Pretty much everything happened as it should have.
I started to get jumpy about ten o’clock in the morning. By noon I had serious butterflies. I started to have ridiculous premonitions, scenarios in which I had forgotten all the lyrics, or forgotten to bring my guitar, or the bass player got sick and couldn’t make it. None of these things were the least bit likely to happen, but once I started to think about them they seemed entirely possible, even probable.
For some reason it seemed like a good idea to drink a whole pot of strong coffee in the middle of the afternoon. I sat in my little home studio with an acoustic guitar, downing mug after mug, arranging and rearranging the set lists. You have to pace each set. Open with an attention-getter, up tempo but not frenetic. Maybe keep it up for one more song, drop into some mid-tempo country-ish stuff, kick it up one time before everybody dozes off, then for song number six, a sweet, sweet ballad. Come out of that with something bright but not too heavy, then close with three rockers in a row, increasing the intensity to a big finish at song number ten. Set one.
Set two. Lather, rinse, repeat. Only two sets tonight.
I get withdrawn as showtime gets near. I remember that now. I don’t feel like talking to anybody who is not directly connected with the gig, about anything except the gig. I don’t do this consciously. It’s just the way I feel.
For a couple of hours I work on my guitar parts, completely revamping the solo on one song. I realize that every time I’ve played it in rehearsal, I didn’t know exactly where I was going with it. Now I do. I start to feel better. I’m prepared, as much as I’m going to get, anyway. You can only prepare so much, I tell myself. Then you have to just do it.
Two o’clock. I load the car. Amplifier, guitar cases, duffel bags full of cables, tuners, foot pedals, microphones, mic stands, guitar stands, amp stands. Stolen milk crate full of more of the same. The familiarity of this — and the physical exertion — temporarily relieve my nerves.
I’ve done this ten thousand times, so why am I nervous?
At the venue four hours before the first set. Due to the vagaries of booking, I don’t know any of the club personnel. A woman I’ve never met unlocks the door, lets me in, turns on the lights. Later she switches on the sound system. More employees arrive, but they are all strangers. We’ve been told that the house sound guy won’t be with us tonight. We’re on our own with a strange board and a huge PA system. The board is easy enough to figure out, but nothing works as expected. There’s no easy way to tell where everything is plugged in to it. The hard way would take more time than we have. There is a rack of digital effects, equalizers and compressors. What’s connected to what? I can’t tell.
I plug the mics into the snake up on the stage and go back to the board. In a few minutes I have the drums up, but the drummer keeps stopping. I can’t find a talkback mic, so I go back up to the stage to tell him to just keep hitting the kick until I tell him to stop. I arrive at the same time as the bass player, who is immediately followed by an extremely irate woman whom I have never seen before. She is angry and yelling that she’s in charge of the sound man and the sound man is in charge of the sound, not us, and she would never allow him to turn things up so loud, there’s only one band who is allowed to play that loud, the Zeppelin tribute band and she refuses to be there on the nights they play, because they are too fucking loud, so we just need to turn down, and right now.
I give her my best smile and tell her that we don’t play loud, we’re a vocal band, the instruments are just accompaniment, but we’re not familiar with the sound system, and things will be better in a minute, as soon as we figure out the equipment. She is not mollified. She wants to be the boss of us, but she goes away, for the time being.
I decide to set up my own stuff on stage. The bass player did sound reinforcement in a past life. I’ll let him deal with it. But when the stage is set and we start again to work on the PA, the first woman approaches and tells us, nicely, that it’s too late for this, customers will soon be here, and anyway why don’t we let Kevin the sound guy handle it at seven when he gets here?
Kevin the sound guy. We thought he wasn’t coming. But he is, after all. This is good news, but still I have to shift gears. The band is pissed off at being yelled at and given the runaround. The bass player is talking loud enough for the
bitch crabby lady to hear. No sound check, and he took time off work to be here early.
I don’t want a feud with the help. I get everybody together out of earshot and tell them that, for tonight, we are partners with all these people, these strangers. If we do well, they do well. We have to entertain, and they have to help us. Together, our job is to create a big room full of happy customers, enjoying the music and spending money. If that happens — and I know it will — the crabby lady and Kevin the sound guy and all the rest of them will be our best friends, and we’ll all be happy.
Sweating like a bride and nervous as a pig, I dash home to shower and change. I get back to the club at seven. Kevin is not there.
I tune a guitar and put it on a stand on stage, then tune another one just in case. I decide to work the room.
I’m surprised at how many people have showed up. It’s a big room. There won’t be a full house, but jeez, do this many people actually want to hear us? I go from table to table in the big, darkened bar, schmoozing, smiling, thanking. I meet everybody’s friends and spouses, and the names go in one ear and out the other. I never used to do this. I think I thought it was somehow beneath me. I know now that these people are the bosses. They can’t tell me what to play or how to play it, but they can go away and never come back, and I’m determined not to let that happen. I’ll play my ass off for those that care, and put so much butter on the rest of them they won’t even be able to get up and leave.
Kevin shows up twenty minutes before we start. I tell him our setup, what we play, which mics are for lead vocals and background vocals, where I plugged them in, and what I did with the board when I was trying to work it myself. I explain the kind of echo I want to use (sorry, trade secret). He is receptive. He’s worked sound here long enough to know the equipment and the room, not so long as to be bored. Anyway there’s no time left. I have to trust him.