A talented perform I knew once told me “You’re only as good as your last show.” At the time I it was pretty early in my musical career so I took his word as gospel. Now, I would change his advice to say “you’re only as good as your next show.” While the show you did last night may have wowed the crowd, that necessarily doesn’t buy you much love for your next show. You’ve got to consistently bring it, every show. Sounds easy, right? Just don’t phone it in and you’ll be golden. But remember every show is different. Every crowd is unique. Even if you’re playing in front of the same group of people every time, like say on a cruise ship, they show up with a different mindset. They may have had a bad day (thanks Daniel Powter) or a great one. They could be out celebrating or mourning. Each person brings their own ‘baggage” to the show. The good news is they all want the same thing. They want to be moved emotionally. They want the needle moved in the right direction, depending on their mood. That’s where you (and sometimes adult beverages) come in. Being able to read your audience and know how to move them is one of the most valuable skills you can have as a performer. And it’s a skill you can develop. It starts with being observant.
- Make eye contact with your audience. Not a Charles Manson, I’ll be stalking you after the show tonight with a jar of mayo, a roll of duct tape, a bottle of SpongeBob Squarepants bubble bath and a spatula stare, but more of a “how am I doing?” look. Look for their reaction. If they’re enjoying themselves, you’ll be able to see it. Now I realize that if you’re playing Hard Rock or a stage at Bonaroo, it could be a challenge to do this with everyone. Fortunately there are other signs.
- Listen to their reaction after you end a song. Check if it’s appropriate to what and where you’re playing. If you’re getting a polite golf clap at a rowdy biker bar, you might not be getting through to you audience.
- Watch and talk to the people that work there. In many cases they know the patrons better than you do and they are talking to them. They can gauge what kind of mood everyone is in. Also, they’ve seen the other acts that play there and how their patrons go over. (Note: I’m not saying you should copy the other acts trying to get the same response. But you can adjust your show to the audience you’re playing for.)
- Talk to the people. Some will have no problem telling you if they aren’t picking up what you’re putting down.
- Solicit help. If you have a fan or friend in the crowd that you trust, use them as a barometer. Tell them what you’re looking for and what you’d like them to listen for. Work out with them ahead of time a few simple signals to help you get the message.
- Learn from your past shows. If you have the ability, record your shows and watch them back. Look at what works and what didn’t. If you see something you really like, put it in your mental gig bag and pull it out when the time is right. Warning: avoid Omphaloskepsis (aka navel gazing). Don’t become so self absorbed in watching the video of yourself that you are paralyzed by over analytic inaction.
- Don’t hold anything back: Regardless of your genre, venue, mental state, level of sobriety, temperature, size of audience or amount you are getting paid you have to leave it all on the stage. If you’re phoning it in, everyone but those not paying any attention or blind drunk will see it. If you last show was aces and this one is a Skype job, this is the show that those people will remember. You’ll have a hard time getting them back on your side.
Last year about this time, my good buddy Yogi (Token Fat Guys) asked if I would be interested in playing at the Making Strides Against Cancer Walk. The Making Strides event is not a race; it is a celebration of survivorship, and occasion to express hope. It would be an early day (call time 7AM!!!!) and a long set (play until the last participant passes you). I had played the night before at Casey’s, one of my favorite drinking… er, I mean playing spots, and 4 consecutive nights before that. I’d be playing on short turn around and going to my day job straight after. Daunting? Perhaps. But I love a challenge. Especially for a good cause
It didn’t start off great. I woke up later than I wanted. The beer and whisky from the night before was still working its way out of my system at a maddeningly slow pace. I got dressed quickly and jumped out of my house into cool morning. When I arrived, as is often the case with these things, there was confusion and nothing was ready. There was missed and missed communication. I was frustrated with not being on time but, with the great help of some students from Full Sail University, we got things sorted and ready to go. All the while, people were coming in from every direction. Most were wearing pink. I saw lots of people hugging and laughing. Families, friends, co-workers and complete strangers; There was an incredibly positive vibe. After a while, everyone wandered down to the start /finish line. I was set up on the corner of Robinson and Eola in front of Panera which was totally unfair because the smell was soooooo good. This was definitely a nontraditional stage. I’ve played street corners before, so I thought I was ready. The sun was shining, there was a slight breeze and I was ready to play. I wasn’t ready for what I saw next. More than 20,000 walkers/ runners of every age, race, size, gender, creed and even some dogs came past me, each at their own pace. That alone was impressive, but what blew my mind were the reasons people were walking. I saw survivors, who had fought the good fight and come out the other side alive. I saw current warriors taking on breast cancer and fighting it with everything they had. I saw friends and families who had been touched by this “big C” and lived the soul sapping lows and uplifting highs that go with it. There were people there who had no direct or indirect contact with breast cancer, but walked anyway for people they didn’t even know. Something happened to me, all of a sudden, I wasn’t tired anymore. The sun shown brighter, the trees were greener, and the wind was more refreshing. I was inspired to play and play the best show I’d ever played. I didn’t feel the pain in my knees. I didn’t notice when I cut my thumb open on my guitar string. I didn’t care that I was sweating like a sinner in church. The students from Full Sail were standing there cheering on the walkers. The local people who weren’t participating were singing along and cheering loudly. All I saw was a great out pouring of love. A great showing of strength. I saw heroes and heroines. And here’s the thing…. they were thanking me for being there and for all I was doing. I was humbled beyond belief. I felt like I should be thanking them for setting the example for the rest of us. Of how to live. How to fight. How to love.
With all the negative vibes emanating from all corners, to be a part of such a positive event, to see such an out pouring of love…. was uplifting. The Making Strides Against Breast Cancer 2011 event will be Downtown Orlando starting at 8 am at Lake Eola. I’ll be there again on the corner of Robinson and Eola in front of the Panera store. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello and check out the other 13 musical acts performing during the run and the celebration afterwards. Let me just say this. Whatever your skill set, abilities, talents may be, you should, No, you must put them to work for the betterment of the world. You get more than you give.