Jon Lewin helps you survive, live.
Occasionally on your trip up the ladder of fame, you may find it necessary to parade your wares before the public; this demeaning process is known as "gigging". Gigging is a complicated ritual which, to the uninitiated, appears to involve obscure rites and arcane paraphernalia far beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. I have conversed at some length with the high priests of this cult, the fascinatingly obese "Roadies", and they have imparted to me the bare essentials that the new devotee must observe in order to "do a gig", as their ceremonies are known...
Do you own a car or van? One of these vehicles is necessary for moving the large pieces of wood and metal (heretoafter referred to as, "the gear") that constitute your group's equipment. Unless you are Billy Bragg, in which case a train ticket will suffice.
A driver will be needed. These exotic creatures can be recognised by their low moaning sounds when in the vicinity of alcohol, of which they are forbidden to partake. If no member of your group is of this persuasion, it will be necessary to follow the 'Friends And Their Uses' principle, of which more later...
Hiring a van or car requires the hirer to have a full driving licence, and to be over 21; a deposit of £50 is usually called for. It is advisable to check that your vehicle is covered by the AA Relay service, which promises to deliver your vehicle to your destination in the event of a breakdown.
Before you leave, make sure not only that you've got everything and everybody, but also that you've got the address and telephone number of the venue, just in case you can't find it by sense of smell. Drive carefully.
You arrive at the venue. Ascertain where you are playing, and who the promoter/landlord/boss is. Say hellp. Then unload the gear (Friends And Their Uses Principle to be exerted, if at all possible) and place it in orderly heap in front of the stage area. Now start looking for trouble. Where is the PA? Where are the lights? Where is the raised playing area (or 'stage') that you were promised over the telephone? Where are the mics and stands that are supposedly supplied with the house PA? Where are the dressing rooms? Why are the plug sockets that funny shape? Why is there water running down the back wall? Why are the landlord's eyes so close together?
If you must panic, it's wise not to let it show as this will destroy the promoter's and your fellow players' confidence in you. Attempt to deal with problems in order of significance. If you've brought your own PA, no probs, otherwise you will have to rely on the provisions made by the promoter. If it works, don't complain. If it doesn't work, it's his fault, and thus his responsibility. You will undoubtedly be charged for the use of an in-house PA so make sure the amount knocked off your fee is what you agreed upon beforehand.
Check the power sources carefully, making sure they work and are correctly earthed (this isn't always feasible). If the walls, ceiling or floor are damp, proceed with extreme caution, as electricity loves a wet environment to leap about in.
Always bring your own mics, just in case. Even if they are only of the comb-and-paper variety, they can still be used for such humble tasks as miking the bass-drum etc.
As to the matter of a dressing room, if the Marquee can only provide a grubby toilet, it's likely that anybody reading this seriously will have to wait a while before they see a dressing room. Most pub gigs and many college halls are singularly ill-equipped when it comes to matters of comfort, though it is conceivable that the landlord might allow you use of his bathroom to change out of your python-skin trousers into your stagewear. But don't push him about it.
Having assimilated your surroundings, arrange the gear on stage and plug it in (except for the drumkit, unless of course you want a new drummer). Make sure the little red lights are all working. If they aren't, panic a little. That over with, follow this check list:
(1) Is it plugged in and switched on?
(2) Is the socket functioning?
(3) Has a fuse blown in... a) socket? b) the plug? c) machine itself?
(4) Is the "On/Off" light functioning?
Work through these, and you will probably solve your problem. Replace fuses from the myriad spares that you undoubtedly keep stashed away in the little toolbox that every sensible band carries about.
Check amps and keyboards before you gig (ie when the shops are open) as to which esoteric fuses you might need. And carry a roll of heavy-duty fusewire just in case.
As to that toolbox, make sure it contains the following: screwdrivers (cross-head + ordinary), both large and small, soldering iron and solder, wire strippers, spare fuses and wire, gaffa tape/insulating tape, batteries for effects pedals and guitars, a torch, a penknife, pliers, an elephant's foot umbrella stand and anything else you can think of. Lead testers are a luxury, but nice to have if you can afford it.
If you can't see any obvious faults, and it proves impossible to employ the Friends And Their Uses Electrician Principle, forget about it and look around for another amp. Try putting the keyboards straight into the PA (this is known as 'direct injection', or DIing) and using that amp.
If you have the power and no sound, consider the following:
(1) Is it turned up?
(2) Are all speaker leads connected and functioning?
(3) Are the instrument/footpedal leads connected and functioning?
(4) Is the instrument OK? If it's a keyboard, check the patch setting; guitarists should make certain their pedals are connected in order.
If the fault is intermittent, try and work out which variables make it stop working. The vibrato unit in my Fender Twin only works when the amp is leaning backwards; solution – set it up like that at gigs (or get it mended).
If you've brought your own PA, you will presumably know how to operate it; little details like "turn the mixer on first" being part of the lore which every hire company imparts to its customers. Remember to thread the multicore around the outside of the room if possible, and don't stand the PA or the mixer on any tables that might be scratched by them.
Even in the scummiest dives, proprietors are wont to display peculiar sentimentality in regard to their furniture as they recall what the tables looked like before those swastikas were carved into them.
One of the most important parts of the ritual, the soundcheck involves arranging the volumes of the component parts of your 'sound' into some sort of order. It's best to play songs, or parts of songs that involve all the different combinations of instruments you can muster as it doesn't help matters to discover in the middle of your performance that the synth you hadn't played in the soundcheck, is making ears bleed in the front row.
When you have set everything up ready to run through a number, do NOT faff about playing Eric Clapton licks/Wakeman solos/paradiddles etc, as your the man at the mixer will soon develop an unhealthy disregard for your abilities. Especially do not hit drums when said PA person has his head inside them arranging microphones.
Who is the soundman? If he comes with the venue, be very nice to him, and buy him drinks. There is the vague possibility that he will then be less harsh in his treatment of your music. If you have brought your own mixer-person, check with the house-man about the use and operation of the PA, as a little courtesy goes a long way in situations like this.
Try to clear the room of spectators when you soundcheck; save the first impressions for later, when the full glory of your appearance on stage will sweep all before it (theoretically). Never argue on stage – maintain solidarity and all will be well.
Play until you are satisfied with your sound, and no longer. Soundchecks are not a good time to rehearse the set, and annoying the promoter with unwarranted din might conceivably mean less moola when it comes to the end of the night.
When you are sure the PA is doing justice to the glittering melodic cadences of your music, stop and clear up the cases, lead bags and other detritus scattered about the floor. If you intend leaving the pub in pursuit of food, is it safe to leave the guitars unguarded on stage? Or is there somebody you can trust staying in the pub/venue – a 'Friend', perhaps?
Should it prove necessary to put the instruments back in the van, remember to take them into the building at least half an hour before you play, as the temperature change will make guitars go out of tune – wood expands as it gets warmer.
If you are leaving the place, make certain everybody knows when to be back. Have you organised a set-list? Have you organised a guest-list? Do you know when you have to be off stage? Is there petrol in the van, in case garages are closed by the time you leave? If you eat, can you keep the food down? If you can, don't gorge yourself as nothing slows down a performance like a Tandoori chicken and chips.
On the whole, this bit is best left up to you, but there are one or two hints that can be useful...
Things like tuning the guitars ten minutes and immediately before you play, just in case. Make sure spare strings are on stage with you, and not at home or out in the van. Have one or two between-song links practised.
In case of emergency, you should only panic if it will entertain the audience; broken strings aren't the end of the world – a friend of mine broke four strings and an amp in the course of a single performance, ending up with his guitar going through the PA – he survived, and so will you.
If you have to stop, tell the audience why, and don't blame anyone (until afterwards). Restart with the added conviction that faith in your gear will bring.
No matter what the style of your music, if you play it with confidence you will play it well even if you do make mistakes. Relax and enjoy it, and the sun will seem to shine from your nether regions.
Judicious exploitation of the 'Friends' Principle can work wonders with less responsive crowds. Position your chums discreetly through the crowd, and you will find that their unbridled enthusiasm will spread to the unconverted. Encores are easier to obtain this way, as spectators tend to look cynically on the bunch of friends huddled in front of the stage shouting their heads off.
And if the expected tumultuous reception is a bit lacking, don't blame the audience, even if it is their fault. Nothing looks worse than petulance from the players; laugh it off, and try to derive satisfaction from your performance rather than theirs. And never ever blame the soundman for his incipient deafness – if you think it's bad before, wait until he's tried to mess it up.
After the eighteenth encore, the brief mobbing by crazed fans and the record company executives, it's soon time to pack up. Usually this task falls first to the drummer, as he has more nuts and bolts to undo; but whatever happens, don't let the vocalist get away with pretending to be busy, as these types are renowned for their infinite laziness.
Further pursuit of your 'Friends' can speed up the tiresome process of clearing the stage and carrying the gear out to the van. Send the largest of your company to talk to the promoter and claim payment, instructing him to brook no argument as to the sum agreed upon. You will probably be ripped off anyway, but it's easier to stomach if you think you've protested your case. Look organised, professional and diligent; then ask for another booking.
Before you leave, double-check that you've got everything from musicians to money. Try and save post-mortems for the following day as separating an argumentative rhythm section in the back of a van is no easy business. Hired cars usually have to be back by midnight, before their insurance runs out and you turn into a liability, so take extra care if you're running late. Nominate one person to look after the cash so you'll know where it is, and where it's disappeared to.
When you get home, unload as much of the gear as humanly possible, leaving only the heaviest and most immobile cabinets in the van. Guitars, keyboards and even amps have a terrible habit of walking out in the middle of the night and not coming back. Insurance companies have an equally terrible habit (what do you mean, you're "not insured"?) of not paying up if equipment is left outside overnight. Keep the vehicle locked at all times, and immobilise it if you can. It takes time, but it can save money.
Everyone has their horror stories to tell about gigging. If you follow my simple instructions – it won't stop things going wrong, but it will enable you to say 'I knew that would happen' afterwards. Small satisfaction maybe, but you have to be able to say something when you turn up at the gig to find out you were due to play the night before.
Feature by Jon Lewin
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