Nightmare Gigs

Manuel A. Luz

(Photo: Unsplash)

Any musician who’s played any length of time out there has one—the nightmare gig. You know, that one gig where everything just seems to go terribly wrong. I had one just recently, and while I won’t spare you the details, I will share that it involved an horribly out-of-tune piano, a dimly lit room, and a dead body.

But I thought, just for fun, I would share one particular nightmare gig—one that will go down as the most cringe-worthy, the most profound, and the most memorable. The following account is actually an excerpt from the Introduction to my book, Imagine That, so I hope you like it.

“It was the mid-eighties—the era of big hair, Levis 501 jeans with Converse high tops, and girls who just want to have fun—and I was in a local cover band called Fixation

“Actually, the band was really just a duo, although we would add a drummer or bass player, depending on the amount of money we were paid. My partner, Bob, sang and played electric guitar, and I filled out the sound with vocals, right-handed keyboard, left-handed key bass, and a drum machine triggered with my left foot. Armed with a play list that included Motown, trash rock, oldies, and post-disco, we played dive bars all across northern California, from Placerville to Stockton to Vacaville. My favorite compliment: “Dude! You sound just like a band!” 

Fixation was one of many musical expressions along the adventure of my life, one short on highlights but long on memories. I did it for a number of reasons. For one, I felt that I needed the experience of playing these hard four-hour sets. Also, I used the money to buy more music equipment. And finally, in a weird kind of way, I actually liked it.

“We were booked one weekend at the Woodlake Inn, a huge venue with an expansive dance floor and a wide bar that stretched along the back of the room. It was a convention hotel, with extensive stage lighting, a high stage, and the obligatory disco ball hanging from the ceiling, so our duo was swallowed up by the room. It didn’t really matter though, because there was no one there. By contract, we began playing our first set at 9 PM to about 150 empty chairs and stools, one bartender and two waitresses. It was going to be a long night.

“During the first break (and the first of many ginger ales), the double doors suddenly flung open, and about a hundred people floated in. Finally! A crowd!, we thought to ourselves, as a convention group had apparently let out for the evening. We hustled back on stage and began playing our best dance stuff: Huey Lewis, flat out. And as we finished the song with a big trash can ending, the crowd responded—with deafening silence.

“Beads of sweat began to form on our foreheads. Okay, maybe they aren’t Huey fans. So we quickly launched into an exaggerated version of “Caribbean Queen.” If there were one dance chromosome in the entire room, Billy Ocean would certainly summon these latent genes to the hardwood. But despite the pounding kick drum and driving bass (and the disco ball), the floor remained empty.  After the song ended, I could almost swear I heard crickets. 

“Everyone likes the blues, Bob reasoned, so we launched into a soulful B. B. King-inspired version of “Stormy Monday.”  And after that was over—yes, those were definitely crickets outside. I checked my watch and did the mental calculation. Okay, you can do this. Only 153 more minutes and it would all be over. 

“In desperation, we played a slow ballad, I can’t remember what—something by Hall and Oates maybe. And between verses, I squinted to see beyond the blinding stage lights. What I saw almost stopped me in mid-song. There, across the tables, were a hundred people—laughing, drinking, unwinding—and silently gesturing to one another in sign language.”

But there is a happy ending to this nightmare gig.

“We sat there between sets, drenched in equal amounts of sweat and irony. But then a few of the audience members, along with a speaking interpreter, told us to turn it up.  Way, way up.  You see, they couldn’t hear the music, but when we played louder, they could feel it. And after we turned up the decibels, they spent the last two sets dancing to every single song we played.”

Do you have a nightmare gig? I’d love to hear it.

[[Photo by Frankie Lopez on Unsplash.]

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