Facing indifference

Last night Nelson and I played the Glasgow West End BeanScene, lurgies having attacked Mary and Lyns. Although the place was pretty full, we performed to splendid indifference from the audience. In fact, of course, they were not an audience – they were people out to meet their friends in a cafe and have a chat. Only a couple of songs drew a smatter of applause, which I interpreted more as a gesture of compassion than appreciation.

So how does one respond to indifference?

I could see various strands of responding and reacting (a response being conscious and chosen, a reaction being involuntary) going on as we ploughed through each song.

My first reaction was the inner voice saying ‘they’re not paying attention – get their attention’. The standard responses in such a situation are to talk to the audience in a friendly and humorous way; to make eye contact, especially with anyone who does look interested; and generally to be outgoing. This is good performance practice regardless of how well it’s going. It had little success. The reactive inner voice, now a bit alarmed, says ‘play something they might know’.  This I would class as a 50/50 motivation – 50% kindness to the audience, as it can be a relief to hear a song you know in the midst of a set of stuff you’ve never heard before, but 50% the panic of the attention-seeker – ‘try something else to make them like me!’. My response was to play my unorthodox loop-based version of the Beatles She Said – not the best cover for such a young audience, and not well chosen because it’s so damn difficult to control the volume of the foot-pedal on which the looping depends. Not a success, but I don’t know what cover would have been appropriate.

From there to the end of the first set, the panic need to be liked, the feeling of hurt and resentment (‘why don’t they show me some appreciation?’) and the sense of doubt (‘I’m crap.’) gradually died down to be replaced by ‘let’s just enjoy playing’. We had a short break during which I realised the nature of the evening was not a concert but simply a social meeting place with music in the background, and my job was not really to attract or dominate their attention. For the second half, I gave my attention to  the act of performance and to the songs themselves, searching as always for new nuances, new ways to deliver lines, new timing etc, and listening to Nelson playing at my side. In other circumstances that concentration may have enhanced the performance to the degree that people were drawn in; in this occasion it didn’t, but it doesn’t matter. The fact is I was performing these songs with care and attention, which is my job. We finished the set, greeted the ‘audience’, thanked the staff for the food and drink and cleared off quickly.

These observations will probably be commonplace to seasoned pub singers – it shows the difference in expectation when you’ve spent a lot of time playing open mics and concert-style places like the Listening Room. For pubs and cafes where people have not come to see you, or to hear original material, you need to provide something more than lyric-based material – it’s not appropriate to expect them to give the same level of attention to words. You need textures, rhythms and variety, and you probably need to mix familiar and unfamiliar material. In the end I’m glad we went, and I enjoyed being back in Glasgow and talking to Nelson – and I learned a bit about performance.

Next performance will be different – at Thursday’s Full Moon I’m doing a set of more experimental guitar synth electronica (with vocals), as well as a set with theG.co.uk, which is always fun.

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10 thoughts on “Facing indifference

  1. Hey Norman
    At least they clapped, eh? I remember playing in a punk band in the 70s (called at one point coinkydentally, The Innocents) at the Rothes Arms in Glenrothes (oh, the glamour). The audience refused to applaud, so we resorted to doing a cover (either Shaking All Over or All Shook Up – I cannae mind). I decided to employ a little theatrics by falling on my arse (only half meant I seem to recall). Onywise, this got the crowd going. They whooped and hollered after that. To this day I’m not sure if they were taking the piss, bathing in the raw rock and roll energy, or appreciating my balletic manouevres.
    Perhaps you could try this at your next gig:)

  2. Hmmm – falling down in the sedate ambience of the BeanScene may have been a winning tactic. Didn’t occur to me. Thanks Tom, I’ll keep that in my arse-nal.

  3. Norman. I popped into beanscene last night. Sadly I only caught the last two songs, both of which I enjoyed. The penultimate song, in particular, was a corker – what is it called?
    Unfortunately I was in the process of desteaming my glasses as you finished the first of the 2 songs, hence unable to show my appreciation, next time I shall whoop. However I did applaud at the end of your set and I can assure you it was through genuine appreciation!
    Cheers!

  4. Thanks Dave – nice of you to write – given what I’ve written you’ll see how much I appreciate it!
    I think the last two songs were ‘The Ballad of Bob Dylan’ and ‘The Wolf Who Snared the Moon’.

  5. Norman – why not try some soundscapes at the beanscene – fade into the background in the way in which, from your description, it would appear the “audience” in such venues would like you to (this is meant in a nice way btw!!!)
    Tommy, I too have graced the stage of the Rothes Arms. T’was in 1980 with my band Capital Models, with a young James Jamieson on Bass. It was – pure rockin’ man – they liked our songs – they loved our cover of Let’s Spend The Night Together….

  6. Norman, I haven’t dipped into your site in a while now, but enjoyed the ‘Facing Indifference’ article.. find it hilarious actually. There is only one way to deal with indifference and that is to be indifferent yourself. Indifferent to praise, indifferent to the odd beer can thrown your way or half empty cup of mocha. I treat all performances as something for myself first and foremost. A rehearsal, practice, a trying out a style or a part of my persona or voice. If the audience like it, it’s a bonus. If they are indifferent, it gives me the freedom to plough through material I would like to work on for my own ends. Of course, you could do what Jim Morrison used to do. Just turn your back on them and play for your band members. But in all I loved reading the story and your own inner turmoil as you valiantly attempted all ways to get their attention. You could probably, most effectively, smashed your guitar and walked off stage shouting, ‘JAVA DRINKIN’ FUCK HEADS!” That would have grabbed their attention and maybe a mention in the news.
    I think ‘Bean Scene’ means just that.. coffee…chat.. and maybe bongo playing or the odd beatnik poetry reading in the background.

  7. I agree with Norman – it didn’t matter ultimately that the audience didn’t care, as long as we felt we’d done a good job. And, given the restrictions placed on us by two band members cancelling, I think we did. I was wondering if I’d been in that cafe talking to my friends, whether I’d have enjoyed the set? I think I would. And, as it turned out, through the kind words of Dave above, someone did enjoy it.
    The Rothes Arms you say? Was that the one near the Kingdom shopping centre? I grew up in the next town (Leslie), but was glad to escape to Edinburgh at 16, so I was always too young to go there!

  8. I used to judge a performance a success if just one person I didn’t know beforehand approached me afterwards and said they’d enjoyed it. I agree with Electra – after all, if we were entertainers rather than, ahem, artistes, where would we be?

  9. I don’t agree 100% that you adopt the ‘artist’ persona and just play for yourself. If you have people in front of you, even when they haven’t deliberately chosen to see you, I think you have a duty to take them into account. They are people after all. The artist/entertainer axis is a continuum, and we’re all somewhere on it each night we perform. If we get a good response, we’re actually more likely to veer toward the ‘entertainer’ end and try to give the audience more of whatever it is they like. That’s not a bad thing, but way I balance it is to try to ‘do it for the songs’ – to give them the best vehicle and getting ego out of the way to whatever extent I can.

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