We're not always a very coherent band to see live. We love the concept of putting on a show, it's undeniable, but for one reason or another, the amount of gigs we've enjoyed over the years has been minuscule. Here are some lessons you can draw for your own audience-facing endeavours, which would have saved a lot of pain if we'd have learned in advance:
1. Always practice the set beforehand
This gets at the heart of the basic problem; which type of Keshco is going to turn up to any gig. We all have low boredom thresholds; we get fed up with playing the same songs repeatedly. However, the gigs were spread apart and often the decisions about what songs to include were made last-minute. Other bands do well by practising the same few songs over and over. Sure, they're probably sick of them, but they're slick. Our ramshackle approach won't go down well if an audience doesn't realise that our set is a mere 7 plucked out of a possible 300+ songs (plus any number of improvisatory approaches).
This doesn't mean improvisation is impossible, but if you're going to try something off-the-cuff, you should have an idea about how it will (and will not) take place, and be properly limbered up. Many of our songs are pretty complex in structure, and winging it won't work. As our practice time as a group was usually minimal, it was essential we got used to practising our parts solo.
In 2008, we played an event for Resonance FM. We were shunted back to close the show. We had a synth-pop set planned, but the earlier acts were all relatively experimental fare, something we could easily have offered with a bit of forethought. With the sudden option of a longer set, I gambled that we could get away with resurrecting "Village Of Death", an eight-minute sci-fi epic Bob and I hadn't played for four years, Luke for six years. It was long, so l-o-n-g, and although I just about remembered the story, the chords were repetitive and how did the middle section go? A good alternative would have been a fresh freakout, of the type we often do during sessions at home.
2. Make sure you know how the instruments will sound together
In February 2008, we played a radio show on Resonance FM; our first radio slot (apart from student radio). We had lately been using partial backing tracks, to free us up for comedy/art moments; but arriving at the show we discovered we couldn't use the backing tracks, and ended up playing along to the auto-rhythm on one of our touring keyboards, a Yamaha VSS200. For whatever reason, they didn't have enough amps/monitors for a three-piece and couldn't get the keyboard volume high enough, and we weren't allowed to play quietly to fit with the keyboard; and so we couldn't hear the beat to keep in time. It shouldn't even need saying that you won't get a good radio performance if the band can't hear the rhythm. Of course, the audience at home are unlikely to imagine there's been a hiccup; they'll just think "jeez, this band don't know what they're doing".
3. Relaxation is not compatible with lugging equipment
I have a recurrent tremor that gets worse when stressed or tired. It's been there since childhood and will presumably get more bothersome over time. Carrying heavy weights tends to set it off. Gigs tend to set it off. Carrying heavy weights also causes inevitable stress. You won't be optimally relaxed if you carry your own equipment to gigs. For numerous reasons, we have usually carried our own equipment to gigs.
When we played a two-man gig at the London Triathlon for Scope in 2013, we carried an acoustic guitar, a Crate Taxi "travel" amp (10 kg), two Shure SM58 microphones, two metal mic stands, and a mini drum kit (snare, kick drum, pedals, hi-hat, numerous chimes). This was meant to be a scaled-down performance...
It is not ideal gig preparation for two or three chaps to carry instruments, drum bits, amplifiers, on public transport. It makes you grumpy, as well as tired, as well as inducing tremors. The flipside of the dilemma - if you don't have transportation of your own, should you make do with less, or just not play? Part of the fun of our music is the variation in sounds.
4. Make sure everyone in the band is happy
If you're unhappy to be on stage playing a particular song or style, it shows. Work through your differences beforehand.
This extends to the physical set-up as well. In 2013, we played a two-man gig at a cramped London pub. There were two microphone stands. One had a pivot, one was vertical. This meant the flexible one had to go for Bob while drumming, but he then decided not to sing. So, I was using the vertical one, unable to sit down and unable (due to the lack of organisation) to even find a suitable place to root both feet on the floor. Vertical mic stands are not conducive to being able to see what you're playing - I was having to lean forward to get close to the mic. It was obvious a bad show would follow. What we should have done is negotiated beforehand, and made do with one mic, and both sitting down.
Each of us has been on the receiving end. In 2011, at Bethnal Green Working Men's Club, the soundcheck was pretty much perfect. We came back for the proper gig, and all the levels had been sabotaged, and Luke's guitar couldn't even be heard. What we should have done is stopped, done another soundcheck, and definitely waited for them to fix Luke's channel; instead we ploughed on.
Bob's often had it the hardest, as he attempted to cope with a succession of differently set-up house drum kits. Worse, he plays with his kit set up opposite to most drummers. It's often treated with irritation when the drummer wants to fiddle with the kit, let alone to reverse the whole thing. In one way or another, there's usually someone from the venue or a "promoter" getting stressed over time, and we're the type of act that gets leaned on to hurry up, as they feel safe we're not going to punch anyone on the nose.
It's at times like this you have to think of your friend in the audience, who may be filming the thing for you. In a way that's the most important person to play to, as more people will see your gig on YouTube than were in the audience. You must make sure you have a decent performance for the camera, which means keeping the band happy and taking the time to get the levels right.
5. Don't take bad gigs
A major portion of any band unhappiness (which is also friend unhappiness, therefore doubly upsetting) has come from the lead-up to, playing of, and fall-out from, bad gigs. Think carefully. Does your band really want to put on a night in an out-of-the-way rough council estate in Southwark? Will it really benefit you taking a coach north to play an unpaid gig alongside uncomprehending Leicester teenagers? If it's someone else's night, are their aims radically different to yours? It's true that without the bad gigs, our gig total would be less than half what it is. But wouldn't we have enjoyed a string of home concerts more!
And with that, I direct you to the essential follow-up, Five Lessons To Learn From Our Gig Successes. It'll be along, right about now. Any time now. Here it comes now. It's... actually, stay as you were for a bit.