One night after the show, the lead vocalist persuaded me to go out and see a band that he had met earlier that day on the strip. Off we went. I can’t remember which casino it was; they are all so unique and exploding with character. At some point we entered a lounge where five or six guys and two girls were up on stage ripping through a medley of pop funk hits for some dancing gamblers. So I ordered a drink, grabbed a bowl full of pretzels (or peanuts) and proceeded to settle in for the remainder of their set.
The guy I was with was super charismatic, so within minutes he was dancing with most of the good looking women in the room. I of course was busy analyzing the sound system, what kind of pedal board the guitarist was using (Roland GT5), the vibe between the band members (bassist and backup singer were definitely sleeping together and mad at each other), guessing the chords / key signatures of each song, and so forth. This is my sad idea of fun.
As I was dissecting the environment, I was starting to get this really weird taste in my mouth; kind of like when you chew aspirin. I knew I was not going to get sick, but something was not right. I began fiddling with my drink more and more, subconsciously squirming in my seat. This continued for some time and I finally realized that it was actually the sound that was throwing me off. Everything looked ok, but something just felt out of place.
And then it hit me. These guys were going 100% direct.
Ugghhhh… I did a quick re-review and realized that my initial analysis was very sloppy. No amps, and the drummer was using an electronic kit. The more I listened, the more everything I saw made perfect sense. I felt like I was in a space station. The volume was so perfectly perfect…. It was neither loud nor soft, it was just kind of “there,” not really emanating form any one spot.
During the break, I chatted up the guitarist and found out that when they arrived in town, they had to sign a contract stating that if they deviated from a specific decibel level in the slightest, they’d be fired and forfeit their pay. He was bummed about it, but their residency was for three months, so they were thrilled to have the work.
Fast forward about three years and I find myself on stage in a tiny little club in central Europe. I was doing a three month residency, 5 sets of Funk / Rock Blues each night, 6 nights a week. What a haul. But most nights, the place was packed; everyone dancing their brains out, the air was smoky as hell, and the walls just dripping in sweat. I wound up playing there a bunch of times, usually doing a one-month stay and it was always a lot of fun. The nightly cleaning crew always ignored the stage, so at the end of each one-month run, we’d spend a portion of our last night drunkenly clearing our gear out for the next band that was due to arrive in the morning.
It was always funny to see the crap that had built up over the last 28 nights; broken glass, lost passports, false teeth, hypodermic needles, all kinds of wonderful stuff. For me, that pile of crap that we swept into a bucket at 5AM was always an indication of how the residency had gone; the more weird crap we found, the better the gig usually had been. Each time I experienced this ritual, I always came to the same conclusion:
“The dirt, the muck, the filth… I love it”
This does not have so much to do with the actual dirt that had accumulated over the weeks, but the stuff that goes along with a live gig. Even when I have played some pretty nice places, there is always some conceptual sweating and philosophical smoke. The combustion in the sound, the drinks that fall over, etc… but most importantly, there is the sound of guitars (or keyboards) through an amplifier and drums. Anything less and… and I start to get that “chewing aspirin” taste in my mouth again.
Summary: I can’t fault those guys for taking that gig in the antiseptic Vegas lounge; everyone needs work, especially musicians. And in fairness, the gig I was doing that week was nothing too amazing at all, so I never meant to judge them... Not every gig is gonna be so great, sometimes you just gotta pay the bills. But I’m kinda glad that there are not too many places like Las Vegas. I think live music should not be hermetically sealed; there has to be some rough edges. I do understand that in certain situations, the manager of a club / lounge has to do whatever they need to do in order to keep the customers spending money.
I’ve had some pretty weird gigs in my life, but in most cases, there are at least a few sonic imperfections, which I think is just part of the formula. It’s the human element. I think this is why a faded pair of jeans that you have owned for 5 years cannot be replicated by “The GAP”, and why “Reliced” guitars are, well… uh, let’s just say they are not my cup of tea. Bumps and scratches are part of life, even in the sound we send out from the stage. Those frayed edges give the moments of brilliance / success / harmony relevance. Of course we all strive and hope for as much good stuff as possible in our performance, but as we aim for 100%, we know that if we hit 80%, we’ve probably had a pretty good night. The other 20% of the sound / performance / solo / stage banter, etc… that sometimes falls flat, falls on the floor, or gets peanut butter stuck in it, well… that’s just part of the deal.
I never really thought about all this even once, until that one time in the Vegas lounge when it was not there. Then I missed it, really bad.
Have a great week,