necessarily the dittys you have chosen. Hopefully get to you see you flex the vocal chords soon… I’m going to get back into playing at some point over the summer and have decided to do exactly the same. Play what I want – not what I think other people want to hear. Should be fun…

    • Hi Stevo, thanks for your words of encouragement, kiddo. I normally do enjoy my gigs, but after Saturday’s gig I realise I’ve been straying away from the material that is most me. Recent gigs have been either playing in the band or jamming with friends – enjoy both, but it usually means a compromise on the material. On Saturday I just did songs I wanted to hear, as if I was in the audience and had come to see a solo musician play. So I kinda enjoyed listening to me sing, if that does sound a bit weird or narcissistic!

      As for you resuming playing, I’ve said it to your face many times, I’d rather hear you going back to singing – Paul Simon, Don McLean, Steve Parker et al – than the shouty stuff you’ve been doing the past few years. Not a criticism, but a personal preference, one that many of my friends and acquaintances would agree with.

      Maybe get in touch and go for a few beers sometime, when you’re up to it?

    • Please note, Doctor, that I didn’t actually play to an empty room in the end, it just looked like it was going that way for a while. To be honest, it was more fulfilling playing to a room half full of strangers listening to what I was playing than to a room full of friends having me as incidental background music. It might be the way forward – playing in places where nobody knows your name.

  2. Yes, otherwise it becomes like an episode of ‘Cheers’. The only way you will (re)discover your musical strengths is by going out on a limb and taking a few risks.

  3. I once played to one man and his dog. He f##cked off half way through to go and now a meadow. Apparently he had to rope undone friends to finish the job and they wrote a song about it.

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