The Absolute Worst Gig I Have Ever Played
Probably I shouldn’t be writing this, because a worse one could come along…
No way. This one has stood the test of time for over ten years, and I don’t think it will ever be topped. At least, I hope not.
Let me begin by saying that the vast majority of our gigs are positive, running the gamut from pleasing to transcendent. People enjoy it, we are well fed, everyone dances and has a good time. Bad gigs are few and far between. Which makes them stand out all the more, when they occur.
What makes a bad gig? Almost invariably, it is caused by a person, ostensibly in charge of the proceedings, who is a moron. Sometimes the moron possesses just enough musical knowledge to give you bad directions. On even rarer occasions, you might be engaged by a whole gaggle of morons who disagree with one another, and then blame you for attempting to satisfy their contradictory demands.
This particular gig hit the Trifecta–all of the above. Night of the Marching Morons, as Cyril M. Kornbluth might have said.
It started innocently enough. We were contracted as a quintet to play a corporate event at a downtown hotel, a place we have played many times before and since. Load-in is no picnic, but once inside we are always treated professionally and courteously by staff. This night was no exception.
No, the problem was the out-of-town production company. They had a multifaceted event with a circus theme, involving a carousel horse in the center of the room, a corporate film, presenters for an awards ceremony, and a comedy duo with an elaborate stage show–a lot of balls to keep in the air, and by the end of the evening they had dropped half of them. It was evident from the beginning that the addition of a five-piece band was an afterthought in the planning process.
Why evident? Because when we walked into the room to set up, there was not an inch of dedicated space for the band. Wall to wall tables filled the room all the way up to the stage, which was reserved for the comedians and the awards ceremony. Fighting back an early premonition of impending doom, I asked somebody where they wanted the band to set up.
Nobody even knew a band was expected. Bad Feeling #2.
Finally, we found the Event Coordinator, who for the purposes of discretion I will refer to as Fanny Ford (not her real name). Fanny surveyed the scene, and then said what we were all waiting to hear: “There are too many tables in here. Move two out to make room for the band.”
Just kidding! Of course she said nothing of the sort. Instead, she grudgingly suggested that we move two heavily laden tables out a few feet, so we could set up single file against the wall. Although I disagreed, there really was no other choice. So out shuffled the tables, now perilously close to one another. The servers who would have to weave between them shot us dark looks, but we won our precious 24 inches. The Battle for Pork Chop Hill had begun.
Let me explain something, in case you ever book a live band. Bands hate setting up single file, because we need sight lines. Most of our communication is nonverbal, and we have to see one another to cue transitions, endings, vamps, etc. If we’re lined up as if facing a firing squad (a particularly apt analogy, as things turned out), it makes our job that much harder.
Now Fanny Ford was once a musician, and a decent one. Fanny should have known that the setup was not conducive to good musicianship. In fact, Fanny did know…but didn’t give a rat’s fanny. It was becoming clear that Fanny’s philosophy was to give the band two choices: take it or leave it.
So, we took it. Our lineup was Brad Taylor on upright bass, nearest the stage; then the late Marty Allen on keyboard, next to him; the drummer, probably Ernie Durawa; Pat Murray on trumpet; and then myself on the end, closest to the rear of the room, where Fanny Ford stood behind a wall of insulating audio gear. Plenty of room back there, I noted, as waiters with sweating carafes of ice water brushed my knees.
Shortly before we started, Fanny brought me a headset and said, “This can receive, but you can’t talk through it because the mic is broken. Just listen to me; I’ll cue you.”
Great. I can hear but not respond back. Bad Feeling #3. My Spidey Sense was tingling the reed off the mouthpiece.
The banquet room doors opened, and the revelers spilled in from the mezzanine’s happy hour. I only thought it was crowded before. Now that the place was stacked with 150 semi-inebriated bodies, the air in the room disappeared, replaced by sweat, job anxiety, and cheap perfume. I thought, “I cannot move an inch. If this turns ugly, we are trapped like ferrets in a forest fire.” Also, I suddenly realized I needed to pee.
Too late! We cranked up the circus music. Sousa marches, big top themes…you know, all the stuff we play every day. Trumpet and I are transposing from concert key up a step, but hey…what could go wrong? Deet deet deediyada doot dat doo dat…
Trumpet missed a note. Instantly, Fanny’s enraged voice fills my headset. “OH MY GOD–WHAT WAS THAT??!! PLAY SOMETHING YOU KNOW, FOR GODS SAKE!!!”
Hm, I thought. This doesn’t bode well. It’s kind of an uptight corporate gig and a North Texas jury, all rolled into one amplified headset.
After 45 minutes of frivolity, it was time for the Awards Ceremony. We were charged with playing walk-ons, something we have done many times. Basically, a walk-on is just some innocuous, accompanying music designed to get the winner from the edge to center stage for the presentation. And then playing them off. Simple, no?
So–the first award was announced. We eased into “All of Me”, a tune nobody needs to read. The band played about 2 seconds, and the bass dropped out, then keys, then drums. What the–
Fanny is back in my headset. “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON??? KEEP IT GOING, KEEP IT GOING!!!”
I’m shooting quizzical looks down the band, but from my hemmed-in position, I can only see the trumpet player’s shoulder and the ride cymbal. I can’t even see the stage. Why did they stop?
‘WHAT ARE WE PAYING YOU FOR??? PLAY!!!!!”
I stand up, to suggest gently to the band that they may want to keep playing, as long as we were there on the premises holding instruments in our hands & all. That’s when I realized what was happening.
Our corporate client, standing onstage, did not want walk-ons. She wanted silence. But I had no way to communicate this to Fanny, who was screaming a steady stream of vitriol into my ears. At this point, I did what any sane person would have done. I pulled off the headset and tossed it under my chair.
“Play!” I yelled to the band. Brad Taylor, who was standing directly in the enraged client’s field of vision, looked at me pleadingly. “But—”
“I don’t care! Play!” Fanny was starting to rub off on me.
Fanny could have figured out what was happening with a single glance stageward, but she was oblivious to everything except the VU meters in front of her. So we played walk-ons for the next half hour. The woman onstage, clearly accustomed to being obeyed, vibrated with sheer hatred. And Brad Taylor, all 6’3″ of him, was standing directly in her glowering line of fire, trying ineffectually to hide behind his bass.
She realized she was onstage, with all eyes in the room on her. But her expression clearly stated to Brad, “Young man, at my first opportunity, I’m walking over there to reach down your throat and rip out your spleen.” Meanwhile, here’s a perky little toe-tapper we hope you all enjoy.
We continued on in this merry way for another half hour or so. Ever so often, the headset under my chair would vibrate with Fanny’s important messages, blithely ignored. The rest of the awards went smoothly.
As they wrapped up, I thought we might finally get to get up from our cramped position and make a momentary escape. The gig was already resembling an over-capacity no-AC Greyhound ride to Topeka, seated between Rush Limbaugh and Zippy the Pinhead. But no, it was now time for the film.
Here is where I got to observe firsthand the Law of Moronic Karmic Return. The lights went down, the film began right on cue, but–no sound. Suddenly, Lady Glower’s laser gaze was redirected to the back of the room, where Fanny was holed behind her wall of gadgetry. And Fanny, head down, was feverishly clawing at the zillion-channel mixer, hoping desperately that one of those pots would bring up audio.
Meanwhile, the band was sharing popcorn and enjoying the silence for a change. “I think sound in movies really sort of wrecks the mood, don’t you? It does seem a pity, though. They obviously spent a lot of money on this film…”
The seconds dragged on. Now half a minute…now a minute…the opening establishing shots had given way to the company’s seated CEO, earnestly mouthing a message nobody in the room could hear. Now I was sure the Iron Maiden was about to fly offstage and inflict grievous bodily harm on Our Friend Fanny. Which would have been a shame, a real shame. I shifted in my seat for a better view.
About ninety unendurable seconds in, the audio suddenly sprang forth from the speakers at about ten times the necessary volume. Drinks were spilled; I believe somebody screamed. I sent a silent prayer of thanks to the Moron Karma Commission.
After the whole debacle ended and we were permitted to pry ourselves loose from the wallpaper, I approached Fanny and told her about the lethal combination of the Single File Band, the Enraged Client, and the Faulty Headset. And her response, which I found brazen at the time, makes perfect sense in retrospect.
She said, “Well. Who’s running this thing, anyway?”
Morons, I thought. But the check is good, the doors are open, and we’re in the wind.