"…When the room is noisy, smoky, uninterested in your act, and you
still get in the zone where you are 100% focused on the music, are
thinking of nothing else, and get transported to the place where it all
feels right, sounds good… that's the hardest and the best thing you
can do. Anonymous."
Gig-tough performers are most likely to connect with a crowd. This
is because they have developed the ability to do their best in any
situation. Part of that is the vibe they give off apart from the words
and music. The audience is smart. They detect how an artist feels from
the subtlest clues. There is no place to hide.
Entertainers are there to give. Whether they get back what they
want, or expect, or deserve is not under their control. Who would stand
in front of a stove and promise it wood as soon at it gives some heat?
Being gig-tough is a way of thinking. Attaining this mind-set is
simple, but not easy.
My Christmas Guitar Tour revealed the elemental truth in this
idea. Nineteen gigs in twenty-one days: an open mike feature, The Tam,
Borders Books, Passim, two radio interviews, restaurants, coffee shops,
living rooms. I hated the first several gigs. The sound was never
right, I thought I played poorly, I thought the audience was
indifferent, nobody bought CD's. I thought, "What am I doing here?"
Half-way through, everything improved. I started to enjoy
producing the music. People sang along, they bought CD's. Maybe the
secret is a good room, a good crowd, planets in alignment… but, this
is the same room, and the same kind of people as last week where I had
a hellish gig and died a miserable musical death. And I'm wearing the
same clothes, playing the same songs on the same guitar. The only
variable? My thoughts, and the feelings they engendered. After several
gigs in a row, I began to get over it, as they say. I was able to get
immersed in the sound of the guitar, executing the parts I had
carefully worked out.
One Friday night at Strawberry Fair I came out of the zone after
an extended improvisation on Moonlight In Vermont: re-harmonized
melody, dissonant chords… exotic scales to stretch the ears. People
politely clapping. Where? What…? "Whoa!… forgot where I was," I
said to the group grinning on my left. This is where I want to be every
time I perform. I have a better time, the audience is more entertained,
and it's what the pros do.
Martin Sexton performed two shows at Passim on December 28th. He
found the zone several times. Each time he did, the audience went with
him. They screamed and clapped. The deeper he got into a song, the more
they responded. His face turning red, his eyes squinting and shut
tight, writhing in place, belting out the song. The crowd went nuts.
(By the way, have you ever seen a performer doing all those things but
not connecting? This is the difference between actually being there,
and pretending to be there. The audience knows the difference. They are
smarter than we.) After the song, they yell approval. This feels good
to a performer. It feels good to Marty, so he tells them, "Oh, I do
love it when you carry on like that!" He grins widely, authentically,
slightly embarrassed. The humble side of him wants look down and
shuffle his toe on the floor. The pro knows he must stand there, open
and naked to accept the collective approval of the people. His eyes are
open. He looks out, taking in everybody.
Singer/songwriter Jon Carmen has said, "Playing to roomful of
attentive people is generally good, while playing to an empty room or
people who aren't listening generally sucks." Producer/songwriter Crit
Harmon observes, "It's better to work a room that features music and
has beer, than a room that features beer and has music." All true.
Divinely inspired wisdom, even. So we strive to find the good rooms and
avoid the bad. We regale each other with gig horror stories. On the way
to a new venue we imagine success, achieving the next level.
The one thing to avoid is thinking about, or dwelling in any way
on how the gig is going while performing. Because it affects the act.
We don't get in the zone, and are too aware of everything going on in
the room: Geez, could those two talk any louder over there? Is the
sound technician intentionally trying to sabotage me? This stage is too
high, I can't connect. This stage is too low, my space is being
violated. Oh, no! They are going to smoke right in front of me! A
performer either learns to deal and grow past the bad gigs, or they
quit playing. What's a singer/songwriter to do? Try this:
* Be humble–Humility comes from outside ourselves. Find a source.
* Be empty of expectations–Expectations come from our own thoughts. Try thinking less.
* Be gig-tough–Do a lot of gigs. Always be ready to work. There are
seven days in a week. When there are eight offers a week, then be
The purpose: to develop an ability to personally connect with the
audience via the music. Bruce Marks, Director of the Boston Ballet, was
interviewed by Gail Harris. She asked him what he looks for in a
world-class dancer. He said, "Well, everybody who comes to the Boston
Ballet is highly skilled. Technical perfection is a given at this
level. I look for that spark of human connection; a dancer who takes in
the audience with her eyes. Laura Young (Boston Ballet School principal
dancer) can make eye contact with three hundred people at the same
time. You can see it going forth from the stage out to the theater, and
back from them to her. The great ones all make that personal
Patty Smith was interviewed by Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh
Air. Terry asks, "You started off reading your poetry in bars?" "Yes,"
said Patty, "Normally they had bands, but on off nights, or as an
opening act, I would get to do fifteen or twenty minutes. At first
people would ignore me or even try to shout me off the stage. But I
stayed up there and wouldn't be driven off; eventually I started to
connect. The last few minutes they paid attention."
My intense Christmas tour re-inforced what I have learned about
performing. However, I could not execute until I leaped into the fray
and did it. I have now learned the only way out of the s–t is through
it. Not around, over, or under it.
My act is better. I enjoy gigging more than ever. I seem to learn
every time I go out as a watcher or a doer, so I resolve to get out of
the house even more in 1997. See you there.
released his first CD, Christmas Guitar, in November 1996. A cover-rock
band leader for twenty years, he is now an acoustic soloist, producer,
songwriter, and host of Java Jo's Open Mike. His next CD, Romantic
Guitar, will be released in February. email him at