A few weeks ago, I drove into Chicago for my first full set as a drummer in almost a year. Even after that time away from doing gigs, some feelings came right back familiar ones which, in a few cases, I hadn’t particularly missed.
One of those things you don’t hear much about in your childhood music lessons is the experience of waiting to perform. Especially during a tour, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of arriving somewhere, usually a small bar (unless you’re lucky enough to get to be more selective) and knowing that this will be your home base for the next several hours.
It can be both a blessing or a curse that I have an instrument, the drum set, which takes some time to load in and assemble. It’s a blessing when that effort fills up much of that pre-gig time. Often, though, I hustle to get the job done and then realize that there’s not much to do but sit around until the set starts. As well, I have a conscientious enough attitude to want to wait around in case the sound guys or guitarists or the other band’s drummers have problems, but apparently not enough of one to learn much about setting up guitar amps or PAs. As a result, often I end up sitting there in case I need to be called upon, a need which rarely materializes. Sometimes I ignore the conscientiousness, or get permission to ignore it, and explore the terrain.
Sometimes there’s terrain to explore, sometimes not. The city of Philadelphia gained some points in my book immediately one Sunday night when I was stuck there for a few hours in between dinner with some college friends and the rest of my band’s arrival at the club. Pretty much all of the shops were still open, including half a dozen or so music and book stores and coffee shops, so I filled my time easily. A week earlier, we were at a bar in Atlanta in the Five Points area, an area where it’s possible to catch up on indie CDs and magazines before the set and get a slice of pizza afterwards.
Sometimes one’s not so lucky, though. The night after Atlanta, we were in Athens, at a place promisingly entitled Allen’s Hamburgers. I’d heard good things about Athens, but that club was rather far away from wherever the good things in Athens were. There was one exception to that, though I think everyone in the band had at least ten hamburgers that night.
There are also usually bands before and after the set. Luck can come and go there, too. Some of them are good sources of music brotherhood and shared gig opportunities, and/or bands good enough that I’d consider paying to see them. Other nights can be different. Trying to be diplomatic, I’ll mention some of the more pleasantly oddball offerings on the same bills as my bands, such as the pre-teen punk group in Maryland, the transvestite industrial maven in Detroit or the sports bar band in Chicago who did a cover of "Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover" with the guitar solo from "Free Bird" tacked onto it.
After the opening bands finish their statements, there’s also the matter of my band’s hustle to get everything back into shape. (It usually was in shape, during the soundcheck, but often so much has happened in the interim that the soundcheck may as well have been last week.) When people ask, I’m usually happy to let other drummers use my kit so I won’t have to scramble to get it all lined up. But that still leaves the guitars, keyboards and vocals, and such matters as the guy from the other band who had to be asked by my bandmate to take his fawning-fan conversations off the stage so that we could get moving. And another feeling which can’t be replicated is that of seeing a packed house dwindle to near-emptiness before my band can play a note. (I like to tell myself that we could be presenting the unearthed followup to Sgt. Pepper and most of those folks in the crowd would still continue their pre-programmed trip to the next destination. I’m like that myself, many nights.)
Of course, with all of that hoopla out of the way, it’s what happens on the stage (and sometimes after the performance) that truly sets the tone for the night. If it’s good, well, welcome to music. If not, a 9-to-5 starts to seem mightily appealing. The work might be tedious, but at least it starts as soon as you show up.