Thursday 10 June 2010

Must the show go on?

Years ago I hatched the idea of having an armchair and a standard lamp on stage: before the band went on, a friend of mine, who frankly had no interest in music at all, would wander on, settle himself down and open a newspaper—which he would continue to read throughout the set. Only after the gig was over would he fold his paper, turn out the light and leave. The idea was to have something which both drew the attention with curiosity and expected meaning and at the same time undermined the idea that anything important or out of the ordinary was happening on stage at all.

Well, the idea amused me. The fact is that what goes on on stage is put on a sort of pedestal; and if you're going to stand on stage you must accept that you are being looked at—and that that is part of the job. How you respond to that is a very personal thing, be it through a cool, slick sneer, outrageous costumes, self-effacing silliness or an attempt to channel whatever the music is about. Or making a point of scarcely moving at all—hell, Miles Davis got away with turning his back on the audience, although possibly that was because he was already Miles Davis.

Another notion was to have two big flip charts on stage: before the performance you can wander among the audience asking them to suggest words at random, which you write down on the pages. Then, when the gig starts, you can turn a page on each flip chart at the beginning of each song. With any luck the random combinations of words will inject whole new perspectives on the songs, in an interactive, found-art sort of way.

The first time we played at The Good Ship in Kilburn we were struck by the enormous rear wall at the back of the stage and the projector that was directed at it. Oddly, I've never seen a band make use of this, but it gave us the idea of having a "Furbelows AGM" gig. Our drummer Mark, who works in the City and probably does this sort of thing for a living, started knocking up a PowerPoint presentation, a couple of slides of which I've included here. Sadly he never completed it, though I'd still like to follow through on this idea.

But the problem with all these on-stage wheezes is that they assume you have the space, equipment and cooperation of the management, promoter and sound guy. The reality is that the world of the Great Unsigned is less like a platform for butterflies to show off their colours and more like a cloud of flies clustering around a dead animal. Some promoters feel they need to process five or six bands a night and you're lucky if you get a meaningful sound check, let alone a chance to arrange pyrotechnics or a hydraulic coffin to spring out of in the first number. And it's amazingly how a stunt can fall flat and undermine you if it's not deftly done.

Years ago, in another band, we'd hired a hand-held strobe light. The idea was that during a particularly moody instrumental break in the set, the engineer would kill all the lights, leaving just our strobe. When the moment came, the singer grabbed the lamp and wove around the stage, playing the light artistically on the other musicians. But the stage lights failed to dim, leaving the effect largely unnoticeable. It turned out the engineer had misunderstood his cue: and as we launched into the next song, then every went pitch black. (I was playing a fretless bass in those days, and I discovered that it is impossible to play in the dark by touch alone…)

I was recently at a show at the newly opened—and rather beautiful—Salon d'Été, upstairs at L'Equipe Anglaise in Duke Street, and there was the ubiquitous dose of burlesque. One performer's backing music cut out 45 seconds in, leaving her with the dilemma of giving up, carrying on without it, or restarting. She did the latter—and at the same point the music cut out again. They managed to get it to work in the end, but you could tell she was simmering with ire. This was Vicki Butterfly, one of the best burlesque performers I've seen (and armed with some extraordinary costumes), but even she was stymied by the fact that if one technical element goes wrong the whole illusory bubble can burst.

Mind you, I think much of it depends on the honesty and conviction of how you do it. We had the mighty Tim Ten Yen at our own Cirque de Crème Anglaise night last month; I'd never seen him perform before and was quite taken. His slick yet mysterious pop songs would stand up perfectly on their own, but he augments this with strange angular dances, jogging, pointing and stretching like David Byrne crossed with Mr Motivator. None of this is explained. On top of that he dresses in a sober suit and tie. What makes it work is that there is not a hint of self-consciousness: this is no stunt, gimmick or fabrication—it's just what he does.

I always enjoy watching Paul Hawkins and Thee Awkward Silences, and you know there will be an eruption of odd costumes, masks and flying cuddly toys (I saw one set where Paul sang the first song with a rubber horse's head over his own; I was later told by a member of the band that Paul is actually allergic to the latex and had to time it carefully to get the mask off before his face swelled up and exploded). This is pretty ramshackle as stage antics go, and I've no idea how much of it is even planned, but again it's so unselfconscious that there isn't really any way it could go wrong.

I suspect that a lot of the time you have to be realistic and accept that you are playing in a pub, with all that that implies. And I also suspect that attempts to fabricate a "stage show" because you feel you're not interesting enough and ought to have one are liable to end in tears and accusations of wankerism. But if you go about it with conviction, honestly expressing whatever it is you are trying to get across to the audience, just as with your music, then you can put in a riveting performance, even in the pokiest, most sticky-carpeted pub.

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