by Kyle Shiver
As a pro, you are going to show up on time with all equipment you need, prepared to do your job. I have opened for big name acts, played bars, cafe's, street corners, restraints, subway stations, hospitals, and nursing homes. I have learned is that you never know what to expect, so you have to be ready for anything. When you go out to play for the public, some people are going to like you and some people aren't.
One day I was playing in a Boston subway station and when I finished a song, a lady on my left walked up to me and said "You're going to have to sing better than that if you want to make money down here." At the very same time a man on my right said "How much are your CD's I want one!" He put ten bucks in my case and went on his way.
Recently I was playing a listening room to an attentive audience. About three songs into my set, in walks a very intoxicated man who sat right in front of me. He was dancing and laughing and singing along with me. I looked out at the audience and they all were laughing at him, so I played it up with him, and even had him on stage to sing along on a song. He sat back down and started talking to himself and banging on his table and then to everyone's amazement he poured about three inches of hot candle wax down his throat. I had begun another song, but was still watching the crowd, and they were getting tired of this guy now. So I stopped in mid song and I looked the man in the eye and I said "We have been very nice to you and we don't mind you being here, but these people paid money to see my show and you are now really bothering us all." He promptly got up and left. Everyone in the room was totally amazed at how well I handled the situation, but in reality, I was taking my cues from them.
I was in Florida and I booked myself to play outside at a cafe on a Sunday afternoon. It was to be a tip gig and I wanted to do it just for fun as a schedule filler. A friend of mine was providing the sound, and we casually went down to the venue expecting to play for a few people having coffee and reading the paper. Little did we know that the owners of the cafe had been talking it up all week long to all their customers and friends. They were excited that I was coming to play for them, and when my friend and I arrived, there were over fifty people there. They ran out of chairs so people had lawn chairs, or sat on blankets. My friend set up the PA system, and I went in the bathroom to mentally prepare. I wrote out a set list with plans of when I would talk and what I would say. When everything was set, my friend gave me a big introduction and I came out to a huge applause. Thank goodness I had been playing every day, because all those bar gigs prepared me for this one. What was just a filler gig, turned into the biggest and best gig of the tour. I let the people know I was on the road and playing for tips and they filled up my jar and bought CD's. This was a nice surprise.
How to handle bad gigs
I look at it like this: if I'm getting paid to play my guitar, its a good gig. If I'm playing in a bar and the people aren't paying attention to me, I don't take it personally. I use the time to practice and hone my skills. Many times I have discovered new ways to play songs. This is also a great time to try out new material. I usually have a few songs in my cover book that I don't know very well, or a few new songs that I've never played, and this is the perfect time to get used to them on stage. Inn this way, I get paid to practice. and the next night when people are listening, I've got new stuff for them!
How to handle requests
I can think of few things that can be more uncomfortable, than being asked to play a song that I don't know. If you aren't interested in playing covers, stick to venues that feature original music such as listening rooms, open mics, and cafes. But even then, you are at some point going to be asked, "Do you know any Dylan?" I used to be a hard core original music only guy, but when I started doing working gigs, I found out real quick that I was going to need some cover ammo in order to survive. I also came to the understanding that I was being paid to entertain people... not myself!
1. If you are going to take the time to learn a cover song, learn one that people will know. Find songs that you like and that everybody knows.
2. Memorize as many as you can. If you don't have a great memory, see #3.
3. I have a three ring binder notebook with lyrics to over a hundred songs that I know how to play. I carry this with me at all times. Many folk singers are repulsed at this idea, but I regularly have people come up and go through my book and say. "Play that!" They are always very pleased. From playing so many gigs, I learned what people request the most, and I have a little of each artist in my book. I'm always adding new songs and taking out songs that don't do well. A friend of mine who works in Florida says "Duke Ellington had a book so why shouldn't I?"
4. I don't play anything that Johnny cash wouldn't play, and I've never heard Johnny play a Jimmy Buffet song.
5. When someone asks for a specific song by an artist, and I don't know that particular song, but I know another song by that artist, I say "I'll play a song by that artist for you."
6. Aside from using number one, try to stay away from saying "I can't play that one" or I don't know that one." Instead try "I haven't learned that one yet" or "That is a great song man! I will put it in my book and do it for you next time I'm here."
7. If someone asks me for a song and I only know a verse of it, I will play an intro, and then sing what I know of it. Maybe do the chorus twice, and then do a nice ending. they are always happy to hear a familiar tune, even a little of a familiar tune.
8. This is a list of some performers that I have seen do covers: Bob Dylan (Dylan's first album was all covers), Tom Petty, Shawn Colvin (a whole CD called Cover Girl), Martin Sexton, Doc Watson, Shawn Mullins, Ellis Paul, Arlo Guthrie, Lyle Lovett, Ray Charles, The Beatles. And that is just a partial list. Elvis did mostly covers. Jimmy Hendrix did covers. Led Zeppelin relied heavily on American blues artists for their songs in the early days as did the Rolling Stones. If all these people use cover songs, you may want to consider it yourself.
9. Many times when people request songs from me, it is after they have been listening and clapping and interacting with me some. they are enjoying me and they just want to hear me play a song that they are familiar with. They mean no harm. This can be a good time to hand them my book to look through and pick songs from. Try not to get frustrated or intimidated if they want you to play stuff you don't know. Smile and use one of my lines, or make up some of your own, be professional about it.
10. When I'm playing a bar or restaurant, and the people are interacting with me and requesting songs, this may sound strange, but I pretend that we are all friends sitting on the beach around a camp fire. This helps me feel comfortable and deal with situations better. If someone asks for a song I don't know I may laugh and say, "You know I don't know that one, but I do know this one." As if I hang out with this person all the time.
Nothing feels better than knowing a song that is requested and playing it and people getting up and dancing and having a good time.
How I deal with hecklers
Remember when you are on stage that you are the manager. You have to judge sometimes in a split second what to do or say, and believe me, whether you're in a crowded bar or playing a concert in a listening room, everyone will be aware that you are on the spot and all will watch how you handle yourself.
One night I was on stage at Eddie's Attic in Atlanta, and some people were hamming it up. I was starting to get annoyed, which is something you can't afford to do on stage. Someone yelled at me and I just laughed and stopped and looked directly at the back of the room and pointed at the wall and said loudly "SECURITY!" The room exploded with laughter. So I continued, "Don't make me have to call the dogs on y'all back there." Everybody got a kick out of it and I got my point across without offending the troublesome ones. They thought it was funny too. I don't know where that came from but I have used it a thousand times since, and it has never failed to win over a room and a heckler.
Other lines I have used or heard used to handle hecklers:
1) Get this man some more beer, he's still moving.
2) Did you need a microphone?
3) You can be in the show man but I'm not paying you.
4) Dad (Mom)! You promised not to come to my show!
5) Another squandered opportunity to hold your tongue.
6) They never open their mouths without subtracting from the sum of human knowledge.
7) You couldn't get a clue during the clue mating season in a field of horny clues if you smeared your body with clue musk and did the clue mating dance.
8) When you go to the mind reader, do you get half price?
9) Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.
10) I'll bet your father spent the first year of your life throwing rocks at the stork.
One night I was playing at Club Passim in Cambridge, MA and the room was pretty full. There was a couple sitting at a table down front and the man had a totally disgusted look on his face and he was resting his head in his hand. I tried all night to get to that guy and no matter what I did he just wouldn't come around. After the show I thought about it a lot, and realized that I had missed the entire rest of the room who were clapping and wanting me to play for them. Ever since that night I look for eyes and when I see them I play for them. To hell with the rest.
Some people are just angry and they may say things like, "Play something up beat," or "Play something good." There is nothing you can do about these folks. They are just in a bad mood for some reason that has nothing to do with you. Many times though, you will find that when there is a jerk in the room, and you aren't the only one who knows it. Sometimes you just have to ignore it and get on with the show.
My first original music gig came about in 1992 in Atlanta Ga. I attended open mics 3 or 4 times a week and noticed that occasionally, a performer would say "I'm playing this Friday night at such and such and I would love for you to come out and support me." One of the guys I had been talking to had a gig with a couple of other open mic folks at a restaurant in town, so I asked him about it and if he thought I could get a gig there. he said, "Sure Kyle! Come down to our show and I will introduce you to the people, and I'm sure they would love for you to play!" So I went to the show, and my friend introduced me to the owners of the restaurant and told them that I was out playing open mics regularly and that he liked my music. I got my first gig right there. No press kit, no demo, no phone calls. The moral of the story is to hang out with people who are doing what you want to be doing. A performer who is in good standing with a venue many times can get you a gig no questions asked. After you establish yourself, you can return this favor to others as well.
Again, you want to look at your contacts. Friends, family, musicians in other city's you may have met and exchanged numbers with at an open mic or festival. For my first tour, I played in my home town, which at the time was Boston. Then I went to Atlanta and played and stayed with friends. Then I went to play in the town where my parents live. Then I went to Florida and played with a friend I had made at open mics in Boston. I worked my way back up. It makes it much easier if you stick to places where you know people, and have a place to sleep. Just about every time I play I meet a new contact, and as you go along, your area will grow and grow.
Stay With People On The Road
I have never had a bad experience staying with people on the road. People are glad to have you in their homes and they are usually excited to have you. After all, you are a touring musician! You are carrying a torch that people want to see shine. Many people want to be in your shoes and are glad to lend a helping hand. It is common place for someone to offer me a place to stay when I'm on the road. It is so normal that when I am going to a city where I don't know anyone, I don't get a hotel room before the gig, because, like I said, someone may very well ask me, "Do you have a place to stay?" I have met many people this way who are now some of my best friends.
1. Show your appreciation by playing music for your hosts if they ask, or if you think they may enjoy it. More than once this has turned into a profitable house concert for me.
2. Clean up after yourself. Leave things like you found them. Offer to help with chores.
3. Use your judgement when dealing with people you don't know. Like I said, I've never had a bad experience as of yet. There are many nice folks in the world contrary to popular belief. If you are not comfortable, just make other arrangements. Get a room or tour only where you have friends or family to stay with.
Be safe. Have fun.
Kyle Shiver (rhymes with diver) is a singer/songwriter based in Savannah, GA.