Author: Campbell, Bruce

Face the Crowd, Boy

As soon as a musician decides to make the move from just playing, to performing, an uncontrollable element is added to the equation: The audience. A more skittish, unpredictable, capricious entity you will never find. Simultaneously, this entity is vital. Without an audience, it’s not a performance.

Audiences come in all shapes and sizes, and types. Generally speaking, the bigger the audience, the better, although at some point, the performance has to encompass much more than just humans playing and singing to entertain an audience that numbers in the tens of thousands. Besides, audiences of that size are outside the realm of this author’s experience, so let’s just compare audiences in relation to the venue’s capacity.

Anybody that has played in bars knows how it feels to play to a house with no one in it but the bartender. It’s tough to get your mojo on when there’s no one watching. As soon as one person shows up, however, everything changes. Well almost everything – playing for one person is almost as depressing as playing for no one, but if even one person shows up, they are entitled to the best, most exciting show you can muster, and that can be a challenge mentally, sometimes. I remember a show at McGrath’s in Alameda, and at showtime, there was exactly one person there to see the band. What did we do? We handed the guy our setlist and let him choose what he wanted to hear, and had fun with it. By the end of the evening, the place was packed, but it was a rough beginning.

Audience vary in size, but they also vary wildly in mood and attentiveness. You have to be realistic. There are some venues where the live band has to compete with a TV over the bar and ongoing mating rituals amongst (and betwixt) the patrons. Folks go to bars to socialize, and music is often an afterthought – an appreciated afterthought, but an afterthought nonetheless. You’re much better off taking requests from the few folks in front than trying to force the bar to hush up for your sensitive love song.

Let’s talk about that TV over the bar for a minute. Nearly any bar will turn down the sound when the band plays, but they often leave it on, and this makes for some odd dynamics. I have been playing at a bar when suddenly the crowd goes nuts, and for an instant, I thought, “Wow, we’re really reaching them tonight!”, only to discover the cheering was due to the sporting event on the tube. Even more jarring was having the audience suddenly burst into laughter. After checking my zipper (it was in the up and locked position), I realized the TV was tuned to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and had just shown some poor chap getting a basketball to the groin, or something like that. In one bar I play at regularly, I can see the TV from the stage, and I have caught myself watching TV while playing – it’s an odd sensation..

So, you say you’re tired of playing to indifferent audiences at bars? Well, it can be just as weird playing concerts. The first time I played for an audience who were all arranged in chairs, facing the stage, I was a little taken aback by all the eyes staring intently every time I looked up. To me, they seemed disapproving: “What? This guy has no business playing music! Who does he think he’s fooling?”.

However, after the show, I was besieged by audience members who said they loved the performance, and in some cases, said they actually learned by watching me play. I forgot - bluegrass audiences have a high number of fellow musicians, and their reaction tends to lean towards rapt concentration, rather than open-mouthed delight.

But if one out of every 100 shows features an audience who immerses themselves into your performance, and reacts with visceral delight at every musical twist and turn you present to them, then you know – it’s all worth it. You can easily draw upon that wonderful feeling for the next 99 shows…

Posted:  11/16/2011

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