One of the biggest problems that creative people face is that their work takes up an enormous amount of their attention. Why is this a problem? Because it can be extremely hard for these people to understand that the rest of the world does not necessarily have the same obsessive, passionate, vested interest in their work that they themselves do.
Twenty-four hours ago I played what turned out to be a heartbreakingly discouraging gig for me. I’ve spent most of the hours between then and now thinking about what happened, how I reacted, why I did so, if anyone was truly at fault…
Here’s the basic version. Nova Express is a ludicrously cool “space cafe” in a hip part of Los Angeles, where I’ve been playing for about two years. My first several gigs were very low-key; basically no one showed up to see me, so I got a lot of practice in trying to be engaging without being distracting or assaultive. As time went on, there seemed to be an increase in the tangible interest in my shows there, and the last time I played at Nova was a truly wonderful experience: a packed house, a very relaxed and comfortable vibe, and a definite sense that I was playing for an audience that wanted to hear me.
Of course, that gig was in October of 2006, and I didn’t do any shows after that, at all, up until the gig two nights ago. Eight months is a long layoff, and although I’d been excited to be gearing up for a gig (and feeling more inspired and excited by music than I had been in a very long time), I also had a lot of nervousness as to what kind of reception there would be.
Last night’s first performer was TheGreyman (aka troyworks), a really cool beatboxer and looping vocalist, and another Nova performance veteran. He’s sort of like Kid Beyond, but with a more introverted, goth/darkwave bent. He brought a lot of people to the gig – enough so that his crowd basically took over the two tables in front of the performance space. I apologized to Troy in advance for my not being able to take in his full set; my standard pre-gig routine is wandering around the quiet parts of a venue, practicing and noodling all the while. So my mind and attention was definitely on other things. But what I heard of Troy’s set sounded really good, and I was impressed by not only the number of people in the audience, but by the quality of listening; it really seemed like his crowd was interested in paying attention to the set and defering to the music as a focal point.
As Troy finished his set and started tearing down, I plugged into my rig and started trying to dial in a sound through the house system. As I tweaked the tone and volume levels, I took stock of the audience situation. Not a huge number of people out to hear me specifically, but definitely some very friendly and familiar faces, which was great to see. Troy’s listeners definitely represented the bult of the audience, and as I went through my soundcheck, I noticed that the crowd was still very active – mostly standing up, and talking quite loudly. Cool, I thought – nobody’s running for the hills, so there’ll be lots of people to play for.
I got my sound reasonably well dialed in, had the crew turn the CD player off so I could begin my set, and tried to steel myself for my first solo gig in two thirds of a year. The main crowd in the center of the room was still in mingling mode – many people standing up, all of them talking. I figured I should get their attention by launching into my set, and opted to open with “Entwined”, which always seems to be a safe way of easing into a gig, and always gets commented on by listeners. It’s also a very delicate and kind of fragile piece of music, and in many ways is the most emotionally exposed thing I play.
I hit the first note, and could feel a subtle yet tangible change in the room – a few people in the audience were thinking, “Oh, there’s a guitar being played now.” But the overall vibe didn’t change. The crowd was still talking as loudly as ever, and didn’t really seem to be making tracks back to their seats for “the second act.”
“Entwined” takes a lot of concentration and focus, so my attention was turned mainly towards the Echoplex and guitar. But as I continued the song, it was impossible not to notice that the crowd was still enjoying one another’s company – mainly because I was struggling to hear myself over the din of the conversation. I was getting seriously rattled by this point.
I finished “Entwined,” and as the last guitar chord faded away the noise level from the crowd sounded about as loud as it had when I’d started the song. There was some applause (thank God), but there was no escaping the fact that this was a completely different dynamic than I’d been anticipating.
I tried launching into a more aggressive, uptempo, grooving bit to continue. But although the murmur died down somewhat, I still found myself feeling a huge disconnect with the bulk of the audience seated directly in front of me, many of whom clearly had no problem with continuing to talk at normal conversational volume several minutes into what I had ironically thought was going to be a “headlining” set.
Let me put this into perspective: I’ve played plenty of gigs where no one at all in the venue was there to hear me. Indeed, that’s pretty much what my first several Nova Express gigs were like. I didn’t even perform “Entwined” at Nova until about a year after I’d started playing there, because I’d thought it would have felt pathetic to perform such a heart-on-sleeve tune to an obviously indifferent crowd. (And sure enough, it did feel pathetic.)
And I’ve played some of my favorite shows in noisy clubs and bars, where I was clearly one element out of many in the environment. These were loud situations, with lots of people talking and mingling, and I went into them knowing that I was going to play aggressive, grooving stuff and try to function more like a DJ than a featured “performer” in my own right.
The key point here is that I’ve been able to approach those situations knowing what I was getting myself into ahead of time, and being able to prepare for them both musically and mentally. At Nova, the surprise wasn’t when I first started there, playing to whoever happened to be at the cafe at the time; the surprise was when people started calling the venue to check on my performance time, and when total strangers were starting to show up to hear me play – THAT was the unexpected thing.
But this last gig was a different thing. There were many moments in the first ten minutes of the gig when I seriously thought about packing it in. The crowd in front of me – especially the table about four or five feeet directly across from me – was still making an awful lot of noise, in spite of several very audible statements from a few people at the table that they should be quiet. I don’t like feeling like I’m in an unwelcome environment, and I don’t like feeling I’m beating people over the head with my music.
It’s kind of like showing up to an event with a completely incorrect understanding of the dress code: arriving at a black tie formal party in jeans, flip-flops and gel-spiked hair, or showing up to a punk rock gig in an aquamarine polo shirt, kahki pants and $200 leather loafers. It isn’t even that anyone else is taking obvious notice of how out of place you feel; it’s the fact that you, yourself, feel horribly conspicuous and out of step, in a very self-conscious way. That’s not a great feeling to have under any circumstances, but when you’re standing on stage playing original music, at your first live gig in eight months, it’s a nightmare. And when the people sitting right in front of you are talking at a level that’s about as loud as your own playing, it’s practically inevitable.
There were lots of things flowing through my head while I was in the middle of struggling to perform. There was the embarassment over the fact that I’d originally booked the night as a solo gig, and then invited Troy to perform, only to have his audience turn me into a sideline at my own show. There was the immense desire to stop playing and run away as fast as I could, colliding repeatedly with the knowledge that there were several people here to see me play, and were paying attention. There was the “fetal position” mindset I sometimes find myself succumbing to on awkward gigs: hunched over, eyes locked on the Echoplex display, head down, hoping that I can escape my insecurity if I can make myself small and unobtrusive enough. Again, that’s a pretty awkward feeling to have on stage during a solo performance.
If you’re wondering how all of this would translate into the music – it was a very tentative, hesitant, stiff show for me musically. Lots of stuff I had practiced and conceptualized in the days leading up to the gig seemed incredibly inappropriate; how do you pull off a complex arrangement of a piece of music when the disregard of the crowd in front of you is making a complete mockery of all of that practice in the first place?
To their credit, there were moments when I could feel that the audience was really focusing and listening. (I say “feel” instead of “see” because I was so wracked by self-consciousness throughout the gig that I couldn’t bring myself to lift my head.) On the other hand, the two people seated directly in front of me and closest to me never really seemed to stop talking throughout the entire set.
Maybe worst of all was the frustration at the fact that I was having to struggle with this at all. I’m almost 33 years old, I’ve been playing guitar for 19 years, I’ve played plenty of good gigs and shared bills with some of my favorite musicians – how could I allow this to to shake me up so badly?
As I mentioned, there was a man and woman seated at the front of the main table before me, turned sideways to me and facing each other, who continued to talk off and (mostly) on for the entire hour I played. Towards the end, as my patience grew weaker and my frustration stronger, I started looking directly at them, sometimes playing, sometimes just sipping a glass of water, waiting for them to get the message. By this time my anger was subsuming my self-consciousness, and I could see that other people at the table were finding this awkward. Eventually one person from the table went over to the pair and clearly said something very serious into their ears, because they stopped talking right afterwards. But for me the damage had been done; when you need people to negotiate with your audience in order to get them to listen, then that says it all right there.
I finally wrapped up after nearly an hour of playing. I stuffed my guitar into my gig bag and practically ran out of the venue, standing on the street for over half an hour, profusely apologizing to anyone who I saw for their having had to endure that show. I received nothing but very complimentary feedback from people, but I was too wracked from the experience to be able to truly take it in.
At one point the two people who had sat right in front, and talked through practically my entire show, walked out of Nova, and then came over to me. For a moment I actually thought I was going to get an apology from them, but what came back instead was truly surprising: they told me they’d had a nice time hearing me play. For a split second I made a mental catalog of a few dozen accusatory and cutting comments I could unleash, but instead I opted to force a meager smile and thank them for coming.
As the initial sting of the crowd dynamic subsided, I found myself thinking about the whole issue of attention. It’s easy for a performer to get uptight if they feel that the proper attention isn’t being paid to their work. But in a case like this, was exactly is the “proper attention”? The talkative people were paying patrons of the cafe who had come to hear their friend perform, and to socialize with one another. Was it arrogant of me to take offense that enjoying one another’s company was a bigger priority than listening to some funny-looking guy making funny-sounding music over in the corner?
Had I gotten cocky and arrogant enough to assume that my efforts to make this a good show – booking the gig in the first place, the prep time I put into practicing for the gig, getting there two and a half hours early for a relaxed set-up, cancelling a day’s worth of guitar students to better focus on the day’s requirements – made me entitled to consideration from the crowd that happened to be there? Did the dynamic of the night, as it naturally unfolded, ultimately mean that I was the one who was creating a diversion from the true purpose of the evening?
At the end of the day, it was one bad gig out of however many countless ones I’ve played – and will play – in my life. Nova wants to have me back, and I want to go back, but it’s going to be hard not to walk into my next gig there feeling like I’m revisiting the scene of a horribly embarassing defeat.