You and your bandmates are cruising down the highway en route to a dream gig at an ocean-side club that, by all accounts, resembles a hornier version of Beach Blanket Bingo. It's a beautiful summer evening, and you can't wait to get started.
But just three songs into the first set, you suddenly find yourself mentally plotting the overthrow of the other guitarist, who insists on repeatedly blasting improvised fills straight through the lead vocals. It wouldn't be so bad if he hadn't already turned his Fender Twin up to "Stun" in order to match the seismic attack of the bass player, who's been rendered totally clueless because of monitor trouble. As far as the drummer is concerned, that's still no excuse for playing out of time, and the two of them have been fighting over tempos since the first downbeat.
Two hours later, when the gig finally ends, the tension could be cut with a knife. You quickly pack up your gear, vowing never again to stand in the same room with this band of tone-deaf, egomaniacal monsters.
How is it that a group of otherwise well-balanced, mature music makers can suddenly degenerate into an unruly, uncompromising pack of thugs the second the show starts? Is it a matter of fighting for the spotlight? Fear of forgetting some tricky changes? Pent-up frustration with a drummer who still doesn't know all the intros after three years on the job?
The fact is, not everyone's cut out to be a cog in a musical machine. Ask any worthwhile solo artist why they don't work in a band anymore and you'll hear phrases like "big ego," "totally frustrated," "bloody basketcases"- you get the picture. Unfortunately, the Used Instruments section of the classifieds is daily proof that many bands expire much too quickly; not because of musical incompetence, but personal incompatibility.
If your band's marriage is on the rocks, you and your cohorts should consider adopting some of the following coping mechanisms in order to keep things on track. Ultimately, it's a matter of playing ball or playing all alone. After all, where would the world be today if Keith really had thrown Mick out the window way back when?
Get there early
Rushing to a gig is a sure-fire way to create bad vibes, which tend to show up in a performance. It's not hard to see why players who arrive on time would be resentful of bandmates showing up late. Being at the venue ahead of schedule allows for valuable downtime to relax, check out the gear, and go over cues and rough spots. It also goes a long way to beating the pre-flight jitters. But if one member of the team is late, it blows everybody's cool (including the club owner's). Plus, how are you going to have fun when you've just spent an hour driving like a maniac, followed by seven minutes of frantically wiring up equipment?
Err to the early side, especially if the gig is a good distance away. Overestimate on drive time and allow an extra 20 minutes for your own setup before soundcheck.
Eat to the beat
What's food got to do with it? Try downing two Whoppers and a large fries and then see how much you feel like playing afterwards. Many performers treat the gig like an athletic event: Neil Young, for instance, favors a quantity of plain pasta for its energy-producing carbohydrates. And stay away from the fermented beverages until after the show (and after the ride home).
Know what food is going to make you feel good. Don't overeat. Don't be a drunken dope.
Have you got everything?
Anyone's who's ever had to make a mad dash to find a 9-volt battery or an open Radio Shack knows all too well about the hazards of poor packing. A simple inventory check before you hit the road can save you tons of aggravation in the long run. By the same token, make careful note of all materials you went through during a gig-cables, strings, picks-and replace them immediately. Or you may find yourself right back at Radio Shack the following Saturday night.
Check your gig bag before leaving home. Make sure everyone agrees who is responsible for stands and PA gear. Since you're now in the habit of getting there early (RIGHT?), do another check before the set starts.
Don't change the program
Spontaneity might work for some, but generally speaking most of us do much better with a little organization. Write up a well-balanced set list, tailored to the venue and the crowd. If you can't give everyone a vote, consider rotating the set-writing so that each member gets a turn from one week to the next.
Draw up a set list and make sure everyone has a copy. Agree ahead of time how the set might change according to crowd reaction. Agree ahead of time on encores. Don't indulge your ego by throwing in fills when they haven't been there in rehearsals.
Keep it down, and maintain steady volume
Turning up to 11 might work for Nigel Tufnel, but you can still get that extra push over the cliff without engaging in volume warfare night after night. Be respectful to your bandmates, as well as your audience: blend-don't blast. You're going to incur the wrath not only of your band but of the soundman if you keep changing your volume.
Set your rhythm and lead volumes ahead of time. Listen to the soundman -- he knows the room best. Remember that it sounds different to you than it does to the crowd.
Don't be crowd-controlled
The audience is a little thin; the bar's got five TVs tuned to the playoffs; there's a drunk in the back who calls for "Skynyrd!" in five-minute intervals. Do you think that looking bored and playing lousy is really going to make things any better? You're playing, they're paying -- so get happy!
Stick to the set list. Be the bandmember who keeps everything together, not the primadonna who makes trouble. Do the job you came there to do. If the situation is bad, grin and bear it -- just don't book the place again.
Here's a handful of other avoidable problems:
Don't wig every time another bandmember makes a mistake. It kills the energy, and the crowd sees it.
Don't get distracted being an entertainer -- be a musician first. Your first responsibility is the music, so don't comb your hair and flirt with the audience when the band is ready to start another number.
Recover from your own errors. You hit three clams in your first solo, and then missed the entrance to the bridge. Keep going! You'll make fewer errors when you're in a good state of mind.
Stick to the plan. Your bandmates are expecting you to play what you played in rehearsal. Don't throw everyone for a loop by adding fills all over the place or taking extra solo choruses unless everyone has agreed to keep the format loose.
Don't play between numbers. You'll have your chance to shine in the song. Warm up ahead of time, and let everyone know you're ready for the next tune by shutting up.
Keep an eye out for trouble. If your bass player breaks a string or your drummer cracks a drumhead, they're going to need your support. Watch for trouble, and think about how you can help cover them until the tune is over.
Remember that everything in a band, like any democratic situation, is cause-and-effect. Instead of throwing a small tantrum over some petty musical grievance, shrug it off and move on. Fights between Richards and Jagger or Daltrey and Townshend might be legendary, but 99% of them happened offstage. There's an awful lot of emotion and ego on any bandstand, and it's up to each player to keep them in check. Be a pro and let the music flow.