Of Bread and Circus: How to Handle an Audience that is Not on Your Side by Kilian Duarte… As many of us learned in elementary school history, during the era of the great Roman Empire, the Caesars would host elaborate gladiatorial events. During these spectacles of grandeur, men and animals would fight to the death for the amusement of the Roman people (aka, The Mob). In a grandiose spectacle of human morbidity, these games served as a way for the emperors to wine and dine the crowds into a fevered frenzy. Using these games as a way to gain support for their cause and crown. Gladiators would fight for their lives with the visceral passion of dying men. For in the end, The Mob (with a display of thumbs up or thumbs down) would state the fate of said competitor and determine him to be either a legend for the ages, or lunchmeat for the tigers in the galleys below. Life was kind of harder back then in my opinion. Kind of makes you wonder why people say the good old days? Ha-ha…
Many musicians will luckily, for the majority of their career, be displayed in front of crowds that either are there for them, or at the very least do not mind and accept their presence. We as a culture, have for the most part, evolved (this is up for debate) to the point where rioting over a bad band is not terribly common. Many times promoters try to guarantee a crowd pleaser line-up to maximize profits for all parties involved. The warlike behavior of the Romans no longer really applies, as musicians are not known to be fed to tigers anymore. That being said, life is filled with unexpected turns we cannot foresee, and it shall be vitally important as a musician to be ready for any crowd, at any time, No Matter What! I recently had a situation where I had to win over a crowd that was initially showing us no love. Below is the story of that gig, and some practical tips to help you if you are ever in the same spot.
This past month, I had the privilege of being invited with one of my bands to play an enormous Portuguese cultural festival in the Northeast. A 40,000-person crowd that spanned over 4 days of drunken festivities. On paper everything seemed pretty perfect; free 5-star food (lobster tails… yum), hotels included (like mint on pillow?), and a more than ample financial incentive for four sets during the weekend. The gentleman who booked us had known the owner for 35 years, and trusted him greatly, as he was in turn trusted with providing appropriate entertainment for the event. The thing is, on paper, we worked out fine. We were all super professional, well rehearsed, and not demanding at all. It was the whole “in practice” thing that made things a bit more complicated in the end result. You see, my band leader is in fact Portuguese by blood, but was born and raised in the U.S. and cannot speak a word of the language…
Oh yeah… We are also a really heavy rock act… Yeah… Minor detail.
So here we were, somewhere between the sangria and rotisserie chicken stands, when we start to sense that we might not fit in at all. Don’t get me wrong, Portuguese people are very warm and open minded, but when the majority of the other bands have an accordionist, and every single band has been singing in only Portuguese, you start to think the booking guy may have not fully checked you out before he booked. We go to the restaurant to calm our nerves with some lobster tails (yum) and salmon steaks (that noise Homer Simpson makes when he thinks of donuts), hoping the free food would give us the motivation to rock out with Iron Maiden like energy. We go meet with the sound guy (who happened to be amazing) and got all our levels done within 15 minutes, which made the first half relatively painless. We sat in the dressing room and waited for the unavoidable moment for when we would either become the heroes or the tiger meat.
As we approached the stage, we knew things might be a bit as we predicted. The crowd had been drinking sangria for the past 4 hours and we were being preceded by one of the accordion centered groups that were playing Forró music. As the people heard the dance music stop and the sound of the guitarists 7-string hit a nice low B power chord, things got a little funny. It was once said by Brann Dailor of Mastodon that playing avante garde music in front of the wrong audience is “much like showing a dog a card trick”. They just look at you like you’re up there in your underwear with a rubber chicken under your arm, and do not care to understand your type of “art”.
He was kind of right.
The ironic thing was is that it truly did fuel us to rock out extremely hard; we nailed the set entirely with perfect feel and heart. Except by the time we were over only about a few dozen people remained. Most were loving it, but even some stayed there staring in their “dog and a card trick” pose. After the last song ended, we quietly (nudge) got off the stage and proceeded to go eat our feelings at the restaurant. We sat in a bit of a malaise, wondering if we would even be invited back for the rest of our sets. I mean, even though we rocked it, we weren’t exactly the hot band of the evening. We cracked some jokes and made fun of some of the audience members we all noticed. After sangria and a steak, we laughed it off and went to the hotel to crash, hoping the next day would be more successful.
When morning came we felt rejuvenated and ironically very empowered to go perform that evening. We had seen the worst of it as far as we were concerned and since none of us were missing limbs or traumatically scarred, we decided that tonight would be filled with reckless abandon. We sat down for ceremonial pre-show bacon and were informed during breakfast that we would be playing an afternoon set apart from the evening set. Nodding our heads and agreeing with the promoter that it might be good to go on twice, as we thought it might build up momentum for the night set. Approaching the stage again, we noticed that the day people were much more family oriented than the night crowd. It is a little odd seeing small kids in front of you before your supposed to go play some heavy rock. We have no cursing in our songs, but honestly, its weird.
As the song commenced, it was worse than I imagined. Just sheer death glares from almost every single person in the audience. No fucking mercy. Only one drunken guy in the front was into it, and the audience parted like the Red Sea. I felt like an unpopular Moses playing bass to some Israelites that could not be paid to give a damn. I just had to stare at my fingerboard and muster whatever spirit I had to power through. Ironically, again, we played tight and great. But to an audience that could not care even less. My spirit was crushed, and we left the stage like dogs with our tails between our legs. I had never felt this way after a gig ever, and it taught me a lot about how much I was connected to my performances. Unfortunately I can be quite a pessimist when it comes to certain things in life. It is a character flaw I try and work on/fix as much as possible. Fortunately, I am in a band with two optimistic, and pretty indomitably spirited guys, who do not give a hoot what the haters have to say. With my spirit in the dumps, and with some guilt tripping/pep talking, we ate some Subway and made our way to the stage to wait the night set.
If there has been one stroke of luck I have had in my professional musical career, it would be that I have never once suffered from any form of stage fright. My heart goes out to people that do, because after that night, I totally get it. I was shitting my pants in no uncertain terms. In front of me were at least 4000 dirty Jersey kids, drunk out of their minds on sangria, and just wanting to dance the night away to accordion music. We slowly got on the stage, and my bandleader, out of pure rage/frustration/passion, screamed as if he were a conquering emperor, “WHATS GOING ON NEW JERSEY!!!!” Like a titan being freed from its prison, the audience exploded with energy and cheers. We slammed into the first riff, and a new set of balls grew on all of us, especially me. All of my rage/frustration/passion escaped my hands and I slapped, plucked, and strummed my 5-string like it owed me rent money.
Act like you own the place, and you will.
My singer (whose a bad ass on guitar), played like his life depended on it, and we took the crowd by storm. Girls dancing on tables, a circle pit, people coming on stage, and sheer ecstatic rock and roll love. When we slammed into our last song (Black Sabbaths’-War Pigs), the crowd literally exploded with energy. Kids were singing along and we got completely immersed in the characters we were emulating. There was no fallacy in our style; we were putting the spirit into every single note. We were called for an encore of Led Zeppelins’ “Whole Lotta Love” and left the stage like conquering heroes. The tigers would go hungry that evening, as we were spared by the mob, and brought before Rome as true warriors. Well… At least that is how we felt ha-ha.
Next day, the crowd once again was a bit more family oriented, so the vibe cooled down. Our spirits were still high, and we managed to win over the crowd without much real issue. Fans of rock and roll are everywhere, in all shapes and sizes, even if you don’t think so. I still get a kick out of seeing this little 6 year old girl rocking one of the band shirts her mom had bought for her. And in the end, it kind of made it all worthwhile.
With experience comes some wisdom, and in my humble opinion here are some steps you may choose to take that may help you one day get out of a bind. Or at the very least not become the victim of a riot!
1) USE COMMON SENSE: I don’t mean to make this part condescending; it is more to just remind you of the obvious fact that you need to judge your crowd with basic logic. Many times the line up will be homogenous and you will be the odd band out. Just weigh your options and make your set list fit as much as possible to have the crowd get on your side. In NO way does this mean compromise your artistic integrity, but if you are risking beer bottles slamming you in the temple, maybe stick to the favorites in your repertoire.
2) PLAY YOUR BEST: This should be a given no matter for who or where you are playing, but in this case it can mean winning over the crowd or an ocean of booing. It has once been said, “there is no such thing as bad music, just bad musicians”. I firmly believe this to be true, and believe that if you are 100% on the mark, even the most musically ignorant person has to have some semblance of respect for that (this has not been scientifically proven). Strap on your bass like a soldier from a conquering army ready to do battle. Pretend that you’re already getting laid after the gig (even though probably not at all), and just display your full confidence and abilities.
3) ENGAGE THE CROWD: Much like grizzly bears and beautiful women, an audience can smell insecurity and fear a mile away. Do not wither under the might of the masses! Get your inner dictator/Freddy Mercury and engage the crowd, engage the crowd, ENGAGE THE CROWD!!! Keeping silent and meek will make the audience feel that you are out of your element and will fuel their disdain for your presence. Go Spinal tap and go “Hello Cleveland!” on them, even if some are giving you death glares, playing like you are Queen at Wembley will greatly improve your chances for success. Comment on the humor of it all, and hype yourselves up! Go for broke and even poke a little fun at some of the drunker/ridiculous members of the audience; it will be worth it if you know how to do it right!
4) FEED OFF THE PEOPLE DIGGING IT!!!: Even if the crowd is for the most part not a fan of your particular style, odds are there are people in there that are. One thing that I have learned over the years is that many people are in the “never judge a book by its cover” category… Musically speaking. Don’t assume that because someone looks a certain way that they might not be there to check out the whole set. Make eye contact with these people and feed off their positive vibes. Haters and trolls are just an inevitable part of life so the more you just concentrate on people who appreciate and enjoy your work the happier of a musician you will be. Engage these people after the show, talk, and say thank you (I even signed some CD’s that weekend). YOU NEVER KNOW WHOM YOU MIGHT BE PLAYING FOR!!!