I’ll start off by stating the obvious: Los Angeles, as a rule, is an enormous pain when it comes to playing live music.
There are several factors involved:
1) The “City of Los Angeles” covers approximately 50 square miles – it’s one of the single most de-centralized parts of the First World. In practical terms, this means that “getting around town” involves serious driving, almost always on the freeway. The time involved in getting places, the potential for traffic congestion, and the cost of gas all help to make a trip to a live music venue a frequently unattractive proposition.
2) Everybody comes through Los Angeles to play. You can look through the entertainment listings of any local paper and see a veritable who’s who of the music world listed in the local venues. This helps to foster a sense of jaded-ness amongst residents here; so many musicians play here so frequently, it’s easy to assume that you can always “catch so-and-so some other time.”
3) Los Angeles has what is almost certainly the highest concentration of major record labels and entertainment companies of any city in the entire world. What this means is that there are tons of bands here looking to “make it.” “Making it” is a very relative concept, particularly amongst musicians, but in this particular case “making it” usually involves some combination of making contacts at major record labels, doing “showcase” gigs for the music industry, getting signed to some kind of label deal, and ultimately being a rock star.
What this means is that musicians are constantly being asked to prove themselves as viable draws – that is, what can the band do for a particular venue? How many people can you bring through the door? How many drinks can your listeners buy? In a basic sense, these are all reasonable, real-world concerns that are applicable to almost any performance venue in the world on some level or another, but I’ve never encountered an environment where they get brought to the foreground to the extent that they do in Los Angeles.
Not everyone in town is like this, of course, but the exceptions tend to prove the rule. One such exception who I was fortunate enough to cross paths with was Sarah Kramer, a very talented multi-instrumentalist who has been booking a Tuesday-night series at Fais Do Do (pronounced “Faye Dough Dough”), which is a very elegant and stylish cafe’/club in the middle of town. Sarah had expressed interest in booking me on such an evening, along with her own very happening band, and Papa Woody, the rock band brainchild of monster guitarist Woody Aplanalp. Woody and his band are fabulous musicians, and Sarah Kramer was one of the nicest and most accommodating bookers I’ve ever dealt with (in LA or otherwise), as well as being a serious talent in her own right. So I was looking forward to the show at Fais Do Do.
As it turned out, the best available date was Tuesday the 15th, two days after my return from the three Bay Area dates with Brian Kenney Fresno. Prior to the Northern Cali dates, I’d been grateful that I’d have the chance to “warm up” out of town before coming back to LA, thinking that it would probably take me several shows to get up to speed. What I wasn’t expecting was to have the best solo dates of my entire life happen three days in a row – a nice surprise to be sure, but what would that mean for my LA gig?
In life, there are theories, and then there are realities. Sometimes the difference between those two things can be surprising, both for good and for bad. One theory is that, ideally, a musician should be able to deliver an inspired, compelling performance even under less-than-ideal circumstances – be it illness, strange sound onstage, odd vibes from the audience, waking up on the wrong side of bed the morning of the show, or whatever.
So, in theory, I would love to say that I can rock any venue just as hard as any other, and can deliver the same quality and engagement regardless of the circumstances. The reality is that taking the stage at Fais Do Do at 8:30 PM, with all of one person in the audience there to see me, was a strange feeling – particularly coming as it did after the fantastic Bay Area shows.
The good news is that a few more people showed up to see me as the set progressed, which was an encouraging thing. The bad news is that I never quite felt like I hit my stride in the Fais Do Do performance. The best way I can describe it is that it’s sort of like walking: when you’re doing it under ordinary circumstances, going about your business, and not thinking about it, there’s nothing to it. But if you actually start examining the way you’re moving as you walk, fixating on your actions self-consciously, it becomes harder and harder to actually move in a natural or comfortable manner.
I spent most of the Fais Do Do gig feeling conspicuously self-conscious – probably the worst type of mindset to be in when doing an open-ended, improvisationally-based performance. At one point I ended up stepping on the cable to my guitar, and thereby pulling it right out of the instrument. As I stared down at the cable sitting on the floor, with my Echoplex loops still spinning around, I felt a bit like an aspiring fashion model walking down a runway (for a tiny audience) who had just tripped over his own feet and split his pants… thereby exposing his private parts in the process.
So of course I did the only thing I could do: I reached down, picked up the damn cable, and gave an enormously exaggerated wink to the audience while plugging my guitar back into the amp. I could hear the good-natured laughter from the crowd over the sound of my loops, which helped defuse a bit of the tension I’d had. Even still (and to extend the travel analogy from previous tour blog entries), the gig felt like constantly trying to kick-start a motorcycle that kept stalling in the middle of the road.
In case I come across like a prima donna here, I should emphasize that I don’t blame anyone other than myself for this sort of thing. Everybody plays to small (or non-existent) crowds sometimes, and as far as I’m concerned part of the job description is being able to deliver even if your entire audience is composed of the bartender. Yes, of course it’s easier to play to a substantial crowd of enthusiastic listeners than to a nearly empty room (especially when that room is located in the city you’ve lived in for nearly 10 years.) But if I’m not able to do my job as well as I’d like, it’s largely a cop-out to blame it on people not showing up for the gig – the blame should fall on myself for not being able to rise above whatever adversity may manifest itself, and for needing to better learn how to handle such situations.
In fairness to myself, the post-gig comments I heard from people in the audience were very favorable – the worst thing I heard was that it was “a good show,” and many people volunteered much stronger praise than that. It’s a tricky thing to deal with compliments on a gig you’re not happy with; if you try to disagree with the person paying you the compliment, then you’re disrespecting them and their honest reaction to the experience they’ve had with your music.
So I tried to graciously accept the good comments I received from the people who had been kind enough to listen to what I did, even as I couldn’t help but compare my lukewarm feelings about this gig with the tremendously inspiring shows I’d had just a few days earlier. My mother once made the very astute observation than creatively inclined people are always having to deal with the disparity between what they anticipate creating, and what they actually create, whereas the audience only has to deal with the actual creation itself. Maybe after three straight shows of having my expectations wildly exceeded, I was overdue for having them disappointed.
I left the Bay Area on Sunday feeling newly inspired and reminded of why I had put so much time and energy into developing my live solo shows in the first place. I left Fais Do Do two days later, reminded of why I’d had reservations about them recently. It was all very similar to the feeling I had at the beginning of the year – going from playing in Manhattan with David Torn to playing coffee shops in Pasadena to indifferent latte-drinkers had a way of putting a damper on things for me.
Well, you take the rough with the smooth, as they say. Disappointing gigs happen to everyone – if that’s the price to be paid for the good ones, it’s worth it. And if they just happen randomly for no higher reason, then there are far greater hardships to be dealt in life than to be an art school graduate playing original music to a strong reception from people who think highly enough of what you do to have taken the time to come hear you in the first place. (And then to go home and write about it in navel-gazing run-on sentences, in a forum accessible to a tiny fraction of the world’s population.)
So I’m a hell of a lucky guy, not least of all for the generous people who have been willing to lend me a hand or an ear. So my very serious thanks to Brian Kenney Fresno, Amy X Neuburg, Herb Heinz, Misty Gamble, Chicken John, Aaron Seeman, Sarah Kramer, Woody Aplanalp, and everyone else who helped out along the way, came to a gig, and otherwise played a role in one of the most memorable weeks of my musical life.