Thursday 22 July 2010

A tale of two gigs

It's been a relatively quiet time for us recently, but we did have a burst of uncharacteristic energy at the beginning of this month when we played Elysian Nights, at Dirty Dick's on Bishopsgate, and then the Water Rats the very next night. And the two gigs could not have been more different.

The idea behind Elysian Nights is to put on a show combining bands, comedy and burlesque, all with a vaudevillean twist. Given the, ahem, theatrical nature of the Furbelows, this sounds right up our street, and is not dissimilar to the feel of our own Cirque de Crème Anglaise (although I have so far eschewed burlesque—it is everywhere these days and I have seen enough pasties to last me a lifetime). In fact it is also reminiscent of one of the very first gigs we did: a thespian friend of Alex's, who is frankly obsessed with Peter Cook, started up a variety night at the Marquee Club; again, a fun idea combining, comedy, magic, burlesque and rock music. But it was made more complicated by the fact that the whole show was an homage to a (fairly obscure) TV series that Cook made in the 1980s, where Cook played the grumpy, foul-mouthed owner of a club in which a weekly show was taking place. So Alex's friend attempted to remain in character all evening, abusing the customers and telling everyone to f**k off (while presumably inside begging them to stay and make his night a success). Strange. Eventually he broke character and explained what he had been up to, but I think most of the audience left pretty mystified. Anyway, shortly after that the club closed down for the umpteenth time—I think that had actually been the seventh incarnation of the famous venue.

Elysian Nights has no such high-concept pretensions. You get one of the co-hosts doing an acoustic music set and the other one playing comedian MC practising picking on members of the audience, as comedians seem to feel they have to. You get a couple of—as I say, vaguely theatrical—bands and number of women taking their clothes off. But what I think they have done so well is to create a unified flavour to the evening (something I try to do with the Cirque as well). Aside from Alex's girlfriend Sarah (who had rather a heated stand-off with the MC about whether she should move up to the front seats or remain skulking at the back—she refused to be brow-beaten by a clown), not one person had specifically come to see us. I'm fairly sure that many had just come in to see what was going on although, at £10 a ticket, they may have been friends of the naked ladies.* Yet they paid attention, whooped and cheered and I received a number of compliments afterwards so they must have enjoyed the show.

This is the fantasy of being in a band: you play to strangers who love you and become fans. Everyone has a great night and you feel you must be going somewhere.

Sadly the reality is all too often like the gig we played the next night.

The Water Rats is a grand old place. It's technically The Water Rats Theatre Bar if you look at the sign on the front, and is next door to the Grand Order of Water Rats, a charitable association of people in the entertainment business. The performance space is indeed a little theatre stage and has the edge on many venues in that there is a genuine backstage area with access to the stage—pretty rare at our level (you normally "come on stage" by clambering out of the audience). Its musical pedigree is impeccable, having hosted Bob Dylan's UK debut in 1962 and also one of Oasis's first headline gigs. Even now they get some impressive names into that modest space. But in between that the current promoters, Monto (they even insist upon calling it Monto Water Rats), fill in by jamming six or seven bands on in a night.

It's the classic example of dispiriting "promotion". The acts have nothing in common (Monto are seldom even able to tell you in advance who else is playing) so there is no sense of an overall "show" being put together. The idea is that each band brings "their" audience and the promoters hope that this will all add up to enough bums on seats (or shoes on sticky floor) to earn them some money. (Not that the word "promoter" should imply that they promote the event in any way—this is entirely up to the individual bands; there isn't even a single Facebook event or anything like that.) Monto are among the most venal: they make no pretence of even being interested in music, let alone your music. All they ask you—and they keep asking you—is how many people you are bringing. In fact the only reason they asked us to play is that the last time we appeared there we apparently pulled about 18 people, which is frankly quite an achievement for us.

What makes it all the more depressing is that the live music room is separate from the front room with the bar, and during the performances the promoters close the connecting doors. I used to think that this was a noise abatement issue, but in fact they have a DJ playing in there too. (The message being: "Yes, I'm afraid there is a band playing in the next room, folks, but don't worry; we'll just turn up the music in here and you'll never even know they are playing.") They do have TV in the bar showing (silently) what is happening on stage, but on this occasion it was actually tuned to the World Cup.

Well, the long and the short of it is that for the most part our audience consisted of one girlfriend (Mark's this time). A couple of other souls came in for part of the set, but they clearly felt a bit self-conscious, as you have to make a definite decision to leave the pub area and come in there. Quite probably the smallest audience we've ever played to. Even our sound engineer kept nipping out to check the footie score.

Who knows how many of the members or fans of the other six bands might have liked our music if they'd heard it? It may be that they all relished the opportunity not to listen to the other acts, but I feel the layout of the place and the attitude of the promoters encourages this sort of divisiveness. A member of another band even had the audacity to come in only as we were packing up and ask Neil, our guitarist, if he could borrow Neil's instrument (had he just forgotten to bring one? Don't laugh—Alex has actually done that).

In case you're wondering, yes I did see the other bands, or at least until I had to leave to catch the last tube (I don't know how late they went on). In fact as I arrived a solo singer/guitarist was performing to half a dozen of his friends and he personally thanked me from the stage as I came in to watch.

Incidentally, something I learned from one of the Elysian Nights promoters was the story behind the name "Dirty Dick's". Back in the 19th century the basement room, where we were playing, was actually let as accommodation, to a couple. When the wife died (or left, the guy wasn't sure) the man just shut himself away. He kept paying his rent so the landlady left him to it. But when he himself died it was found that he had changed nothing since the day the wife went. Nothing had been cleaned and a thick layer of dust caked every surface (hence Dirty Dick). He had failed to feed the cats, who had died and desiccated—you can still see the mummified animals, along with other detritus, in a display cabinet round the back. Apparently, Charles Dickens heard this tale and based the character of Miss Havisham on it,

True story.

Oh, and I also learned that if the police close off Bishopsgate, the mesh of one-way streets round there collapses completely. After about an hour of puzzling (it was a bit like the Crystal Maze) the closest I could park with a carload of gear was two streets away. Fortunately I was saved by a posse of native bearers, in the form of the other band, The B-Movie Vampires, without doubt the friendliest vampires I have ever met. (Last time we played with them they helpfully painted trickles of blood from the corners of our mouths.)

*By which I mean literally friends of these ladies, not "Friends of the Naked Ladies" in some euphemistic sense, like being a "Friend of Dorothy" or a "player of the pink oboe".