I’m reading a book called The Worst Gig, and it’s quite amusing. Musicians do it for the love, not the money, and definitely not for the luxurious dressing rooms and detailed tour riders. (Did you see Arcade Fire’s fake rider? Vegan hot dogs are involved.)
I’ve seen shows in bars where management declined to turn down the blasting TV in the room, as a folkie struggled to be heard. I’ve been to concerts where the folks on stage outnumbered the audience. (Dr. John, faced with this, said, “You’re a small crowd, but you’re a mighty crowd.” That’s the power of positive thinking. )
Highlights of the book include the group Eisley getting stuck in a huge snowstorm—in Texas, where it never snows; and The Screaming Sirens showing up for a gig in St. Louis where the booking agent who’d signed them had been fired. “Screaming Who?” the club owner said. This was after they got a $75 speeding ticket and sent all the money they had on ahead. They slept in their van, though eventually played the club for the Supertramp after party.
Here’s Gillian Welch on her worst gig:
In Nashville, before we ever had a record out, I decided I wanted to play this writers’ night. I went down there by myself and waited like three or four hours to play. They kept me waiting and kept me waiting as the crowd thinned out. Finally, the guy who had been playing his own songs between every three writers, he got up when there were about three people left and played three more songs. Then he said it was my turn. There was literally nobody left in the place but the bartender and the MC. The MC said, ‘Okay, you can play now. Will you turn the PA off when you’re done?’ So I got up and played a couple songs to the bartender, then I walked over and turned the PA off.
Michael Merenda of the Mammals has a story he tells in his sets, describing traveling eight hours to West Virginia for a “house concert” that ended up being in an abandoned house without electricity in the middle of nowhere. It was on the weekend, and the West Virginia university students go home on weekends. One fan from his mailing list showed up, and the show was punctuated by the sound of gunfire from the target practice that was going on upstairs.
On my radio show, I hosted The Whispering Tree (quiet dream pop) and asked them for their worst gig. “Our worst gig ever was this show in Belgium at a death metal bar. We walked in and they were blasting death metal and there was a woman behind the bar wearing a swastika earring. We ended up playing to two (completely uninterested) people in the basement—it was painful. The only reason we kept playing was because it was a paid gig. Then we found out that the owner had run off before we’d finished our set and was refusing to pay us.”
It’s got to be unique that your worst gig ever is in Belgium.