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.