Author: Evans, Bill

When You Play Bluegrass, You Sometimes Play The Strangest Gigs in the World

Just about every musician has fairly vivid memories about the most unlikely, outrageous or uncomfortable gigs that they’ve ever played. Musicians trade the stories about these shows in after hours conversation like baseball cards or poker chips, each one of us trying to top the last story heard. Truth can sometimes get stretched a bit in these tall tales, but usually not by very much.

In bluegrass, we’re likely to have more than our fair share of these strange and unusual gig stories because the stereotypes surrounding our music leads us to ply our professional trade in unlikely places, sometimes hired by folks who don’t know what bluegrass music really is, or we find ourselves playing for audiences that are unfamiliar with the music, or even worse, don’t even want to hear it to begin with.

My first paying gig was as a high school-aged banjo player at the grand opening of a McDonald’s “restaurant” in Virginia Beach, Virginia in 1972. We were directed to stand just inside of the front door, where we practically blocked the entrance, greeting customers with “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Down in the Willow Garden.” I’m not sure how a murder ballad could actually whet one’s appetite for a Big Mac or get the kids ready for a Happy Meal but when you’re getting paid, you do what you’re told and that includes standing where you’re told to stand. And you play what you know how to play and you come away with a pretty good story.

The first European gig I played was in Germany in 1984 with my Virginia-based band Cloud Valley, which included bass player Missy Raines and mandolin player Steve Smith. We had taken an overnight flight into Germany, given a late model VW bus as a travel vehicle and we were soon on the Autobahn, puttering down the road while BMW’s and Audis were passing us at unbelievably fast speeds in the fast lane. After a flat tire, no tire iron and an adventure in a German auto shop trying to figure out how to make a pay phone call, we were back on the road, arriving just in time for our first show at a regional Deutsch-American Institute.

There was a large audience of German kids waiting for us – most in leather, with spiked hair, piercings and tattoos. They were expecting a punk rock band and most left the building as soon as my banjo came out of its case, many uttering something at us that I was glad I didn’t understand. We played for an almost empty house after traveling half way around the world. We were tired and hungry but we came away with another pretty good story.

On that same tour, we played the French version of the Tonight Show – a nationally broadcast late night radio performance – where the host asked us how we enjoyed playing a racist style of music. Now, that was an interesting gig for sure and our mandolin player Steve Smith answered the question brilliantly, by the way.

Another time Cloud Valley played on the 700 Club, the television show hosted by evangelist Pat Robertson. Some technical problems occurred during the broadcast and we witnessed one of the show’s other hosts losing his cool, yelling in a very un-700 Club way. And we came away with another story for the memorable gig file.

More recently, there was the time that I played a very small town in eastern Kentucky as the opening act for the local beauty pageant. I followed the dog show. Now, that’s entertainment – and another story for outrageous gig night.
I remember playing a home and garden exposition in an area surrounded by running hot tubs and I’ve played for private parties attended by a motorcycle gang whose idea of a good time was to throw firecrackers under the stage – as we played!
Probably the most outrageous gig story that I’ve heard (but did not witness myself) took place right here in the Bay Area. That was the bluegrass festival held at a local nudist colony – an event that maybe some of you played for or attended as an audience member. I invite someone who was there to post THAT stor
y to the message board (but no pictures please)!
To close, I’ve got an outrageous gig coming up that I want to tell you all about and luckily, this is the good kind of outrageous gig. On May 10, 11 and 12, Jody Stecher, Scott Nygaard and myself will be performing three 19th and early 20th century banjo pieces for “Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition” featuring the San Francisco Symphony with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and guest soloists at Davies Hall in San Francisco.
The San Francisco Banjo Trio will play towards the beginning of the concert, right after the full symphony has performed an opening piece. This will very likely be the first time that three banjo-type instruments have ever played Davies Hall together at the same time – and the symphony will be forced to listen! This should be fun.

We are coming together to honor the legacy of Warren Hellman, who was a SFS supporter and underwriter of this particular concert. Thank you to Michael Tilson Thomas, who came up with the idea to honor Warren in this way. Warren, we’ll be picking for you! We’re just a small part of the overall concert but it’s going to make for a memorable gig story. I’m sure of it.

All the best,
Bill Evans

Posted:  4/27/2012

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