Another awful music gig

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We posted a list of the worst music gigs – and many of you added your own – but wait! There’s more…

Stories from musicians about their worst music gigs ever

In “Tales of the worst music gigs ever,” we shared a handful of on-the-gig horror stories and lessons learned from them. While those stories were all wrenching in their own rights, below is one from New York bassist Dmitry Ishenko that stands in a category of its own.

About five years, Ishenko received a call from a Russian saxophonist friend asking him to fill in for a show that same night, due to a last-minute cancellation. The gig was backing up a “somewhat famous Russian pop star” at the Millennium Theatre in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, which was one of the main venues for touring Russian acts and variety shows at the time.

The catch, Ishenko explains, is that he was being asked to a) play guitar rather than bass and b) mime the guitar parts, as the entire show was pre-recorded.

“After a few attempts to decline, and given that my friend was truly in a bind, I reluctantly accepted,” Ishenko says. “Borrowing my friend’s black Gibson SG, I headed south to Brighton Beach.”

As he arrived for “soundcheck,” Ishenko saw that the rest of the band was already on stage — his sax player friend as well as a drummer, bass player, and keyboardist, “who was sporting one of those four-octave Casio keyboards that we all had as kids,” he describes.

“I made my way to my designated spot, right next to a beautiful Fender Twin Reverb guitar amp that was already turned on for me,” he continues. “The elderly soundman instructed me to plug in, but to remember to keep my master volume all the way down, while making sure to move my fingers along to the music. The pop star was nowhere to be seen, probably warming up in her dressing room for a show that she wasn’t even going to sing in.”

Show time arrived, strobe lights began bombarding the audience, and a deafening four-on-the-floor Euro techno beat poured from the speakers. “The pop star leapt on stage in a frantic dance, as if shot out by some circus canon,” Ishenko says. “At this point, I need to tell you that, given the last minute circumstances of the gig, I was completely unfamiliar with her music, so all of my miming had to be a real-time reaction to what was being blasted through the speakers.”

The first song, a techno pop number with no guitar in it, went off well. “I just pretended to be playing some sort of one note funk rhythm,” he says. “No big deal! It got far more complicated after that, though. The next song presented a problem.”

Halfway through the tune, Ishenko “played” a blazing metal guitar solo. “It wasn’t too fast, and as I got into my Guitar Hero pose, I felt like I nailed it. Next song — quasi-metal riff over that same techno beat and another guitar solo, this one fast! I panicked. There was no way that people wouldn’t notice that it wasn’t me playing. I turned around, facing the muted guitar amp, so the audience couldn’t see my fingers.”

After that came a ballad, to which Ishenko faked some subtle acoustic guitar arpeggios. “I was thrown a surprise, though,” he says, “a romantic nylon string guitar solo, which I did my best to fake on my black, mean-looking SG. And for the next song, I had to pretend that I was Slash playing with Michael Jackson. The pop star flew towards me from across the stage and engaged me in a hip-shaking dance as I was showering her with a barrage of fake notes.”

The evening continued in a similar vein, with the singer regularly running up to dance with Ishenko and him trying to react as quickly as possible to the music, often turning his back to the audience when he felt that his guitar-syncing was too obvious. “The whole time, two thoughts were spinning in my head,” he says. “One was me mentally cursing out my friend who got me into this mess and the other one was praying that no one in the audience would recognize me. Being of Russian background, I did my fair share of work in that scene, plus some of my relatives and family friends live in Brighton Beach.”

As the gig finished, Ishenko packed and moved to exit as quickly as possible, resolving to forget everything that had happened. Before he reached the door, though, his phone rang. “My grandmother who lives in San Francisco was calling,” he says. “‘Dmitry, did you just play in the Millennium Theater?’ she asked. My heart sank. How the hell did she know? Apparently a relative had been at the concert, recognized me on stage, and called her. The relative said that the band was great, but suspected that the singer wasn’t really singing live. I got recognized after all!”

Lessons learned from the experience? “Never take a miming gig, even if it’s with a pop star or your friend is begging you,” Ishenko says. “You will look and feel ridiculous! Also — you never know who is watching you.”

Do you have on-the-gig horror stories of your own? Share them below!

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Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download now through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.

Guide to Gigging

Read More
Tales of the worst music gigs ever
Gig Etiquette – Set-Up and Breakdown Habits To Live By
Help the soundman get you a great live music mix
Ditch the pre-show performance jitters
9 things you should never do on stage

13 thoughts on “Another awful music gig

  1. As a singer/songwriter, I get booked to play venues that will presumably have attendance that’s say not quite Madison Square Garden. Restaurants, coffee houses, etc. You expect a small group, living room style audience in certain places. So I was not expecting much when I was booked to play a solo set in restaurant in a quaint downtown area in Fredericksburg, VA. I lived there at the time, but I had never even been inside this place.

    Upon arriving to set up, I was greeted by the young hostess and saw just two women seated a table – the only customers in the place! No worries, I had friends coming by and maybe the dinner rush would pick up later.

    I joked with the two ladies about how lucky they were to have a private show all to themselves, and a few songs in, a handful of friends showed up, ordered a beer and appetizers. No dinner rush ever came. After 45 minutes, the two women paid there tab and left, as did my friends who wanted a more happening place! Who can blame them!

    The manager came out and looked around at the room, which consisted of me, the manager and the hostess. I asked matter of factly, “Do you want me to keep playing?”
    He replied, very irritated, “I pay you to play. You play.” And stormed off to the back of the shop.

    And so I played. To the hostess – the only other living soul in the room other than me.

    Halfway through the first verse, the hostess joined the manager in whatever back room they could hide in. So there I was, playing my guitar and singing in a restaurant that had literally ZERO people in it!

    No one. Just me.

    After another couple of songs, the manager mercifully said we were closing early and I could stop, so I packed up and left.

    That place isn’t there anymore, but I will never forget his words of encouragement of “I pay you to play.” Yes, you do. And is we’re lucky, we can all find someone who will pay you to play! Even if the audience is less than what’s in a mirror!

  2. This probably won’t be the worst story here, but it was one night I will never be able to forget, even after I die.

    My first band played a gig at a different club than what we were used to. This was the early 90s, and hair metal was no longer the thing, but you couldn’t tell the crowd at this club any differently. Our band usually played at a more hip place up the street, but this gig was paying, so we did it.

    Anyway, we were told by the sound man that we were opening for a special band, relative to the club, and we might need to cut our set short for them once they arrived. We actually got six songs into our set, and were getting a great reaction from the crowd (definitely better than our usual place), when the sound man asked us to make the next song our last one. After we got off the stage and the next band set up, the sound man promptly took his place up there with them…as their singer!

    I need to describe this guy, too. While about half the band was wearing the usual glam metal trappings, and actually looked halfway decent at that, this guy was wearing an old, beat up black tee, grey sweats, a sweatband around his head, and very old white sneakers–nowhere near the effort the others had put into their look. Worse, he was very fond of showing off his ability to sing the syllable, “YAWWWWWW!” He did this every chance he got, in the same high falsetto, with a bit of vibrato, and sounding very much like Axl Rose or someone like that when he did it.

    The first song played, and the drummer promptly put a hole into his bass drum head, so he asked our drummer if he could borrow ours, which was agreed. While the other bass drum was large, our drummer played a significantly smaller one for what he thought of as a more punk sound. The other band’s drummer was shocked and a little put off at the difference, but he quickly adapted.

    The band then proceeded to play a three-hour set. While I’m certainly not knocking their chops, I can say that no one in the band looked very enthusiastic about what they were doing, except the singer and the audience members, who were going bananas. Every single song was a painfully obvious rip-off of some famous rock or metal song, punctuated in between by the obligatory crowd-working and more of that ridiculous “YAWWWWW” stuff by the singer.

    We were stuck! I had to go to work at 7am the next morning, but I couldn’t leave, because the rest of our gear was loaded into my station wagon and had to be unloaded at some point. Eventually, the three-hour set ended, and we were able to load up the bass drum and leave. I didn’t get home until 3am, and I think I called in the next morning.

  3. There was a pianist who got hired to play a gig in the Poconos with a dance band. Upon arriving, he was told that the rest of the bill would be a comedian who was bringing his…chimpanzee. At the end of the show, there were limited spots for dinner. The chimpanzee got to sit at the table and eat dinner while the musicians were shunted off to the kitchen.

  4. Years ago I was working with a wedding band, playing a really big wedding at the Ritz. The bride was an attorney, and really, really into control. She’d taken our 4-page song list and, with a magic marker, had obliterated all the songs she did NOT want played, which was about half our list. (Of course, the magic marker made it impossible for us to tell what she’d X’d out, which doubled the trouble of following her wishes.)

    One particular song she hated (though not for musical reasons) was ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ We were ordered not to play it, even though it was very popular at the time.

    About halfway through the wedding, a very old gentleman tottered up to the keyboard and asked for ‘Wind Beneath My Wings.’ I explained that the bride had banned the song, so the man said, “Well, I’m her grandfather, I’m dying of cancer and I want to have one final dance with all my granddaughters.”

    So, I decided that a dying grandfather trumped a control-freak bride, and we played the song. The old guy danced with several of the young girls, and had a huge smile on his face.

    A couple of weeks later, the bride’s mother, also a piece of work, called me. She was furious. “You were TOLD not to play that song. Why did you play it?” So I explained about the old gentleman and his story of cancer, and then I asked, “Was he telling me the truth.”

    “He was,” she snapped. “But you still shouldn’t have played the song!”

    That’s why they call it the wedding wars, I think. Sometimes you just can’t win.

  5. I play drums, but occasionally take a gig on percussion. Some time ago, a friend called asking if I could play percussion at a party job. The gig was for a few musicians to play along with a DJ to make it more entertaining. I was told I could bring whatever instruments I wanted and to dress colorfully. Sounded easy and I was open so…

    Turned out to be a big Bar Mitzvah event with around 100 12-13 year-olds running around. I had brought congas, a djembe, and a bag of hand percussion. First thing I did was to hide the bag, but that couldn’t keep their hands off my drums. I played most of the gig in the middle of the dance floor, and actually got a conga line going a few times with my djembe on a shoulder strap. It was grueling, but here’s the funny part…

    They had also hired guitar and sax players to play along. This was when DJ’s still used CDs, and changing the tempo also changed the pitch. When the DJ tried to speed things up, the pitch would rise. We tried to explain to him that he couldn’t do that in this context, but the guy didn’t get it. For most of the night the keys were all over the place, mostly “in the cracks”. At first, the guitar and sax players frantically tried to adjust, but after a while they just gave up. It sounded so bad, all we could do was laugh…

  6. It was Winter time, we were in Mountain Home Arkansas, a little town in NE Arkansas. The week of the show we had a terrible ice storm, power was out all over the state. We made our way to the gig, you guessed it, when we arrive the whole town has no electricity. So were thinking Great, what to do now.

    Somehow the power returns, but only to the venue, still the rest of the town has no power. This was a 2 night booking, so the first night went great, seeing as no one else had power, they all came to see us. After the show, we had no place to stay, so the owner was kind enough to let us stay at the club overnight, bad part is no beds or showers, but there was plenty of booze, and they had a kitchen. We ended up sleeping on some smoking couch’s and of course the floor.

    The second night things were looking better for us. Huge crowd again, and an older man that frequented the club was up dancing everysong, and dancing with all the younger hotties that were about.

    It must have been our 2nd set as we were finishing, and there was the old man out there cutting a rug. We stepped off stage and went and sat a table, the older man is sitting right behind us. All of a sudden out of the blue, i turned around to gage the crowd, and i notice the old man just totally pass out in his chair, we get up to help, but as you may have guessed it, it was a heart attack and he killed over right there. And of all songs to be playing was “Crocodile Rock”, what a way to go eh?

    So i guess you could say we played so good, we really killed them that night….

    After they got the guy out in the ambulance, the manager came up to us and told us to get back on stage and liven the crowd up…. Well, that was a hard act to follow….

  7. What Mr. Ishenko went through is what practically all bands and performers had to do on national television programs such as “American Bandstand,” “Solid Gold,” and “Soul Train.” The artists and bands faked, or “lip synchronized,” their movements to the recordings of the songs which were playing. Dick Clark, Don Cornelius, Al Masini, and producers of other shows of that type apparently wanted the viewer to make the connection between the artist he/she was watching and the record, thereby helping to sell that artist’s record. While I prefer to play and sing my songs live and for real, if a producer invited me to “lip sync” my songs on a major television show, I would be willing to do it, as long as the producer was paying me a fee that was worth such an effort.

  8. Piffle on the Russian star gig, that is just a tiny inconvenience and a bruised ego. Try being MD for Legends in Concert, hiring local musicians to open the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina showroom, (still running there to this day) dealing with an out of control Elvis who berates all women. Add to that, you are playing bass where the fire ants crawl up your legs while you are trying to perform..they eat into electronic wiring too. Then one promoter who sells one of the singers a lemon used car..and later runs off with the show’s profits. Oh, and it’s burning hot onstage at all times. The most fun I never had.

  9. Here’s my story:

    Back when I was in my very first “real” band, (which meant we actually played in front of people, not just each other, but getting paid was still a while away!) We would take about any chance to play in front of other people, which led to a lot of interesting gigs…one time on a back porch in the middle of nowhere, once on the front stoop of the local pawnbroker, but aside from the locations, they were pretty standard gigs. The gig I’m going to tell you about sounded standard but was anything but…It started when some friends of ours in another band offered an “opening” slot for them at a halloween party they were throwing. These guys were pretty cool guys and had played gigs with us and were returning the favor. Sounded cool. they said they were getting a “large space” and there would be “tons of people” there. Ok. sounds good so far. Fast forward to that night. First, we get lost. the other band’s directions were not the greatest, but hey, we were excited about the gig and left early, so the setback didn’t hurt us too bad…we finally arrive at a run-down, unused burley tobacco warehouse(!). Ok. Huge space, but, warehouse party, right? We haul our gear in only to find a huge empty, leaky, a cavernous space with about 20 people milling around (including the other band). Where were the tons of people? Must have had other plans. We set up, plug into the sketchy electrical outlets, and start to play our set. All is ok, other than a mostly uninterested crowd (what little there was), and more natural reverb than you can shake a stick at. Then the scariest moment of my musical career…In the middle of our set, while I’m taking a lead, standing toward the front of the area we were playing, (no stage, mind you), I see an orange blur out of the corner of my eye, and think, “I need to step back”, and as soon as I do, a skid-steer forklift plows right by the front of where we were playing missing me and the lead singer by maybe a foot or less. I look over at the singer, mid-song with a “WTF?” look on my face and only realized later that the crazy drunk piloting the forklift (who was the “caretaker” of the warehouse) would have killed me if I hadn’t taken that step back! We finish our set, and in the middle of the load-out, the “caretaker” walks up to me and slaps me on the back, and with booze-soaked breath, tells me “You sure play a mean guitar, son..” oh well, at least he dug the music…As for the rest of the night, we got to see the other band implode on stage (turns out it was their last gig), and I ended up playing bass for their set with the remains of the band. We got lost (again) on the way home, but we all survived to play another day. I’ve played tons of gigs since, but this one is definitely one of the most memorable!

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