One of my favourite parts of being a musician is getting to meet other musicians. During the summer of 2019 I managed to secured a support slot at a tiny venue called The Queen Street Brewhouse in Colchester. The slot was support to a young, up and coming Blues/Rock band from Cambridge. Having stalked them on social media I found out that they played all original music, had an EP out and were working on as new one. This band had been playing some large venues, done radio interviews and had also been nominated for a songwriting award. Needless to say I was expecting big things. One thing bugged me: videos of them playing live were few and far between. This had been a common thread I had been finding with so called ‘harmonica experts’ on Facebook around that time.
I finished work at the plant in Norwich and drove straight to Colchester and to the venue, parked up and grabbed my gear; my pedal board, a bag of leads and a case of harmonicas. The venue was tiny but cozy and reminded me of the Triangle Tavern in Lowestoft. There was a great choice of ales, regulars were propping up the bar and the décor was what I would call ‘ramshackle chic’. The permanent stage and house PA showed me that they regularly had music on so I was expecting some sort of appreciative music-loving crowd at the very least. The main act had already started setting up so I waded my way through the empty drum cases, leads and howls of feedback and made my way to the stage to introduce myself.
“Hi, I’m looking for Jake,” I grinned at the pretty young people who were holding instruments, microphones and the like.
“What’s your name?” asked a chubby, guitar-laden young man in a stripey shirt and black fedora.
“I’m Paul Gillings, nice to meet you.” I proffered my hand to shake, fixed my grin and made eye contact.
“I’m Jake,” he said, returning a rather floppy handshake.
“Nice to meet you,” I said again. I offered my hand, name and grin around to what I suspected were the other band members, one of whom just stared at me and the other two offered a shake but gave no names. Was I supposed to know who they were?
“We haven’t got a sound engineer,” Jake shrugged, “we normally have someone do this for us so we don’t know what to do.”
I’d been in the exact same situation a million times myself so I felt for the young fella, I wondered if I should help out. I know my way around sound gear quite well and I was pretty sure I could get a decent sound for them. I opened my mouth and was about to offer to help when Jake piped up again.
“This is the smallest venue we’ve ever played,” he said, “and we’re never playing here again.”
“Wow,” said I, amazed at their meteoric rise to venues with house PA’s and sound engineers in 8 short months of forming.
It is true to say that I have spent a large part of my burgeoning music career dealing with and solving sound issues. I own two PA’s of different sizes that I choose between depending upon the size of the venue. It almost seemed unfair to me that they hadn’t had the experience of having to deal with lairy musicians that ‘need more reverb in the monitor’, or a Bass player that insists on DI’ing his instrument only to thrash the hell out of it and blow the speaker. I was once in a band that was asked to support a ‘larger’ band at a pub in Norfolk. We were told to bring our own PA to use for our set, when the main act finally arrived they hadn’t bought a PA so they asked to use ours. We obliged but then had to put up with having to sound engineer them. Complaints then ensued from said main act about the poor quality of our PA. Never again, I though to myself. Yet here I was, being tempted to help again. I had to stop myself, keep my mouth closed and let them learn the hard way. To be fair it sounded like they had had a pretty easy ride to stardom so far so what would a little humbling lesson in bad sound hurt them? It might even do them good, I thought to myself.
“Who’s the organiser here? Has anyone spoken about start times?” I asked,
“There is no organiser, or maybe it’s the landlord. I think,” Jake replied.
I decided that with his attitude Jake would be best to sort out his own sound issues. I went over and sought out the landlord. The landlord was a very nice chap indeed, who informed me that they had a licence to serve alcohol until 12 midnight. My stomach sank as I realised that this was going to be a long night with this band.
I grabbed a drink and sat at the bar chatting to the locals whilst the main act continued to set up. The band continued to complain about the lack of sound engineer and criticise the house PA. I found the locals and bar staff to be great people. I was indeed correct in my initial assumption that they liked their music. The small gathering at the bar were looking forward to what was going to be on offer, told me about the regular music that they have in the pub and how much they liked the place. I felt welcomed and my initial nerves slowly dissipated as I chatted to those lovely people. My sinking stomach feeling subsided and I was really looking forward to sharing my music with these people. Our conversations at the bar were punctuated by more howls of feedback and as the band had now managed to get the microphones to work Working microphones meant that their complaints were being projected around the pub for all to hear. A couple of music loving people I was talking to at the bar had overheard my conversation with Jake and were none too impressed with him. You never know who’s listening.
The band had made several references to their ‘fan base’ on their social media prior to the gig. Ten minutes later the ‘fan base’ that they had mentioned arrived at the venue. The lead singer’s grandparents and mum, all wearing the band’s promo T shirts. It was very cute. Amongst the entourage was also a professional photographer, obviously a friend of the band, but he really knew his stuff and had all the gear. The photographer snapped away as the band continued to set up. Peaking over his shoulder at the display on the camera I could see that this chap had a great eye and the photos looked amazing.
“They look great mate!” I complimented, “I’m the support act, if you manage to take any of me I’d be very grateful of a copy.”
“No probs at all mate, add me on insta and I’ll post them up.”
This was great. I could get some good promo photos as I didn’t really have many at the time.
I managed to get in a small soundcheck, I never really needed much, and sat back waiting to start.
“If you wanna start at 8.30, do 45 mins and we’ll go on after that for an hour. We’re off for something to eat.” Jake announced. So off they all trounced leaving drum cases, instrument cases and lead in the middle of the floor in front of the stage. Was I supposed to move that stuff? Did they normally have roadies do that for them? Are the venues they play normally so big that the staff cleans up after them? As much as I love being instructed by a twenty-something, stadium-playing upstart, I wasn’t about to start playing at 8.30 for all the tea in China. I decided that I would start when I wanted to. In the end I started at 8.45: there were people there and I was looking forward to sharing my music with them.
The main band walked back in from their feed at 9.20 as I was in full swing of my set. Were they hoping I’d be finished by then? I made a sarcastic reference to the drum and instrument cases that had sat in front of me whilst I played, which unsurprisingly fell on deaf ears. I finished my set at 9.30 and was immediately rushed by the guys in the band making to set up their gear. Even their photographer friend remarked that they should give me a chance to break my gear down and get out of the way before they came on to set up.
I was expecting good things from this band. I had read the hype, seen the T shirts and felt the swagger and arrogance of youth. Bring it on. I actually, believe it or not, love having my mind changed about people. It’s fair to say that my mind was not changed in the slightest upon hearing this band. Their unresolved sound issues aside they continued to sing off key, be out of time with each other and periodically the Bass player would stomp on a pedal that made the house PA speakers rattle and buzz horrendously. After twenty long minutes the band decided that they had had enough of playing so wrapped up their performance with an original number that we were encouraged to vote for in an online songwriting competition. Vanity press anyone? You know the scam: ‘pay £40 and send in your poem to get published in a book’. I looked it up and this was the same deal, just with songwriting and submitting your MP3 online. Total bullshit.
I had to be up in the morning so I didn’t hang around for my fee and wrongly assumed that the venue would be in touch about sending me my money. I can’t believe I made such a rookie mistake after all these years. Two weeks later the venue informed me that they gave all the money to Jake and that he was to give me 50% of it. I contacted Jake who told me that that was not the deal he agreed with the venue and I wouldn’t be getting any money out of him at all.
Lessons learned: 1) don’t believe a band’s own press 2) you never know who’s listening and 3) make sure you get paid before you leave a venue.