What do you make of musicians you love that just aren’t as good live? Do you still keep going? Does it turn you off the records?
—Irving in Melbourne, FL
I first saw Royal Trux at my college orientation, and I was mesmerized. My girlfriend (and future wife) had only two tapes at college, one of which was Cats And Dogs, and she played it for months straight. I found this very appealing. When the band came to New York again, I went to see them in the old Knitting Factory on Houston. The show was a mess, but I returned a few months later to be disappointed by them again at the new Knitting Factory in Tribeca. The records kept getting better and better, though, so I suffered through another show at the Cooler in the Meatpacking District, followed by a Positive Force charity concert in D.C.—a show to which they showed up in a limo and truly, epically sucked, to the twofold confusion of all the Dischord types.
After Royal Trux broke up, I started following the solo records of the songwriting half of the band, Neil Michael Hagerty, albums that are both masterful and weird. The Walkmen toured with Neil, and I watched every night, trying to wade through the endless guitar solos to enjoy his live show. It was hard. Neil is prolific, and I bought his albums as they showed up, almost every six months; they were better than ever. The last time I saw him was five years ago at the Hard Rock Cafe in New Orleans, of all places, opening for Hot Chip. He came on early, at 8:28 p.m., and he played for exactly 18 minutes. Every song had the same structure: two quick verses, followed by a wah-wah guitar solo. The drummer played an oompah beat for the whole set and looked a whole lot like Lindsey Graham. The crowd of 20 or so reacted less than any I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t negative, but a song would finish and people would just stand there—no applause, no complaining, no talking.
I looked at Neil’s schedule, and the next show was in Boston. It appeared this was the first night of his tour. I didn’t get it. Then there was their equipment: The drummer was using a floor tom with a kick pedal, and both Neil and his bass player were playing through practice amps. Neil’s guitar didn’t appear to be full-sized, either. It looked as though everything had been specifically chosen to fit into an economy-sized rental car. And thus was born the justification I put together to convince myself that the whole thing was… awesome. And it’s a pretty great joke when you think about it, right? Coming all this way in a tiny rental car with tiny instruments just to open their tour at the Hard Rock Cafe, playing for 18 minutes before driving 1,500 miles to—wait, what was the joke again?
What’s odd, though, is that if Neil had faithfully played his records, and had truly tried to connect, I think it would have made the whole thing less interesting. Some performers want you to love them—and that can obviously have its charm. But someone like Neil doesn’t. He actually goes out of his way to turn you off, and that has its place, too. I mean, somebody’s gotta do it. And if you find you can still like his records through it all, it’s actually very satisfying as a fan. You end up thinking that everything he does, no matter how crazy, is, well, awesome.
How do you feel about bands performing one of their classic albums in its entirety? I find this approach uninspiring and devoid of spontaneity. Unless it is a rock opera or similar album with a narrative arc, I avoid these performances.
—Joe in Boston, MA
Yes, I agree. I’ve seen a couple of these shows—Bruce Springsteen playing The River, for example—and there is something missing. Particularly if they play the record in sequence. There’s the promise of hearing songs you would probably never hear live, but what is it about knowing you’re going to hear them that takes the fun away? You don’t want to know everything that’s going to happen. But this concept will probably endure for a little while, because I think it’s still being sold with enthusiasm. And you’d be surprised what you can get away with by doing that. Certainly with parenting, but elsewhere, too. Southwest Airlines springs to mind: You stand in line instead of being assigned a seat! The pilot is wearing shorts! We’re stopping in El Paso! Wait, all those things are bad.
My name is Jacob Chacko. I lead a band called Cult Tourist. After a whole year of recording, playing locally, and gathering a rather large local following, we decided to go on our first tour. It was a disappointment. Every venue we played to was empty. We hardly sold any CDs, and it felt like we wasted a lot of money without the thrill of playing for people. As I write this, we are heading back to our hometown feeling somewhat dejected. I definitely learned the right lessons: Forget the bars. Look for the DIY spaces where people actually show up for music. And never take whatever following you have in your hometown for granted, because the rest of the country neither knows you nor cares about you. My question is this: How do I keep my bandmates’ enthusiasm up? We all love playing with each other, but I can’t help but feel like I failed them in some way.
—Jacob in Santa Fe, NM
First off, you’re right: It’s always surprising how helpful it is to get out of the bar circuit. It’s a different world—and often a better one. DIY scenes generally have one or two folks who arrange what bands come to town. Their approval means people show up. We banged our heads against the wall for 10 years in Manchester in the U.K. It always seemed like a place we should do well (big city, grim weather, thriving drug scene, no women). But it took a labor of love by a local promoter to get us over the hump there. He developed a plan to play three times over a few years, always in interesting places (churches, etc.), paired with local bands he specifically had in mind. By the end, Manchester was one of our best stops. Selling records is not the only way into a place. Find out which of your friends have had good shows in a town and ask who promoted the show, then get in touch with them. And word-of-mouth always means more than local reviews.
Now, Jacob, if you wrote in to get a “we’ve all been there” pep talk—sure, no problem, you got it. Because we’ve played to zero people, too. One person? All the time! But zero is a good deal more unusual. It’s funnier, too. Do you play those shows anyway? We usually did—unless the bar wouldn’t let us, which happened at a place called Gabe’s Oasis in Iowa City. (To this day the most disgusting men’s room I’ve ever seen can be found at Gabe’s. Worse than CBGB’s, which by the time we arrived had two-by-fours nailed across the toilet with a sign on the wall reading, “Don’t shit here.” After one of our shows, we came downstairs and someone had shat on the intersection of the two-by-fours. True story.)
On another occasion, a guy gave me the finger for the entire show. Never put it down for 40 minutes. Similarly, our first big national review for Jonathan Fire*Eater was written by a critic named Robert Christgau. It was just a few lines, but it said Rufus Wainwright sang and wrote better than us, even while he was sucking someone’s you-know-what. This awful turn of phrase might negatively affect Christgau’s career today, but those were different times. And back then, it wasn’t good for ours.
Frankly, I could catalog every less-than-ideal night, but hopefully this one story will put it in perspective. At Hollins College in southern Virginia, right in the middle of “The Rat”—our big hit, and our best chance to connect with people—the crowd left. Like… all of them. By the time we got to the cymbal hits at the end of the song, the room was totally empty except for us and our soundman, Pepperjack. It turns out the fire alarm had gone off, and we couldn’t hear it. (I don’t know why Pepper didn’t leave. It’s possible burning up appealed to him at that point.) But it says something about the mindset of the band that we just kept playing, as not some, not half, not even most of, but the entire crowd, quickly filed out. The moral here is: Stay strong, Jacob and Jacob’s bandmates. Give it another shot.