If you are an artist, entrepreneur, musician, small business owner, there are just gonna be some days that end up the best of failed intentions. The price of backing your own play is that sometimes you do everything you can to succeed and you still fall short. Sometimes painfully short. I’m here to share a few of those moments with you fine folks today.
Here are three of the most brutal gigs we have played. These come to mind anytime someone asks me what’s the worst thing that’s happened on stage. 🙂
At the time, they all felt like death—but like all things you get out of your head and onto the page, they are just fine once they are in the rearview mirror.
1. Heart Of Texas Festival, Austin, Texas
I believe this was around 2005 or 2006. This was an outdoor festival with Big Head Todd headlining (also happened to be the night I got to hang in a tour bus with Hubert Sumlin, the guitar legend who helped draw the map we are all using to this day). Anyway, we waited in the heat and 90 percent humidity for hours before going on. We were THRILLED to be on the bill, and I for one got myself waaay too amped up to play before I ever hit the stage. Low key is not my natural mode of operation, and this day I was READY TO ROLL OUT.
We were backstage raring to go; we agreed on our opening song as the announcer called our name to a few hundred people in a field in front of the stage. I remember a friend of Cutter Brandenburg (was Stevie Ray Vaughn’s tour manager for years) said to me as we walked out, “All knobs to the right!” I loved that, and it only further got me moving too fast.
I run out with guitar in hand toward my mic center stage, ready to greet the crowd with a heartfelt “HELLO, AUSTIN” and hit the downbeat.
You know how right before you make a cardinal mistake, you see it slow motion but know damn well it’s too late to stop the oncoming chaos? Well, I saw the loose cables make their way over my black biker boots as I was running out, and before I could pull back, the chord monkey had my soul. The world rose to meet my face. SMACK. With the guitar shielding my chest, the strings rang out through my amp like a train crashing into 100 out-of-tune guitars. Feedback. Reverb. Some aleatoric-sounding madness that seemed to ring out into the silence of the field forever. I don’t remember anyone laughing outright, but they must have. I would have laughed (and I am now). 🙂 I was using every bit of strength to jump back up as fast as possible, pretend it never happened, and not derail the gig for the rest of the band.
I said something silly like, “Well, that’s ONE way to take the stage,” and we tore into the first song. I believe it was “Little America.” Billy and Jesse played like their lives depended on it, and before long, the crowd forgot—we forgot, too, and it all worked out. But if you’ve ever had that dream where you go to work or school naked? Yeah. This is what that felt like, only I was fully awake.
2. The Bottleneck, Lawrence, Kansas
Many moons ago we played the legendary Bottleneck and had almost no one in the room. It was an off night musically/spiritually, and we just couldn’t find our mojo. I was especially bad that night—burnt out from tour (and we were overplaying the same markets). It was a Tuesday or Wednesday with no local opener, and the crowd was just generally bored and slightly hostile. We had a couple of friends in the house with almost no one else cheering, which is the worst damn thing in the world for your friends. No matter how much they might like you or even believe you have a shot at the prize, everyone likes to feel that they have bet on the right horse. We all suffer from groupthink at some level, and to be the only ones clapping requires a tenacity and fearlessness that few humans possess.
So, we are in a song break, and I come up with this never-before-heard gem of an intro to the next piece. “We’re gonna play one off our upcoming record…” (My God, please never say this ’cause as Winnebego man says, “I’m gonna give a little clue here”—NO ONE CARES!) Right as I finish my sentence, a man in the back of the room yells out loud but deadpan, “I bet it’s gonna suck!”
“We’re gonna play one off our next record…”
“I bet it’s gonna suck!”
Stopped in our tracks. The perfect insult, perfectly timed. A comedian could have worked his way out of this one—and I WELCOME YOUR RESPONSES BELOW. But I had nothing. I got beat. 🙂 We launched into the rest of the set, but the band deserved me taking the guy to task. Our road manager at the time, the brilliant and nimble Gary Bell, Jr., went over to the guy and said, “If you don’t enjoy it, why don’t you just leave?” and I guess he did.
Three pro tips from the greats…
Billy Joel once responded to a heckler, “I knew he’d be here.” 🙂
Willie Nelson had a tour buddy say to a half-empty room, “Well, you all are about the sorriest bunch of sons a’ bitches I ever done seen… Here’s a little toe-tapper for ya.”
Paul Stanley from Kiss, with a laser pointer being shined into his eye, stops the band on a dime with a one-handed motion and yells out, “There’s 10,000 cool people in here and one asshole. Take that thing away from that guy. ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR…”
3. Fourth of July Fest, Downtown Oklahoma City
This may be the most rock ‘n’ roll thing I’ve seen onstage in the middle of a show, and it was my own crew. All hail Jesse Reichenberger.
J. R. has played shows with a broken leg, drove dozens of all-nighters, but this one takes the cake.
Again, heat and humidity—long day, long tour—and Jesse looked pale before we took the stage. It was a 90-minute show. Great crowd, great stage, right in the middle of downtown. Everyone was on fire to play, and we tore through the first several songs without a hitch. Halfway through the set, there was a section where I play guitar for a few bars before Jesse comes smashing back in with a drum fill. I look back as I’m playing, and I see him turn around on his drum throne (there was nothing behind him on the stage but a 10-foot drop and some trash cans) and he literally pukes up what must have been everything in his stomach in one maniacal hurl—BBLLLLLAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH. And within three seconds, he turns back around, sticks up to the sky, and nails his fill back in like thunder. Didn’t miss a beat. Smiles and plays another 50 minutes solid.
We drove up 12,000 feet to Breckenridge, Colorado, with me napping in the back of the van, and had to take the stage an hour early because the band right before us canceled. We loaded from the van directly onto the stage—and I forgot how long it takes to get used to altitude. We set up FAST and were launching into our first number within 30 minutes of getting up on the mountaintop. I took my first big breath in to sing, and there was nothing. It was as if I had smoked 10,000 cigarettes and drank no water for the past year. Literally played the first few songs instrumental (like Spinal Tap at the Russian festival) because I could not find enough breath to sing. Almost passed out several times. Oh, you dummy.
These have all been good lessons for me in keeping it light, bouncing back, and knowing I better get a few one-liners together. I’m sure this band (and any band) could tell you dozens of other stories as well, and I look forward to hearing them all.
After years of writing, recording, and touring, we now get to stand on stage in front of thousands of people, get to hear the records on films and TV shows all over the place, but anytime I think I’ve got even a tiny fraction of this business figured out, or we start getting cocky, I expect the musical gods to send over a guy in the back of the venue yelling, “I bet it’s gonna suck!!”
Thanks for checking in. Please tell us your war stories, too! 🙂
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