The strange and wonderful world of live music gigs
Heartwarming stories, insane stories, tragic stories — anyone who has spent a life playing music has them. Whether a performer, manager, roadie… live music gigs are too unpredictable for there not to be some weirdness.
I have played countless bars, restaurants, weddings, private parties, and corporate events. I’ve played at Carnegie Hall on the main stage and at Bud’s Bar in Trooper, PA. I played a pig roast on the edge of a cemetery for a blues society. I played every Monday last summer on a platform in a water park surrounded by a moat where people could float by on inner tubes. People have tipped me $100 for playing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” $50 for playing “Happy Birthday,” vomited at my feet, yelled at me for not playing their requests, and written insults on my email list and snapped a picture of my face as I read it because I wouldn’t let them sing.
Richie Havens gave me a thumbs up while playing and the actress Phyllis Newman told me I was good and didn’t need to apologize to anyone for it (thanks, Phyllis!). Bob Dylan refused to take my demo tape with a dismissive “Nah,” and David Bowie listened to my first album and told me he “quite liked it” but thought I “could do better.”
I’ve played empty rooms on New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day gigs where everybody mysteriously left slowly (was it something I said?). I’ve also played packed houses where everyone sings, claps along, and the crowd makes up chants that include my name (“Can’t get enough of that Huff”). I’ve had two CD release parties, 10 years apart, with paid attendance of 63 people at both (odd coincidence).
A life playing live music gigs includes all of these things: the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, the ugly, the weird, the disappointing, the exhilarating.
It even happens in the upper echelons at the giant arenas: Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson has related the sad tale of being drenched in someone else’s urine with no opportunity to change clothes before a Shea Stadium show. I almost suffered a similar fate while on break at a hotel gig when a drunk partier decided to relieve himself from the roof of the hotel (missed me by 10 feet).
Here are a few tales from my decades as a gigging musician. I’ve come to learn that if you can find joy and humor in the moment, you’ll never have a bad gig.
If you want to play, you have to pay the soundman!
I started my first band in my high school years in New York City, a trio in which I played bass. We went through different names (The Rampugnants, The Meaty Snacks, the Blind Venetians) and styled ourselves as a cross between Rush and The Police, though most of our original songs sounded nothing like either.
Our first gig was a 6th-grade graduation party at the drummer’s former elementary school. This gig went exceptionally well. When I put on my sunglasses, all the girls screamed. I felt like a major rock star! However, it proved somewhat inauspicious as for the next three years, this would be our only performance outside of high school events.
But we continued to play. Our school had an annual event (known as Excursion Day) where the entire school would ship off to Bear Mountain, NY via boat; my band played on the boat every year. By my senior year, we decided it was time for us to get out and cut our teeth in the real world. We recorded a five-song demo, then promptly fired the drummer due to personality differences (sorry man). With a new drummer on board, we passed some demos around the East Village and booked two shows: a CBGB’s “Audition Showcase” and a dive bar called Downtown Beirut II on Houston Street.
The CBGB show was at midnight on a Sunday, and despite the ungodly hour, we had seven people show up. We even wrote a punk song for the occasion. We didn’t get a second gig, but Hilly, the legendary owner, was very nice about it a week or so later.
“You guys really aren’t a CB’s band,” he said, “maybe try the West Village.” I protested, “But we played some punk!” He was like, “Well… one song.” At least he had listened. He could sense my disappointment, though, so he said, “Go around the West Village and if you have no luck there, come back here and I’ll see what I can do for you.“ In hindsight, that was a pretty cool encounter.
The second gig didn’t go quite so well. The woman who owned the bar was of unknown Slavic origin with a thick accent, and the deal was we had to bring 10 people in order to get paid. We were booked at 9 pm on a Sunday and managed to bring 10 friends. Once we were onstage and ready to play, she changed the terms of the deal, saying we couldn’t play until we paid the sound man $20. Our banter, in front of everyone, went like this:
“But you told us to bring 10 people and we did.”
“Yes, but none of these people drink.” “OK, everyone buy a soda!” “Alcohol. They need to buy alcohol.” “OK, everyone buy alcohol!” “No one is of age, I can’t sell it to them.”
“Why is the deal changing? You’re adding things we never talked about.” “This isn’t making me any money. I’m sorry, you have to pay the sound man.”
We discussed not playing, but our friends were already there, so for their sake, the show went on. We paid the sound man $20 and off we went. Despite one of my friends heckling me every time I spoke, the gig went well.
I was pretty discouraged. I had friends who were playing around NYC who were drawing hundreds of people. They had locked into the ska scene that was happening at the time. I liked ska well enough, but following anything but my own musical impulse seemed foreign and disingenuous. It can also be pretty isolating, I discovered, if no one relates to what you’re doing. Maybe I just needed to grow and improve. By the time I did my next professional gig in 1992, I had a very different perspective.
The endless unplugged gig
In the summer of 2006, I was working a day job and playing gigs in restaurants and bars every weekend in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area. Often, I would also play Thursdays and Sundays, being the sole provider for my wife and infant daughter. One regular gig I was doing was a brewery/restaurant in Atlantic City with great acoustics, the only drawback being that it ended at 2:00 am and was 90 miles from home.
One Saturday night, my car was being repaired, so I was using my wife’s car. Unfortunately, about 30 miles from the gig, I realized my PA and speakers were in the trunk of my car back home! Standing there at the Frank S. Farley service area, I tried to think clearly through my panic. I could cancel, but we really needed the money. I decided to head to the gig with the plan to play unamplified strolling through the restaurant. Folk-rock al fresco, as it were.
I arrived at the venue and told the manager my situation. He was skeptical about my plan, but I said, “Look, if it doesn’t work, after one set, pay me $50 and I’ll head home.” He agreed.
Surprisingly, the first set went very well. I had some tables singing and bopping along, so we continued with the standard four sets and by 2:00 am, I had made an impressive amount of tips, essentially doubling my money for the night. Maybe I should never use a PA at any gig ever again, I thought. It was a great lesson in the value of playing the hand dealt to you and making the best of any situation.
As I was nursing my exhausted voice and packing up my guitar and harmonicas, the manager approached me. “The welterweight champion of the world has just won his fight here in town,” he said, “and he and his entourage have just rented the restaurant to stay open and celebrate. They asked if we had live music and I told them we had you but I would have to ask you.”
“Did you tell them I’m unamplified?” I asked.
“Yes, I told them that, and they didn’t care. They’ll pay you [a very nice fee] an hour to stay later.”
So I stayed. The boxer and his entourage came in and ordered food and drinks. I played for another two hours, unamplified, standing in the middle of the restaurant. Including tips, I ended up walking out with almost triple the money I had expected to earn that night. The evening ended with the boxer’s promoter (a six-foot-tall blonde woman) drunk and leaning on my shoulder sobbing as I played and sang “Freebird” for the memory of her deceased brother. I pulled into my house around 6:00 am with a pile of money and a you’ll-never-believe-this story for my wife.
Chance meeting at the Holiday Inn lounge
One December, sometime in the early 2010s, I played a run of Thursdays at a Holiday Inn on the Pennsylvania-Delaware border. The venue was every bit the 70’s-inspired lounge and I felt like I was in a movie every time I was there.
One week, I noticed an older man come into the lobby with two younger women and two guitars. Intriguing. They went up to their rooms and came down with a couple more people to eat dinner, sitting some distance away from me in the restaurant. Judging by their entrance, I believed them to be “somebody.”
When facing a mostly empty room, I often play long Bob Dylan songs for my own enjoyment. After many years of doing this, I know most of his epics. On this night, I pulled out “Desolation Row,” possibly my favorite song by anyone. When I started playing it, the first man turned around in his chair and watched me intently, bobbing his head, for the full 11 minutes. After I was done, he gave me a raucous shout and clapped loudly.
So now I had to go say hello. But who was he? I racked my brain. Walking up to the table I said, “Hey man, thanks for clapping.”
He laughed. “Yeah, we are the crowd tonight, aren’t we? That was great though, man, you never hear anybody play ‘Desolation Row.’ What an amazing song. Dylan’s a genius.”
We breezed on about Dylan for a bit and then I said, “I feel like you are somebody, or a group of somebodies, but I can’t place who you are.” One of his companions said, “Who do you think we are?”
I looked them over.
“You’re Donald Fagen,” I pointed at one man, “and you’re Walter Becker,” I said to the first man.
They all laughed.
“No,” chuckled the first man. “You’ve probably never heard of me, but my name is Larry Coryell.”
I actually had heard of him; Larry Coryell was a regular columnist in Guitar Playermagazine in the ’80s. I knew very little of his music, though. We talked about his gig that night (“they treated me like a king — dressing room, food — and you know, after all these years, I can put up with ANYTHING”), about his wife Tracey’s musical ventures, about Dylan, and about my musical activities. I thanked him for the conversation and went back to finish playing. Before he and Tracey left, I played “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” for them as they sat at a table right in front of me.
Afterward, I went back and spent some time exploring Larry’s amazing records. A guitarist friend pointed out to me that he had played with Jack Bruce of Cream and Mitch Mitchell of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as John McLaughlin. I’m glad I didn’t know it that night! I would have been star struck. Sadly, I never connected with Larry again before he passed away in 2017; I had an email but never used it. But I really appreciated that boost in the empty Holiday Inn lounge. Cheers, Larry.
Chris Huff has been a professional singer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and producer for over 20 years. He has worked as a sideman with Peter Yarrow (Peter, Paul, and Mary), Echo and the Bunnymen, Chuck Hammer (David Bowie, Lou Reed), and Tom Kitt (Broadway composer of Next To Normal). Chris also wrote liner notes for David Bowie’s Live And Well CD, and has two full-length albums of original music available on iTunes.