Tips or beer.. do we play for free?

Recently my colleague and fellow musician, Daedalus Howell, posted an article to his blog and in his printed space in the Sonoma Index Tribune about how so many local consultants that have put in years crafting their expertise are constantly asked to give up their talents for free. The debate rages on in the local musician community here in Sonoma Valley as well, and reared it’s ugly head recently with yet another venue offering “tips and beer” in exchange for a musical performance. I have been a performing musician for over 35 years in what I would call a semi-professional manner. I have made money playing music, not enough to make me rich, but enough to feed my AGS problem (Acquired Gear Syndrome.. the habit of acquiring gear that you probably will use once).  I have been on both sides of the story. I’ve played ‘just for tip’ gigs that ended up netting me more money than I would have ever asked for, I have also played well paying gigs that before the first set even ended, I would have given all the money back to leave right then.

I have also done the freebie gig that led to actual paying gigs, that I would have not gotten had I not played the freebie. I have also done many more that never got me anything but exposure, from which many local musicians are dying.

There are so many problems with playing live music these days that I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll honestly try to stick to the topic. And in in the full spirit of disclosure, this is my blog and totally my take. I encourage you to comment.

Back when I first started playing clubs in the early ’80s, bands got an average of $300 a night for a bar gig. Beers were a buck. Now beers are $4.50 and the average pay a bar band gets?.. you guessed it.. $300. Simple math would tell you that inflation alone makes that performance worth $1200 today.

If I am playing your venue ‘just for tips’ and your joint is so busy that without the band, you would have had Curly, Moe and Larry at the bar, even though the agreement was tips only, throw the band a bone after the show. Your cocktail waitresses are leaving with way more in tips than anyone in the band will make, and thanks to the band and the people they brought in, the waitress won’t be asking you for a raise that week… or quitting.

If the place is hopping and you are paying the band nothing while you sell way more plates of food, drinks, whatever than you would have without the band, then it is your duty to have one of your waitstaff work the room with the tip bucket.. twice a night. The band can’t do it.. they’re busy entertaining your customers that are buying things from you.. trust me.. patrons are not gonna not have that one more beer just because they tipped the band 5 bucks, but they’re also not gonna walk to the front of the stage and put the 5 bucks in the bucket either. It’s a two way street.

If you are a (bar, restaurant, coffee shop) and you clear away a 10×10 foot area for a band to set up in the corner of the room and provide them an outlet that may be in close proximity to where they’re playing and might be on the same circuit as the microwave, you are not a nightclub, and you can’t charge a cover unless all of it goes to the band. Period. You are also not the late  Bill Graham. You are a restaurateur or innkeeper. The band will draw people in, do for them what you’re in business to do when they arrive. Don’t charge them for the privilege of coming into your establishment and giving you money for things.

Most of the people the band will bring in will be their friends or family, as the venue has probably not advertised at all and EXPECT the band to not only play for next to nothing, but bring in people as well. These poor folks have been coming to see the musicians in all their configurations of bands for longer than you will ever know.. be nice to them.

You wouldn’t ask your chef friends to ” stop on by the store on your way over and pick up some food.. maybe you can cook something up” or your mechanic friends ” Hey, bring your tools, I’ve got a problem with my car.” If they offer.. Great!! But you wouldn’t expect it. Most musicians have day jobs, this is their passion, most would probably rather play than not play. It’s time to stop taking advantage of their passion. They are not solely vehicles to help you sell your wares. It’s nice to be respected and acknowledged for what is probably years of playing and practice that made them what you’re enjoying today.

Rockin’ in San Rafael

I’ve been playing in San Rafael for easily the last 30 years or so, in one way or another, either at rehearsal spaces like Hun Sound, The Music Spectrum or Marin Recorders or at clubs like

New Georges

Pete’s 881

Or the Fourth Street Tavern

So when the AC/DC tribute act High Voltage asked me to sit in on bass to play the Tavern on Jan 3, 2009, I jumped at the chance. Now, mind you, being a musician comes with quirks.. we just can’t help it.. we all have silly/stupid things we do or don’t do before a show. Back in the day with Southbound, I wouldn’t eat at all before a show. Southbound was a Southern rock tribute act that I was in for 10+ years and we were a 4-set, 9-1am deal. Typically I’d eat at 2 in the morning somewhere. The Graycoats, Flanelhed, and many 1-night stand acts were all 1 set acts, but typically the 1 set in those bands took up as much energy as the whole night in a cover or tribute act.

So my buddies would all go out to eat and I’d hang at the club and they’d come back with tales of Italian, Pizza, Chinese and Sushi. I may have had a bag of chips at the bar. It was just something I did.

Even now I have to have ’space’ before I go onto a stage to ‘get my head together.’ It drove my wife crazy. ” What the hell’s wrong with you??” was the usual. It only seems to happen when I’m going onto a real stage. Playing a casual gig or the corner of a bar doesn’t invoke the same emotions. If I have to sing for a 4 hour show then no eating before, but I digress.

Now that it doesn’t take as much for me to ‘get my head together’, this particular night I think I’ll step out and grab a bite of something lite.. Pizza? nah.. Chinese? Thai? Italian… nah.. Ah.. Sushi.

I belly up to the bar (sushi that is) and order up the chef’s combo. A California roll and 5 pieces of fish. No sake or beer.. I have a show and I’m sure I’ll be drinking later. As I look around, it dawns on me what a freak show San Rafael has become.. between the wanna be gang-bangers and flat out weirdos, you could easily think you’re somewhere in San Francisco. So I finish up and make it back down to the Tavern.

Mind you the Tavern is not Taj Mahal. It’s what I would describe as a mid-level dive bar, but a cozy fireplace and pool table and a long haired bouncer to keep the real A-Holes out, and it makes for an OK vibe, as long as you’re not a single woman by herself. I walk in and see the person I’ve known for 3 years but have never actually seen or talked to.. my NBF Mel. We met on the internet (Stop it..we’re both married with children) and have stalked each others web presences and it was almost like seeing an old friend again, for the first time.We carry on a little and meet all the companions and all is good.

Sound check is next and, mind you, I’ve never played with this band.. never even rehearsed with them, so sound check, to me, is almost like the audition for the rest of the night… “is he gonna suck or not?” they’re all thinking. We whip out Rock and Roll Singer (which just happens to be one of my favorites and one I actually knew well) and seem to have passed the audition.

We hit the stage about 10p.m. and I have 2 t shirts on, one long sleeve and a short one on top. Bad Move. By the 5th song I’m drenched in sweat and my hair is soaked. Shaking your head for 5 tunes is more work than I recalled. We have a nice first set and off the long sleeve shirt comes. The second set is fairly uneventful as well. The band sounds pretty tight and if you didn’t know I wasn’t their regular bass player, I don’t think anyone would have known.

The third set is where the action starts. I’m starting to sweat again.. and not the ‘whoa it’s hot’ sweat.. but the hot flash sweats. I think ‘Dude.. you’re getting old.. suck it up’ but they don’t stop.. and then the mouth starts salivating… and it gets worse. I then start to think ‘Dude, you’re gonne puke..’ I try the whole mind over matter deal but matter is winning out.. and fast. During the middle of the namesake song, High Voltage, I make it to a point where Angus is going to take a lead break. Thats it. I hang up my bass, dash out the door around the corner to the alley and the Sushi makes an encore appearance.

The band has no idea where I went or what happened. So after the song they find me in the alley. At that point I’m feeling pretty good. I have a little water and then they ask “Are you Ok to finish the show?” I think for a minute.. what would the real Cliff Williams do? He’s a f-in rockstar.. Of course you finish the show!! So I strap it on and we bang out another 4 tunes.

I’m not going to name the Sushi bar but let’s just say it was ‘killin’ me and i don’t think it was the fish as it tasted fresh, the crab salad in the California roll seems the likely culprit. I’m sure I’m not the first person to hurl in the alley outside the tavern and am pretty sure I won’t be the last, but, once again, a new tale gets added to not just my book of tall tales but the bands as well.

Long Live Rock and Roll…

Bone Bash – 10/5/04 – Clearchannel Pavilion

First let me say that when I bought my tickets from the Joe Satriani fan club (I know..) I thought I was getting an evening with Joe for 2 hours or whatever.. so when I found out it was this other thing I was hopeful that it would all be good.. but probably not better than 2+ hours of just Joe. I also must say that the sound guys should all have their asses kicked.. I’ll touch on all that later…. So we get to the Clear fuck Pavillion about 4:45, park in the 20 dollar lot and in we go. Standing in line for an 8 dollar beer we see Dennis Lordan and Jon Wiebe with their fancy comp tickets.. He asks us to go backstage with them but my special 100 dollar tickets don’t seem to allow me that privilege.

Now… back in the day, the bands played in the order they were billed. Apparently that doesn’t happen any more as I thought I was missing Dokken but I was actually missing Thin Lizzy as I heard the end of The Boys are Back in Town and we started downstairs only to be met by a throng of people going the wrong way had an actual band been playing. I run into my buddy Murf and he tells me how great Sykes and Gorham were with shredding double leads and Strat and Les Paul tone thru Marshalls. Mind you I’d have enjoyed all this in row 10 had I known about the bill change.,.. and they weren’t done changing it yet..apparently now it was time for Blue Oyster Cult. So there we are in row 10 with our 8 dollar beers at the Bone Bash with bikers and metal heads in black regardless of the 100 degree heat and what are the sound guys playing?? Disco.. really… loud… metal heads around me are yelling “.. Turn this crap off!!” at the top of their lungs to no avail.. anyway Blue Oyster Cult hits the stage right at about that time when the sun is in between the roof and the trees and myself in row 10 and the stage are bathed in sunlight. These guys must have been all the original guys as they look like 30 years of R& R had hit them.. well.. maybe not the drummer..he still had rock hair…I have to say I don’t own any BOC CD’s and if there’s any vinyl in my house it was left by an old roommate….but I recognized all the tunes and I must say had they had lights, longer than 35 minutes to play and not Deaf Ed from Uncle Charlies doing the sound, it would have been a much better show..They were good. Towards the end of Don’t fear the Reaper this guy comes out and jams with them.. some thin Hetfield looking guy with a blue strat.. He starts doing what looks like shredding with Buck Dharma but since the sound guy can’t find the mic for the amp he was using, I’m not truly sure the guitar was even plugged in.. anyway later I find out it was Brad Gillis. Joy..

So now it’s time for more 8 dollar beers and Dokken. I have always liked Dokken, being into pop and metal all at the same time and I must say that the new guitar player, formerly their attorney had all of George Lynch’s licks down to a T and did them effortlessly.. Don had a little trouble with the highs but all in all it was 35 minutes of Dokken’s greatest hits.. Susan hated it and was getting a head start on another 8 dollar beer but I thought they were pretty good. Now it was time for who we actually came for.. it was getting dark and Joes set was going to have lights, the screen and the whole 9 yards. Susan almost got up front but for lack of a green bracelett she was relegated back to row 10. Joe’s guitar techs spent an easy 30 minutes arguing with the sound guys trying to get the second guitar to actually make sound and to get Joe’s guitar to come thru the monitors.

Joe hits the stage and after about 1/2 a tune of the sound guys actually start to get some tone thru the mains. I like Joe but his first album was Surfin with the Alien and I must say.. I think the alien is Joe as he has turned himself into one different lookin’ dude, but my guitar playing friends.. he could truly be the best all around rock guitar player of our time.. His licks and tone are truly second to none, on top of that his music has remained relatively in tact thru the Hair band days, grunge, techno etc. The top 2 bands had no amps on stage.. only speaker cabs and, for whatever reason, Joes were mic’d about 3 inches from the top and left side.. no where near the middle of the speaker. Now… Joes Band.. Campeletti is a great drummer … no problems there.. Matt Bisonette seems to play bass… but rarely, it seems, ever with the drummer.. maybe they’re that tight but he still offends me.. Now… on to Galen Henson. My friends… any of us could be this guy.. I don’t know why he’s there.. apparently he used to be Joes guitar tech and maybe since he wasn’t ever anybody there’s no ego thing but this guy doesn’t even play the second parts of the songs as they are written… He basically plays bar chords all night.. on top of that, Joe is bending and stretching his strings to new heights and using the same ax for 3 and 4 tunes but Bar Chord boy has to have a new guitar each tune….maybe I’m just jealous…So Joe plays for almost an hour and showcases 4 or 5 new tunes with many of the fav’s. I will say the show was good but I thought the G3 set from last year was better. To prove we were there look at the pic Here

Susan could have left now but I wanted to see Deep Purple not having seen them since the reunion with bitter Ritchie Blackmore. At this point I am no longer drinking 8 dollar beers but 4 dollar waters. I go down a little early to see Highway Star, as Deep Purple always opens with Highway Star… but not today..While Joes db level hit 100+ from time to time, Deep Purples started there.. not that screaming mid range loud.. but concussion loud… you felt it more than you heard it… they obviously had MUCH more power thru the mains than all the other bands…. so there you are .. on the crew… making sure everything works… don’t you think SOMEONE would have checked the lead vocalist of the headlining acts mic?.. apparently not as Ian Gillian comes out belting and we can’t hear a sound… apparently the monitors were working as they were shocked that they got booed after the first 2 tunes, having no idea how the sound guys (again) were fucking up. Anyway.. Ian gets a mic with a cable ( I guess it was the wireless fucking up) they press on and if you close your eyes, Ian’s voice sounds as good as 1974… signature.. Roger Glover and Ian Paice were good and pro as well… It’s too bad Jon Lord retired as I don’t think anyone replaces him.. Donny Airey tries.. but he’s not Jon Lord. Steve Morse… what can you say.. an excellent player but so out of place with this band.. for me anyway.. his tasty licks just don’t belong… he’s not nearly as pissed off as he should be.. Yngwie would be a much better fit… or some old pissed off rock guitar god… like.. oh.. I don’t know.. maybe Blackmore??? Unfortunately Deep Purple was twice as loud with half the tone of Joe and Steve’s Musicman Guitar’s with Dimarzio pickups are never going to cut it.. for my likin anyway..So we cut out about 10.. my buddy Murf says that they went on to play some Deep Purple classics till about 11:15 or so, but like I said in the beginning… I would have been happy with Joe alone.

There you go… My next review will be Southbound at Vinnies….

G3 – Satriani-Vai-Yngwie 10/25/03

We get to the Clearchannel Pavilion about halfway thru the first set, Why? Well because the whole world other than Sonoma sucks for traffic and I truly didn’t think it would take 1 hr 50 minutes to get there.. but it did..The weather is nice tho. So we get in, grab a beer and head down to the seats.. not bad either.. they must have released these seats at the last minute or something as I can’t believe no one got these before I did, as all the seats are full and spilling onto the lawn…. only 5 days before the gig.. we’re 3 rows back in the permanent seats on the left side.. 30-40 feet from the stage. We see Yngwie (heron referred to as ‘Vay’) and my friends.. this guy is huge.. I mean Elvis size.. Jeff Carr.. we have nothing to worry about..but Vay still must think he weighs 130 lbs, as he is in tight leather pants and has his shirt all the way open.. just hangin gut.. But he is shredding.. He has 5 Marshall stacks with 2 heads and is using them all..even the bass player is playing thru Marshalls.. Vay is doing all the classic vay tunes.. swingin his guitar around.. only to be stopped by his gut.. he must have done more rock positions that night than I have ever done in my life..even rips the strings off one of his Strats in the middle of a tremolo solo. He is truly one of the fastest players I’ve ever seen and his arpeggio sweeps are second to none.. he is actually better now than he was when he was younger.. He was singing a tune and the mic quit.. I was ready for him to start kicking stuff but he seemed to mellow in his old age.. Susan liked him but thought he was too much of a poser.. he did pose quite a bit..he ended with a medley of tunes from the first 3 albums.. very nice set.. well what we saw we go up and get a beer.

We’re up top and Vai comes on.. I have 1 Vai CD and I’ve only always thought he was OK.. wasn’t quite into some of the we go downstairs skeptically… Oh My God…. this guy proceeds to put on the most intense emotional guitar performance I have ever seen in my life. If you own a Vai CD and have never seen him live, don’t listen to it again until you do. Words just can’t describe the feeling this guy puts out and the sounds that he gets out of his guitar.. The guy sitting next to me has seen Jeff Beck 6 times and said that he had never seen anything like this.. On top of that he’s got Billy Sheehan on bass, Tony Macalpine on rhythm and some young protege on guitar as well. They’re playing thru Legacy cabs and Vai’s gear is off to the side so I couldn’t see his whole rig..He uses his guitar with the handle on the top for most of the set. They do a whole all 4 players playing each others guitar thing and Vai does shred and he does the usual arpeggios, although after Vay you have heard all the arpeggio sweeps you need to. The fast playing and shredding were not the best part of his show.. the emotion he puts into his playing was unbelievable.. He ends the show with a version of ‘For the love of god’ that is just blistering.. gave me the kind of chills up my spine like the first time you heard Freebird live.. he was absolutely unreal..Susan had never even heard of Vai before this.,. but she is now a big fan….so we go up and get a beer.

Joe’s up next and having just seen him 2 weeks ago at B. R. Cohn with the Doobie Brothers, I figure I had seen most of the show.. no way..completely different set.. same guys.. Joe is playing thru 3 Peavy triple XXX’ amps and using a variety of Ibanez hot rods. This is obviously Joe’s gig.. he has only his gear on the back line and all the lights known to man. He comes out and does everything note for note.. feedback, tremolo sweeps absolutely precise.. and almost snickering knowing full well that no one else can do it like him. He plays a version of ‘The Crush of Love’ off the first album.. let me tell you.. this guy has at least a 7 fret reach.. his hands or fingers must be huge..If you’ve ever heard that song there’s that long run in the middle of the song that must consist of 200 notes and he does it.. note for note.. I was laughing at the end as I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.. Joe really does kick ass.. Susan liked him best.. in her words .. ” He just came out in jeans and a T-shirt and kicked ass.. no posing..”.. and that he did.

Then it was time to bring everyone else out. That is when cultures collided. They start with a version of Neil Youngs ‘Keep on rockin in the free world’. ..picture this… Satriani, Vai and Vay jamming to a Neil Young tune.. I didn’t know how to react.. so I just sang along.. then they start with some other covers with massive guitar solos, call and response routines etc.. They bring out Neil Schon.. now they’ve got 5 lead guitar players on stage and about the time they launch into La Grange I figure it was time to mosey and get a jump on the traffic as, truly, Southbound has done better versions.. turned out to be the right move as it was the last song and we got out of the lot no problem. .. time home: 55 minutes.

Pat Travers – 10/10/03

(From an e mail that went to my band at the time, Southbound)

I went to see Pat Travers at 19 Broadway in Fairfax.. a place half the size of the Viking in Novato. Lou’s band opened and Crazy Larry was there.. he asked about the Pignose (just kidding.. but he was there..and amazingly still alive..). Ran into Mike Varney as well. Apparently Varney’s label has put out the last 12 Travers CD’s.. apparently not as big sellers as the old days. Pat uses different back up bands depending on where he is playing. These guys were from San Jose and have a band called ‘Wondereyes’.. or something like that. They book the gigs and fly Pat out here and do shows. These guys were lame and any one of us could’ve backed Pat as well. but they had pro gear and they knew Pat’s tunes.. but they had 2 rhythm players..who basically stepped all over Pat’s tone most of the night. I was in front.. literally 2 feet from Pat.. he comes out first as just a trio and jumps into a version of Highway 61 revisited that if you closed your eyes you’d swear it was Johnny Winter in 1977.. with an old 60’s Les Paul tuned to open ‘G’. and playing slide like there’s no tomorrow… then he jumps into Voodoo Chile..”No Way”.. I’m thinkin…. He then puts on an even older double cutaway Les Paul with a old factory tremolo bar , and the rest of the lamos join in, and proceeds to play every f-cking Pat Travers favorite you can imagine..

Hooked on Music, Life in London, on down the line.. and I’m realizing… “Hey.. this guy stole all my licks!!!…’. I can see now where I learned how to play.. even my unorthodox patterns of playing scales were right there in front of me.. laid out faster and better of course.. but he played the same patterns as me.. (or I as him.. as it were..). Anyway.. he plays for an hour and change and ends with this version of Grand Funk tune that kicks ass (apparently the new CD is covers,.which I will procure).

So I go outside to get some air and there’s some kid out there talking about how he hadn’t seen such a rock show like that since he saw ‘Crossroads’ at Pete’s 881 about 6 months ago..I ask him Crossroads?? He says.. ” Yeah.. there was this crazy guy with a Marshall and a tremolo bar and this other guy with a Strat and they were just balls out..” I tried to convince him that the Band was Southbound and I was in it.. He was kind of buyin the fact that it was me but wasn’t sure the band wasn’t called ‘Crossroads’??. Maybe we should change our name….