Sunday, 9 November 2008

The Year of Gigging Dangerously - chapter 1

The Year of Gigging Dangerously chapter 1


I’m playing the new album for the first time in front of a home crowd. Mum’s in the audience, in a position of royalty, on a plastic seat I brought her from backstage so she could rest her swollen feet. Other family members are in the audience. The electricity is palpable. I’m backstage drinking a beer waiting for the rains to come and drive everyone into my tent so I can entertain them and bewitch them with my acoustic strums. I finish my beer and walk into the Portacabin where I replace my empty with another full bottle of Dutch courage. My fingers are stiff and cold. I can’t warm them up. I imagine the first song will be robot strumming.

Rob’s standing next to me for moral support, and free beer. I take a long sip and prepare myself for another pre-gig piss. The stage manager walks past and I smile at him. He glowers and walks over.

‘How many beers have you two had?’
‘I dunno. Three each?’
‘You know they are for everybody not just you. We have a lot of acts on today.’
‘Aren’t seventy per cent of them too young to drink?’
‘Fair’s fair. If we run out, you have to go and buy me four beers. Understand? I know you’re the artist here but no one takes the piss out of me. Understand?’
‘Listen, understand this. This day is not about you. Understand? It’s about the community. Yeah? This is a community event. Understand? You are on the community stage. Yeah? Artists on the community tent do not go onstage drunk. Understand?’
‘I’m not drunk. Don’t question me. I am the key to you sounding good. I’m writing your introduction now to give to the compere. Because, you know what? They don’t know who the fuck you are. Understand? Yeah?’
‘Good. Glad you understand. Enjoy your beer. You’re on in ten minutes.’


‘When you on?’
‘In five minutes.’
‘Could I come up and beatbox in one of your tunes?’
‘Erm… I don’t know. This is the first time I’m doing this material. Maybe in a few gigs time.’
‘The opportunity is now, bruv. Besides, this is the community stage. Give back to your community.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘Let me know, yeah?’


‘Next up, we have a very special act. I’m sure you’ve all heard of him. Who here is a fan of Nikesh Shukla?’
‘Brilliant. He’s going to rock your socks off. Are you ready?’
‘Excellent. Please welcome him onstage. He used to be known as Yam Boy but now he wants to get married so he’s calling himself Nikesh Shukla so no one thinks he looks like a potato and because he is all man. Put your hands together and welcome your favourite comedy folk poet, Nikesh Shukla.’
‘Err… hello. Thanks for your warm welcome. Are you ready to folk?’


I play the first song so quickly that no one can hear any of the words, meaning they miss the main conceit of the song that makes the chorus so damned hilarious. It’s hard to write about playing music so averagely without sounding like Flight of the Conchords or Spinal Tap. But when the sheer amount of bands in London outweigh any semblance of fans, it’s important to document the triers and the doers and the deluded and conflicted.

I’m so desperate to impress my mum. The only reason she’s come to see me is because this is one of those cultural festivals that celebrate our combined heritage and she was going to be here anywhere. To have her son perform, on essentially the care in the community stage, is a proud moment for her. She will tell me afterwards that she didn’t understand a word of what I’m saying but I keep darting my eyes over to her to see if she’s digging the vibes. She’s staring at me with a vacant smile to give me the illusion she is paying attention, when really, she’s wondering what time Jay Sean is playing the main stage.

In order of importance from less important to most important, these are the people you need to impress at gigs.

Other bands: they may want to book you to play with them, or collaborate or think of you favourably down the line. Also, if you get famous before them, they’ll remember you and jealously tell all their mates in the pub they blew you off the stage. Of course it works in reverse too. And you’ve got a famous contact to call in. It pays to be friends with all the bands you play with on the off-chance they beat you to the fame spot.

A&R man: you really only need to hold his attention for one and a half songs because the poor underpaid fucker goes to so many gigs, he has lost his attention span completely. He now goes to gigs because he’s heard good things about the band or because he wants to say good things about a band so when they’re discovered, he was the first to hear the good things that were initially said about them that led to more good things being said about them. Also, A&R don’t sign bands anymore. They sign albums. So you don’t really need to impress him that much. Remember your independent spirit, go it alone, sell CD’s outside Topshop. Think of the dividends.

The three fans there for the music: once you get past the fact that the crowd comprises of the other bands’ friends, and you’re slick at playing your songs, you’ll start automatically start scanning crowds for the three real music fans left in the audience and you will turn your entire performance to face them so they can blog about you to their friends and add you on Myspace. Once you’ve hooked them in, you’re waging war on the machine man.

Your brand new girlfriend/potential new girlfriend: watching you gig with maximum confidence will make her want to bone you more. And she’s one more person to convince you’re good, cos once you’ve hooked her in, she’ll start inviting her friends down to see you, and your fanbase increases.

Mum: there’s no one more important in this world than dear old mum. She rues the day she let you buy a guitar instead of an accountancy calculator. You’re doing this for her validation. The better you play, the more she will love you.

By the time my between-song banter has garnered bemusement and I want to berate the audience for leaving in droves or watching me politely and hating me, I notice the tent is starting to thin. The second song is quite stiff, played with a heavy strumming hand and a quiver of nerves in my voice as I mangle words and images into a mess of half-executed messiness. The third song is marginally better, though desperate in tone, wanting to retain the audience I walked in to. Unfortunately, the act before me was a community dance project where disadvantaged kids learned traditional Bollywood dance and now it’s me, singing stupid songs about comics and politics. The shift in tone and content is uneasy, meaning that I am no longer relevant to anyone who came in to see some cutesy Bollywood steps or their children. My mum is looking around at the unrest in the audience and I want to switch her focus back to me. My next song is a well-known but odd cover version, like when Elbow did ‘Independent Woman’ or Travis did ‘Baby Hit Me One More Time’. People know the song and sing with me. I’ve managed to regain their confidence momentarily. At the end of the song, someone shouts to me to ask if I know any Bollywood songs. I don’t, I respond, but instead sing them a song about my favourite Bollywood actress and how she helped me to question my own opinions of identity. It’s a sweet sombre affair and the yawns are now audible. No one cares. And why should anyone care about a stranger’s issues.

By the end, I have run out of energy and enthusiasm. They don’t get me, I decide. All they want to hear is Bollywood and bhangra, not pastoral comedy folk. It’s the wrong festival for me. The wrong crowd. The crowd comprises all the archetypes present in my family, and funnily enough they never come to my gigs unless I’m playing at this particular festival and here I am, and all I can see is the curl of their collective lips. I come to the end of a song and glance at my watch to see how long I’ve got left, I’ve got to the point where I’ve lost perspective on how long I’ve been onstage. I’m not wearing a watch. Half-looking at the idiotic MC at the side of the stage, I ask him if I should do one more. Unfortunately, I forget the amplifying equipment in my face and it booms out over the tannoy.

‘No more, no more, please no more,’ some middle-aged woman sat cross-legged directly in front of my mum’s chair squeals. Mum smacks her round the back of her head. She turns round and screams at my mum. ‘Your son is awful. My son could do better.’ Mum stands up, all 4feet and 8 inches of her and points an accusing finger at the screaming woman. ‘Your son is a wanker,’ she retorts venomously.

‘My mother, ladies and gentlemen,’ I quip and the audience laughs with me, suddenly we’re in unison, we’re working, we’re finally gelling. I’m about to launch into another song, another cover version they’ll all get. But before I can, bhangra-dancing his way on to the stage is my friend, the MC with the worst introduction skills in Christendom, grinning like a happy Larry, bhangra-ing over to me. ‘Who would like to hear one more? Eh?’ he coos to an unforgiving crowd.

Our telepathic goodwill connection is lost. They revert back to hating me. ‘No one. Get him off. Get him off.’

My mum is still standing and turns to face my detractors. No one can see her in the melee of apathy. ‘You leave my son alone.’

‘Haha, mummy darling defending you eh?’ coos the MC.

There’s nothing for it, I decide, and sing a jangly version of ‘Baby Got Back’ by Sir Mix-a-Lot which gets teenagers laughing and giggling, oldies furious and offended and my mum embarrassed she ever spawned me and celebrated my artistry in a field of her peers. I leave the stage and the soundman stifles a laugh as I walk past, telling me to not worry, fuck em, I did a good set, I smile blankly, the MC chases me and tells me I have 5 minutes left if I want to do an encore. He tells me I should be proud of the way my mum defended me and I did a good job but I should have done some Bollywood covers. He follows me as I make my way to the tent containing the rider. It’s still full and we’re near the end of the set. I open a beer, down it and open one more. I place 15 beers in my bag and go to find Rob.

Rob greets me with an outstretched hand. After all I forced him to endure, I owe him a beer right? Mum sits on her chair like the Queen of Sheba. People walk past her tutting. I walk up to her shy and slightly embarrassed about the whole thing.

She looks up at me with an aww shucks, parents just don’t understand look. ‘That bitch is lucky I didn’t beat the fuck out of her,’ she tells me seriously, like I’ve just fluffed lines in the school play. In one fell swoop she has reduced me to teenage panic and esteem.

‘At least we got free beer eh?’ says Rob.

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