This question was posed by Tim “the Worst Soundman Ever” Alverson. “Hey Sam, you should do an article on train wreck gigs.” Ok it was more of a statement than a question. A tough question too. Thanks Tim! And that goes for everyone. If you’d like my point of view on a musical/performing/business question, I’ll give you what I think is right from years of experience and if I don’t know it, I’ll ask someone who does.
I’d love to say I don’t know anything about train wrecks but I’ve been involved in them and even caused them myself from time to time. Since Tim wasn’t specific I’ll talk about two different kinds of train wrecks. Band train wrecks and gig train wrecks.
For those who have no idea what I’m talking about (I got wonderful feedback from some dear non-musician friends who read so this is for you Heather and Dana.) A train wreck is when the band messes up so much at a show that the song falls apart and comes to a halt. A room full of people standing there and you, being the best band in the world to them at the moment, show your ass.
Famous train wrecks
Recovering from band train wrecks can be done or even avoided if you are quick on your feet. It’s been my experience that the bands I have worked with don’t train wreck on new songs. They are new so you have all learned them and rehearsed them not long before. We always train wrecked on songs we’d played a million times.
All musicians who play quite bit have gone on “autopilot.” You no longer have to play a song while paying attention. Your hands just know where to go and you can put that attention back toward the audience and the show. It gets to the point that you actually forget how to play the song even though you have been playing three or four times a week for years. All it takes is for someone to make a mistake, miss a cue, start the wrong song on the set list, or you just start thinking about what you are doing, realizing you have no clue. It’ll make you forget how to start songs and singers forget their first line.
Some things you can do to avoid train wrecks is first of all be well rehearsed. If we have a very tricky part we rehearse just that part over and over till we just have it nailed into our heads. Intro’s that were hard to count or having to que the entire band with your part were gone over and solutions to make them easier are come up with. Yelling “ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR!” has worked great for years… It doesn’t seem to work as well in a waltz though. Ok bad musician joke.
The next thing that should be addressed is who to look to for musical direction on stage. If the singer is supposed to sing two choruses and the lead guitar comes in after the first one, who do you follow? Well if your bass player is the designated “go to guy” or musical director then look to him and he’ll make the decision. Don’t argue, or get pissed. Follow him and let the rest of the guys get back on their feet. He can then direct you back to a solo or chorus. Know who your go to guy is in the band.
Who do you follow? When I’m the go to guy I try to always follow the singer. If they miss their que, we just keep playing the same part till they catch it. They are center stage, and yes I’ve dealt with lead singer’s disease, but the cat is center stage with most of the eyes on him/her. Cut they singer some slack and don’t throw him under the bus just to make a point. You are a band as a whole. Any way when the singer gives you attitude a year later you can always tell him “Yeah! Well you never come in right on (insert song here)!” or something else just as petty.
Those are the best ways I’ve found to avoid them or at least dodge the train.
Here it comes. You got that crowd pumpin’! You’ve had them on the floor all night. The chord is hanging and you are ready to play the 6th song on your set list. The drummer clicks it off and you have missed a song. The entire band comes in playing another song. This is especially bad when the drummer clicks it off and he’s the one playing the wrong song. It’s a mistake. A bad one. The band just kind of falls apart. No hard ending just kind of stops. You are dead in the water with everyone looking at you. We’re pro’s so we don’t mess up. Well the secret is out. It happens.
The bands I worked with never took themselves very seriously. We’d just stop, laugh it off, and let the audience know that “yep we screwed it up.” Many times it would make the band more endearing to the listeners. It shows you too can mess up just like them. The singer would tell everyone they are fired. With Matt Poss the joke was “Poss you’re fired. This is the third Matt Poss we’ve hired.” The crowd would laugh. They are on your side for sure now.
The worst thing you can do is try to figure out why it happened on stage. Forget it. START THE NEXT SONG! Arguing on-stage is for idiots.
There is no way to totally avoid them. Just don’t let a train wreck ruin a good gig or a good band.
Another idea is; print your set lists larger and number the songs. It also makes it easier for you to see, to know what song is up next, so that time between songs is kept to a minimum.
Train wreck gigs. Funny how you have played hundreds of gigs but the ones you remember are the bad ones. Train wreck gigs to me are mistakes made by others that cause you to sound bad. It’s one thing if the band messes up. It’s a whole other thing when someone else makes you mess up. This is one of the few times that even I will blow my top. There are repercussions though.
My band Poprocks were playing Harrah’s Casino. The Voodoo Lounge in St. Louis, MO. They didn’t pay very well. About half of what we normally charge. It looked great on a resume though. We held the attendance record there at one time. This particular show started with normal Casino hassles. You load in through the front of the venue. You have to find somewhere to park, load in and then go park a mile away. We then had to load gear up a flight of stairs to get to the stage, which is located above the bar. This was a total disadvantage for us because we had so much crowd participation built into our show. The crowd was inaccessible. Nice stage. Plenty of room to put on a “show.” Huge video screen that animates your band’s name. Million dollar PA. They had fired the house soundman and replaced him with some punk who got the job because he could set up a home surround system. When he was setting up the mics, our guitarist, Jon, had to show him the right end to point at the amplifier.
We start playing, no monitors any-more and the PA was just howling. My ex-wife Becca couldn’t hear herself, even out of the mains. It was a holiday weekend and we had three consecutive, huge paying gigs after this one. We stopped after the second song and let him get things back under control and get Becca some monitors. She’s an amazing singer but even Becca would roach her voice if she couldn’t hear. That would have been a bad way to start this string of dates with no singer. We started up again. Halfway through the first song, no monitors and the PA is howling again. We took a break and Becca came off that stage like a woman possessed. I chased her down and tried to let he let me take care of it. So we went to the soundman. He smugly said “Don’t worry about it. I got it under control!” Wrong thing to say in front of the wrong woman.
Becca stuck a glittered finger in front of this poor guy’s nose and said “It doesn’t sound to me like you got it under control!” This next line was an inside joke between Becca and me for years. “LOOK HERE FUCKER!” Now that was the girl I fell in love with. “I have three more gigs this week and you are roaching me on my first set!” I said “Fuck’n right!” We went back stage and decided if that PA howled one more time we’re walking off and going home. The crowd couldn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t making us look good, and it sucked playing during it. Luckily he caught the next howl and limped through the night.
I know I’ve gone over and over about not pissing off your soundman, but even I have my limits. What was he gonna do? Make us sound worse than he already is? I could have handled it better I suppose looking back. He had a chip of insecurity on his shoulder and wasn’t going to be told how to his job. We were never asked back and we never questioned it or looked back. The Train wreck was unavoidable.
PA’s going out, tuning problems, bad cables and jacks, bad soundman, drunks who pour their beers into someone’s pedal board. Old ladies saying how loud it is even when you aren’t playing loud. Pricks who throw things at the stage, like bottles. Fights that get out of hand. The cops coming into a college bar and start carding everyone during your show. Cops in riot gear will really take the steam out of your party. There are a million scenarios that’ll screw up your show. What can you really do? Play through it if you can. Walk off in only EXTREME cases. Then go play your next show. Then the next one, and the next one, and so on. Some things that happen can be learned from. Such as, making sure there are stairs up to your stage. Dangerous stages don’t make for a very good show. Put it in your rider. Having power to the stage so you don’t have to go on late. Having a good solid contract with the date and guarantee are imperative.
The main thing is, blow it off as a bad gig to be talked about for years to come. You are a good band. Get back on that horse and ride. On the other hand if you are train wrecking too often, take it back to the drawing board. Something is wrong. Start with the first paragraph.
Finishing up, it was brought to my attention that I only say “bad things” about Poprocks. I don’t believe I have but if I have I apologize. I guess I tend to lean on the hard lessons I learned with them, not because of them. These are the lessons I write about. The bad moments with Poprocks don’t even come close to the enjoyment I had playing to our crowd or the chance to play with a handful of the best musicians I have ever known.
Jon and Wally I’d put you up against any players on the planet. You both make me want to become a better guitarist. Truly insane, halarious, and inspiring musicians. Kent “Sweet” Aberle and Brendan Gamble are the two best drummers I’ve ever worked with. Both amazing but with a totally different approach. Sweet was a Bonham style drummer with killer chops. A wild man performer and drummer. Brendan was more reserved. He was a metronome. Solid as a rock but with a finesse style. Both knew how to put a foot in your ass. Mike Poss was a guitar hero of mine when I was a kid. I got to play with a guitar hero and call him a good friend. And last but not least by far. Becca Mitchel, the evil ex-wife. Becca is hands down the best singer/front women I have ever seen. You could put a crowd in your hand in a second, sing your ass off, and had the balls to put yourself out there every night. I never saw her put on a half assed show. And for years we were best friends and I had a ball. So like a bad gig, ya blow it off and move on to the next show. I’m proud of the music, success, and friends I made during my eight years with you. I wish you all the best.
BUY MY CD! I have a psycobilly surf album coming out soon. All superhero themes. Man that has been fun. I’ve been in the studio and just finished a recording a new song for a very special lady. I’ll be done with a new cd in a few months hopefully and I think you need to hear this one first. Just so you can say to your friends I enjoyed his early stuff the most.