So the April Birthday-Palooza Rock-n-Roll Extravaganza is over, and through all the ups and downs, the band and I have learned a few things in thirty days:
Lesson the First: Wind and Lightning Will Trump a Facebook RSVP Every Time.
The Monkey’s Pub n Grub show was to be our BIG show – the Chasers Lounge show in February was a favor to Kelly and Rock Theory, a gig to try out the new tunes, see what we needed to work on before April; and the VFW Post 8785 show was a warm-up, a chance to knock the dust off in front of an audience before we brought out the big guns at Monkey’s: new songs, new set list, new lights, new banners, and the first show at a place officially big enough to showcase all that new greatness. And the set-up looked awesome – Paul’s vision of what he wants the stage to look like is total amazeballs, and I can’t wait to get to a bike rally or other outdoor event where we can show this off. We look as good as we sound.
One of the reasons we are The East Texas Garage Band is because we are based on the east side of the greater DFW Metroplex; and as any good Texan will tell you, spring and especially April is the beginning of Tornado Season around these parts – no matter what our TV weather-casters tell you, you still keep on eye on the sky every late afternoon/early evening. To add insult to injury, just because you dodged that day’s twister doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods: every other year, Mayfest and/or Juneteenth gets slammed with 60 mph straight-line winds, hail the size of grapefruit, torrential rainfall, flash flooding, and if you’re really unfortunate to be caught without sturdy cover that night, all of the above. Once the dry period hits hard and heavy around late June, the skies ease up a bit (then you just have to contend to 100+ degree days for weeks on end), but until summer begins there’s always a threat your event will be a rainout.
The Saturday night of the Monkey’s show, the weather report was all would be well, even though the sky looked rough all damn afternoon the threat of nastiness would hold off until Sunday. We showed up at the gig early evening, got set up, did our sound check, did our light check, moved banners around so everyone had a clear view of the band, and waited for the nearly three-dozen of our RSVP’s to show up, watching the lightning dance between the clouds. The RSVP’s never showed. My family arrived, being of hail and hearty stock, my folks are hard to scare; Super Dave’s girlfriend’s lovely daughter made the trip; and Pauly’s delightful new stalker made the drive in from Mesquite, dancing her ass off and making wonderfully inappropriate comments all night (honestly, she’s a hoot – hoping she sticks with the band once she figures out Pauly is completely head-over–heels in love with the Lovely Bride, my dear friend, Maragaret). The weather did exactly what the reports said it would do and held off getting ugly until Sunday, but by then the threat was enough to keep everyone away. The show was a bust, and being the upstanding professionals we are, we refunded some of our fee back to the establishment. We were bummed – our Big Show had all but flopped, and it definitely took the wind out of our sails, regardless of how much fun we had. Upside was none of the bar’s regulars showed up, either, so it was obviously the weather that kept everyone away not any lack of marketing on our part, so there’s still a chance we’ll be invited back. We ain’t holding our breaths.
Lesson the Second: You Have to Match the Sound Output to the Size of the Room.
Nearly every flyer I create, I put on the catchphrase “If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Damn Old.” I don’t do this because I believe it makes us sound cool – I do this because we are LOUD. Like “Holy Faulty Earplugs, Batman – I’m freakin’ DEAF!” loud. Pauly likes it loud, and again, not because he believes being loud makes us sound cool – Pauly knows what the hell he’s doing. Years of being a roadie for national A-List acts coupled with years of gigging with his band and other bands around the metroplex have gifted my band leader with a treasure trove of information and skill. There is a depth of sound he hears in his head that he is attempting to recreate live on stage – that takes a certain level of mixing, that takes a certain amount of equipment, and that takes a certain amount of volume, pure and simple. When left alone to do what he knows to do, Pauly makes us sound like a A-List act slumming for the night, and I do believe that’s way cool.
The problem is we are constantly being asked to turn it down – waitresses can’t hear the drink order from the customers, bartenders can’t hear the drink orders from the waitresses, the bar owners can’t hear interaction with the patrons, and no one can even hear themselves think. One song, two at most, and here comes the owner, “TOO DAMN LOUD, GUYS! TURN IT DOWN!” I remind them I put it on the damn flyer for a reason – so you’d know which band you were getting – Bryan our sound roadie attempts to ease it back a bit, our mix from the sound check is blown, and we sound like doo-doo the rest of the night. Happened at Monkey’s each time, happened at the VFW, happened our first time at Chasers.
Didn’t happen at our last show at Chasers, though. The bar’s PA was up and running, we were getting paid half our normal fee, so Pauly just brought the minimum, which was the top mounts on the sticks. Viola! No one asked us to turn it down, we could hear ourselves in the monitors all four sets, our mix stayed good the entire night, and we had a freakin’ blast. Moreover, the sound was finally good enough I can pull some audio and video from the show and get it online to help market the band.
Now to convince Pauly of the lesson learned: create a sound to suit the size of the venue, don’t try to make the venue accept the size of our sound.
Lesson the Third: Your Hard-Core Fans Can Only Be Hard-Core So Long.
With no false modesty and no delusions of grandeur, we are a very good band – on our bad nights we’re still good; on our good nights we’re just amazing. As a very good band, we have actual fans, people who keep track of our schedule and are excited to come out to our shows. We have fans who make nearly every show, we have fans who make about half of our shows, and we have fans who make one show every blue moon – what we don’t have are fans who make every single solitary show. Now, that’s not surprising – we’re a blue-collar band playing for blue-collar fans and damn proud of that fact, and them good folks are dealing with a decade-long recession just like everyone else in the country. It gets damn pricey seeing a musical act two or three times a month, especially if the bar is charging a cover, especially if the gig is on the far side of a very large metroplex. As much as they want to be supportive, sometimes the fans need a weekend off, and their band understands that.
In April, however, every fan that needed a weekend off took the same damn weekends off. No heads up – no turned down RSVP’s, no Facebook messages, no “So sorry” emails, no “Can’t make it” texts, no nothing; just a whole lot of empty seats where a buttload of fans were sitting last September and October. Proms, Springs Breaks, and upcoming Graduations siphoned away our peeps; add the threat of a potential major storm, and we were left high and dry during our busiest month.
Very soon, I’m going to write a lengthy blog on Amanda Palmer’s record-setting success on Kickstarter these last few days, but here and now I’m going to mention that the reason for this amazing and well-deserved success is all the groundwork she’s been laying down the last few years and her embrace of all things social media: all the email lists, all the seemingly-random Tweets, all the blogging, all the Facebook posting, all the live-streaming, all the “Ask Me Anything” Q&A sessions, all the Ninja gigging, and all the OWS entertaining has been for the purpose of continually attracting new fans while routinely rewarding the steadfast loyalty of her existing fan base. The best part: she believes in this process whole-heartedly. Nothing mercenary about it, Amanda believes that this is how art will be created in the future: with a beautifully symbiotic relationship between the artist and the patron where both reap the benefits of the undertaking. Playing the ukulele for the protesters camping in the parks may have had the benefit of raising her exposure and generating good will, but Amanda made the trip because she believes in their cause and salutes their conviction, first and foremost – that there is what’s know as a win-win, my peoples. And that’s a lesson all bands – especially those started out – can learn: love your fans, give back to your fans, and they will love you and give back to you threefold, or in Amada’s case, over fifty-fold.
($100,000 raised in less than a day, over $500,000 in under a week – THAT is the power of social media, THAT is the power of the masses. I’d respect the shit out of Amanda Palmer even if I didn’t have an art crush on her – more on this later this month.)
Pauly’s planning on firing up his Harley, meeting with some of the local MC chapters around here and setting up some free “Please to Meet You” shows at their clubhouses; I’m designing some small stickers to give away and slap on walls in various places to up our exposure; I’m burning some down-and-dirty DVD’s of our last Chasers gig to give to a few of the bars we haven’t been able to get call-backs from, see if an audio-visual aid helps the booking process; in the slow months, I’m going to see if Pauly will throw a Fans Only show at either his place or a hall nearby; and I’m going to make some custom t-shirts for a few of our most hearty, most fervent fans as a “Thank You” for the much-appreciated loyalty.
Lesson the Last: Nothing Compares to Being Off Book.
Ask any actor, ask any musician, ask any vocalist, and they will all tell you the same thing: it takes a while to memorize your part. Repetition helps, practice and rehearsals help, but sooner or later you find yourself reciting your lines in front of a mirror, practicing your fingering on the steering wheel, or singing your harmony line in the shower trying to finally get it down pat. And even though you can still block your moves with your script in your off hand, read off the sheet music while watching the conductor, or keep track of your lyrics with a small cheat sheet while practicing with the band, nothing – and I mean NOTHING – compares to having your part memorized. Once you aren’t worried about learning the part, you can then start performing the part – that’s when the magic can happen.
I’m the first to admit that most of our catalog is full of songs I didn’t grow up listening to – a lot of these tunes I’m hearing and singing for the first time. So every song the band knows – whether I sing it or not, whether it’s currently in the set list or not – went into my songbooks. Every rehearsal, I had a music stand for my books; every show, I had a music stand for my books. No big deal – a lot of cover bands have lyric sheets and fake books on stands for the show; and besides, I was more worried about getting the songs done right than looking good for the audience.
As more and more songs I actually knew made it into the set list, and I began to have more and more songs memorized from just singing them so often, the more I could look away from the books. This had the benefits of allowing me to interact with the audience more, make better eye contact; and I could move around more, actually look like I was enjoying myself by physically getting into the beat of the music instead of standing in one spot like a cigar store Indian, scared I’d lose my place in the lyrics. But being off-book also had a hidden benefit I wasn’t expecting at all: my singing improved. Dramatically. When I stopped worrying about getting the words right, I started making an unconscious connection to the content of the song – as a result, my phrasing changed to better emphasize the emotions. I was now performing the song instead of just singing the song. And the difference was startling – without watching to see what I was up to, you could tell when I wasn’t leaning on the songbook just by listening to the change in my delivery. Pauly could hear it; more importantly, I could hear it – it was the difference between a gifted amateur on karaoke night and a honest-to-goodness lead singer fronting a professional band.
All April, I was off-book: three shows in three weeks, and if I couldn’t remember the lyrics, I made due until somebody could remind me what I was supposed to be singing or I just made up a new line. I had at least one flub every night – nothing major but enough to be seen and heard. And I was suddenly receiving praise like never before – each and every show, new fans and old found me between sets and after the close to shake my hand, hug my neck, and compliment me on my voice; more people were singing along with the tunes; more people were dancing during the sets. The biggest surprise was the band was suddenly complimenting me, too. No one had ever complained about my singing, it was obvious they all thought I was a good addition to the band even with my lack of an instrument in the mix; but now I was hearing “We have to do ‘Hold On Loosely,’ dude, you are nailing that one,” or “I always thought ‘Flirting With Disaster’ was a Pauly kind of song, but you are doing an amazing job, bud.” Three years with the band, this was the first time I was hearing this kind of praise from the people I needed to hear it from the most – the men I respect the most: Gary, Patrick, Super Dave, and my brother from another mother, Pauly.
Got a couple of weeks off to rest and recuperate, then we’ve got a show at the end of the month at Chasers, maybe a show at the start of June, then the Lady Fair and I are joining Pauly and the Lovely Bride on a trip to Austin for the Republic of Texas Bike Rally (aw yeah, gonna get my outlaw ON, ya’ll!) – during these weeks, I’m going to take the lessons of April to heart, get some things started and get everything moving in the right direction.