Bar gigs… gotta love ’em!

When road musicians get together, reminiscing about gigs past is a pretty typical sort of conversation. There can be fond memories of the festival with the extraordinary scenery, the theatre with the great sound and near-perfect acoustics, or maybe the private gig with the amazing spread of food (that the band was actually allowed to eat) and the hot tub. For the skeptical among you, I assure you these gigs actually exist, uncommon though they may be.

Bar gigs, on the other hand, are usually not placed in the category of “Gigs Fondly Remembered.” They tend to come under the heading of “Dues Paid.” Musicians more often think of playing bar gigs as, to quote one Nashville picker, “Taking Your Punishment” (presumably for some terrible sins past). Reminiscing about this kind of work comes more often in the form of horror stories.

And yet, I’d like to make the possibly unpopular argument that bluegrass musicians should play bar gigs, at least at some point in their careers. It isn’t just so you can say you’ve paid your dues or that you’ve improved your pinball skills, though both are valid reasons.

The fact is that bar gigs toughen you up. There’s something to be said for having to try to entertain, for four straight hours, a crowd that’s only marginally interested in what you’re doing. Remember that a bar isn’t the only place you may encounter a crowd like that.

Now I realize that for some bands, e.g., family bands with underaged children, Gospel bands, bands with mandolin players who begin stripping when drunk, and others, playing music in bars is either inappropriate, inadvisable, or both. That’s completely understandable.

But for the rest of us, this can be a good—if sometimes rough—training ground. It’s entirely possible today, what with coffee houses, house concerts, bagel bakeries, and other quiet and pleasant venues (usually with a seating capacity of up to 18), to advance in your career without ever playing in a bar, but you may be missing out on some valuable experience.

Playing music in bars can hone skills you may not have thought of: for one thing it helps expand your repertoire, and I don’t just mean that it forces you to learn all the lyrics to Man of Constant Sorrow and Wagon Wheel. In your average concert setting, you’ll play, at most, two sets of music, and for many bands, this becomes all they’ve got.

You’ve probably been at a festival and seen a band on day two, or maybe even set two of day one, say, “Well, here’s one we did earlier that we had a request to do again.” Oh sure they did! Here’s the translation: “We’re completely out of material, so we’re going back to the well. Live with it!”

If you’ve played four sets of material over and over in a bar, this is never a problem. Especially if you’ve played regularly in the same bar, because there you can’t get away with the same four sets every week. So in the end, counting those request numbers you’ve grown to hate, you could have as many as six or seven sets worth of material worked up.

Needless to say, playing bars helps your endurance, both vocally and instrumentally. If your calluses aren’t toughened up after that experience, then you’re probably playing a harmonica. On the vocal side of the equation, you’ll gain strength in your voice, while the down side of deeply inhaling four sets worth of secondhand smoke is thankfully becoming a thing of the past in bars.

Playing your material in a bar setting also affords you the chance to experiment musically (like playing your break to Live and Let Live in F, while the rest of the band is playing it in G). You can also make minor adjustments to the way you sing or play certain songs, and it will usually be too subtle for a bar audience to even notice (some in the audience may not even be aware yet that a band is playing at all).

Playing in bars teaches you how to creatively respond to hecklers. I watched a sad episode during a concert in Boston, in which a folk artist allowed herself to be shaken by something fairly benign shouted by an audience member. She responded badly and took most of rest of the performance to regain her composure. Perhaps if she’d had more experience dealing with bar hecklers, she could have looked over at the guitar player and said, “When are you going to tell your uncle to stop showing up at our shows?” She might have gotten a laugh, the audience member would have been put in the place that audience members who heckle during concerts belong (it’s a cold and dark place, by the way), and the show could have gone on.

And then there are the stories that come out of playing in bars. These can usually liven up any party or backstage conversation. Have you heard a lot of good stories come out of playing house concerts? I doubt it.

“There was this one house concert we played in Oregon, and get this: and they served us nothing but lasagna with meat sauce, even though three of our band members are vegetarians! They had to eat nothing but garlic bread and salad! They were pretty hungry by the second set, and it really affected their performance. The coffee was good, though.”

This falls pretty flat as a road story. Now this is a decent road story (and completely true, I might add):

We were playing a club in Wichita, and as we were setting up, the manager came over and said, nonchalantly: “I’m sorry, guys, it might be a little slow tonight; we had a shooting in here this week.” I replied, attempting to match her in the nonchalance department: “Oh that’s okay, you said the same thing when we played here last year (also true), and the crowd was okay.” She set me straight: “Yes, but that time the shooting was in the parking lot. This week’s shooting was on the dance floor!” Then she added, in case for some strange reason I would find this information alarming: “It was an accident, though.” The crowd was okay, no one was shot, and we played four delightful sets lit by a single green stage light.

There are lots of stories like this, many of which shouldn’t be shared in a public forum, but none of them involve lasagna with meat sauce.

A few words of caution about playing in bars, that may serve you well if you have limited experience with this kind of venue:

  • How willing you are to perform requests should be directly related to how intimidating the requester looks, and whether or not he or she is armed.
  • If you refuse to play a standard, at least turn it down politely, being vague about whether you know it or not.
  • If someone is buying a round of drinks for the band, accept graciously, even if you don’t intend to drink them.
  • Don’t attempt to force a “listening room” atmosphere on a barroom. “Please people, we’re trying to play some heartfelt original music here, and it would be considerate if you would stop talking and listen!” will be wasted breath, plus you’ll never work there again.
  • If you insult the audience, do so under your breath and away from a microphone.
  • Never intervene in a bar fight, unless your band’s lead singer is involved, and even then, give it some serious thought first.

Remember that many great bands, from Red Allen and the Kentuckians, to J.D. Crowe and the New South, to The Beatles (while they were still playing with Earl Taylor) spent many long hours entertaining crowds in bars in their early days, and it turned out okay for them. They used that time sharpening their craft, perfecting their material, and picking up some pretty good stories along the way.

  • Ivor Trueman

    Er… The Beatles backed Tony Sheridan in the bars and strip-joints, not Earl Taylor (though it would have been an interesting combination).

  • Bryan Dietz

    It is definitely much more of a challenge to keep a bar crowd entertained than to provide 1 or 2 45 minute sets among several other bands on a festival schedule. Add to that, typical bar/restaurant gigs are 3-4 hours, sometimes more, so 4 45 minutes sets back to back. Great article Chris.

  • David Bedini

    Some fun insights. Love the image of the stripping mando player. I have heard national acts complain if people used flash photography in theaters. I thought, gee, i’ve dodged beer bottles, had fights break out with drunks falling into my mic stand, (had to grab the stand to protect my teeth and keep on singing) A little flash, it just wouldn’t faze me all that much. It has made me not only much tougher, but also so much more appreciative when I do play for a good audience in a concert setting. Bar gigs? I’ll drink to that, and still keep my clothes on.

  • Chris Jones

    I stand corrected on Earl Taylor and the Beatles. Maybe I was thinking of Liz Taylor.

  • Lisa Jacobi

    Bullet point number 3 needs a period after “graciously.” And then move on to #4.

  • Lisa Jacobi

    and, that’s not an editing suggestion… it’s fact checking.

    • Chris Jones

      I can accept that.

  • fdwil111

    Don’t overlook learning that turning up the volume on your sound system to fight the crowd noise will result in increased crowd noise. Works every time!

  • Randy Gregg

    We never played any bars, but we once played in a room at a small casino in S. Dakota. There were more of us (5) on stage than there were people in the audience.
    Another time we were hired to play at one of several music venues at a small town’s all-class reunion. Our crowd was small, and they were there to talk to each other, not to listen to us, so they moved as far away from the stage as they could. (Bluegrass is not “background music”.)
    At least these “crowds” weren’t hostile, and we were in no danger.

  • grasser

    Truth with my hand up here..When I was just starting to play and didn’t really know a lot of instrumentals, a gentleman? asked me to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown. No problem for a banjo picker, right? Wrong. I barely knew it. I was raised on Ralph Stanley and would have much preferred to play Coozy or something like that. I told him I really didn’t know it that well. Well, this was a place where they were selling moonshone by the cup at the concession. He then casually pulled his coat back and I noticed a pistol butt sticking out of his pocket. Bottom line? I learned Foggy Mountain Breakdown. THAT NIGHT!

  • Brent Sterling

    As one who has played a telecaster guitar in many bars(they stop a beer bottle better that a Martin) I’m appalled you would suggest a musician add this to their life experience! I have suffered every brutal event you have mentioned above and your article has brought back memories that have scared me and set me back weeks in my therapy!

    Otherwise, great article!!

  • Pingback: Notes from the bar birds : Bluegrass Today()