A couple of years back I was live on BBC Oxford with my old band Ragdoll. The traffic news had just interjected and we were about to start our third and final live lounge song, but our main guitarist was still engaged in changing tunings, or guitars, or moving a mike stand – I can’t remember. I do remember leaning over to (BBC Arts Editor, when not hosting a Sunday morning local radio magazine show) Will Gompertz’ ear and hissing ‘Fill! Fill!’ – which fact he promptly reported on-mike, providing him with most of the seconds needed to cover us being ready to carry on!
So last night I was playing a pub St Patrick’s night in west London. I’d been subhired by a function band, themselves the main act on the bill after a duo using backing tracks and not one but two Irish dance schools. (Incidentally, I wasn’t able to pay much attention to the second of these as I was busy setting up, but the first was my first close-up live exposure to formal Irish dancing and the speed, athleticism and precision of it (emphasised for me by being audible as well as invisible, the shoes must have something like taps on heels and toes) was mind-boggling – all the more so for the disciplined imperturbability from the waist up). There may have been more before I got there, the place was certainly making a night of it.
My job was twofold: add fiddle to the relevant Irish or country-oriented numbers of the band’s set, and do a short solo set of tradi Irish folk. And the musical proceedings I would be involved in had been impeccably planned and prepared – set list in order with keys sent out, rehearsal in advance of all the things I was joining the band for, break between the two band sets fixed and agreed as the point I’d do my solo spot, ready to go.
Well, more or less. Slight inconveniences like a crackly speaker lead and a PA mixer without phantom power were readily enough overcome with a bit of extra time and some contingency on the hardware front. I think there was one point I plunged into an intro (on a traditional song I was supposed to introduce, not changing an arrangement!) without tap-in as the drummer had corpsed on the arrangement for that song, and one when I had to be grabbed back to play as I didn’t hear the band were skipping a song I wasn’t playing on!
So far most of the way through the first band set. Then without warning a roughly A1 size Irish flag behind the drummer’s right shoulder drops off between songs, bringing with it a windowledgeful of emptyish glasses onto the guitar amps and mixing desk.
Acting a model of calm, the frontwoman asks me to do some solo stuff and I break into some jigs. At the end of which the crowd are taking to me quite well but cleaning up glass and spillage, restoring the flag and getting everything in order is proceeding slowly – ‘two more I’d say mate’ according to the drummer. Carry on with the set, assisted by some completely impromptu bodhran, really feeling the heat in a rammed pub with fancy lighting by my feet and needing my fingers to move fast and accurately because there’s no one to cover and not much room for manoeuvre when you’re doing folk dance tunes solo. One reel set and a somewhat questionable voice & fiddle rendition of Sally Gardens later (the PA doesn’t seem to be doing my fiddle tone or my singing many favours other than in the volume stakes) and we seem to be ready to go back to script – just when the guitarist finds the amp he’s using with his electric isn’t producing any sound. On to a hornpipe set; the crowd are still applauding enthusiastically but even the keen dancers seem to be reaching the tail end of their endurance for high-speed straight down the line traditional fiddle tunes.
Luckily at that point (with two-thirds of my set used and me not very keen to use my intended closer of Danny Boy given how I felt about Sally Gardens) the amp decided to play ball and we were back to business as usual. Not surprisingly without the planned set break or the remaining two solo numbers up my sleeve, and I wasn’t complaining by that point!
The thing is, you can prepare all you like, but there will always be contingencies beyond your control when you’re playing live. And I can’t say often enough that the most characteristic identifying feature of music work is not that it’s freelance, or that it’s creative or artistic or not desk-based, but that it’s (apart from, to a limited extent, high-budget studio recording) real-time. You have to play then, and keep playing then, and cover if necessary, and recover afterwards.
It may be generally true, as my first girlfriend’s father used to say, that ‘perfect planning prevents p***-poor performance’. But for live music, it won’t prevent interrupted or rocky performance. As well as preparation, you need flexibility up your sleeve to pull something out of the bag when unplanned things happen anyway. Which is stressful, but part of what makes it fun, and secretly one of the things working musicians wouldn’t want to do without: the satisfaction of a happy audience even though extra obstacles were thrown in your way.