The Cinema Bar is one of my favorite places to play in LA. The room where the music happens is pretty small but there is a nice patio out back where people can hang out if they want to talk. I played there in August on my birthday and during my set there were three women sitting at the bar who were the only ones talking, loudly. After a few songs I addressed them…
This is the kind of thing most solo performers; stand-up comedians; substitute teachers; and singer-songwriters have to navigate as part of their/our jobs. In this case, it seemed like one of the women tried to be more respectful of the performance but after one song she was drawn back into her friends’ conversation. You can hear in the video clip how one of them is particularly triggered by my attempt to draw them into the show (or give them an easy out).
I finished my set and as soon as I stepped outside for a breath of fresh air before off-loading my gear, one of the loud women from the bar approached me.
“That wasn’t very cool”, the woman said to me in an aggressive manner.
I was taken aback, and she continued.
“The way you called us out. That wasn’t very cool”
As I gathered my senses it occurred to me to say, “Well, it wasn’t very cool, you talking through my set”
To which she responded, “It’s a BAR.”
“Well, there is patio in the back….”
“That’s a smoking patio”, she said, “I don’t want to sit out there”
I didn’t know what else to say. The way she prioritized her airspace when it came to secondhand smoke, as opposed to secondhand noise, was revealing, but I was flustered and still had work to do, so I just left her there with my friend. According to him, when she tried to continue complaining about me, he said, “Don’t talk to me. I agree with the musician”.
The next day I realized what I should have said to her, “You were the only ones in the bar who didn’t know you were being rude. Everyone else did. I was doing you a favor by informing you”.
As I said above, dealing with talkative audience members isn’t anything new, but there was something about the hostility of this woman, her entitlement, that stuck with me. If I was talking during someone’s show and was called out, I would be embarrassed but I would also be apologetic. The idea of adding to my embarrassment by accosting the artist after their show to let them know how uncool THEY were for responding to my ruckus at the bar…is beneath even my low bar of shame.
Once, when I had “jazz sage” Mose Allison on my Radio8Ball show (where we answer questions by picking songs at random and interpreting them like musical tarot cards) I asked my mother to join the show as a questioner of The Pop Oracle. Mose Allison was one of her favorite artists. She asked a question about my grandfather who was in hospice after suffering a stroke. The answer to her question was Mose Allison’s “Your Mind Is On Vacation” with the line “Your mind is on vacation and your mouth is working overtime”.
When we came back after the song Mose told his story of the song’s origin, how it was about people who would talk through his shows, which really knocked the wind out of my mother’s sails. The song was written in the mid-1950’s and Mose couldn’t have known, nor could the listeners to the show, but my mother used to come to my concerts and talk through them loudly, which was something I tried letting her know was really disrespectful and hurt me a lot. My mother’s response wasn’t as hostile as the woman at The Cinema Bar. It was more of a shrug and a look of confusion as if she couldn’t understand why such a thing would bother anyone. But when she heard it from the mouth of one of her musical heroes, on her son’s radio show, how talking during shows just isn’t cool…it seemed like maybe it landed for her. I hoped so at the time.
In preparation for the release of my new album Recognize, De-escalate & De-code in early 2024, I’ve been playing as many shows as I can. Mostly in rooms where people don’t know me. In a lot of these places people who didn’t come out to see me are going to talk while I play. This is fair. Depending upon the venue, talkers can be less or more disruptive. If I don’t have a group of people who are there to listen to me, even if it’s annoying to me personally, I don’t think it’s my place to ask people to be quiet while I play. In those cases, it’s my goal to win over the room, or enough of it, to make the gig feel triumphant for those who caught on to what was happening at that time for those of us who got it. When it works it does feel heroic and I’m buzzing into the wee hours, but it’s not easy and I know this. You can’t pull it off every night in every venue. Sometimes the elements are just arrayed against you and when it doesn’t work, well, it used to kill me inside but now I just chalk it up to learning. If I can bat .300 I’ll take it. This tiny sliver of maturity is one of the great joys of being an on-the-verge-of-over-the-hill artist. On the other hand, if I do have a group of actual listeners in attendance and there is a minority of chatterboxes, as at The Cinema Bar, I do feel like it’s my responsibility to let the folks who are disrupting the show know this is what they are doing.
After my experience at The Cinema Bar I’ve been trying to find gentler and/or funnier ways to handle this situation when it arises, as it did a couple of weeks ago in Ashland…
It was a rainy Friday evening and I was playing Oberon’s, a great little bar in downtown Ashland, Oregon with a similar set-up to The Cinema Bar. A small wooden room with a bar and stage in front, and a larger area in the back where people can dine and talk. I had several friends show up, including a woman who was supervising a project I’ve been hired to work on. This woman is an old friend who I knew when we were in our twenties. Never romantic. Just pals.
She and her friend were seated directly in front of the stage when I began to play. When they started talking in the middle of one of my songs I was taken aback. I know this woman from a time and place when and where we treated each other’s work with an almost reverent respect. Maybe I just want to remember it like that.
It seemed like my friend’s friend was the one initiating the conversation and I know how that is…to be at a show and have the person I invited trying to talk to me as the performer plays. It’s embarrassing and not always easy to tell a friend to “shhh” mid-song.
I tried the old trick of singing directly to them, which did stop the talking for a few moments, but after another song they started up again. I let this go on for a couple of songs and then, remembering my experience from The Cinema Bar, and not wanting to embarrass my friend and her friend, I stepped away from the microphone and off the stage and leaned over to my friend’s table and quietly asked them if they could either stop talking directly in front of the stage or continue their conversation in the back area. I know I was quiet because my camera, which was right next to the stage (and my friend’s table) didn’t pick any of this up. In the version I have posted below I have cranked the sound as high as I can during the segment when I am off-stage and you still can’t make out what was being spoken just feet away from the camera.
During this brief interruption, my friend told me she’d just gotten news her father had been taken to the hospital, which I appreciated as a reason for her being disoriented and loud, but I had a show to put on at that moment and hoped they would understand.
I got back onstage and played my song “Jones’oponopono”, which I hoped might soften the interaction but something about my stage patter drove my friend (and her friend) from the bar before their food arrived.
You can see this all play out in the video clip below. The splotches on the image are raindrops on my camera lens.
Later in the set a guy at the bar was talking loudly to the bartender and after I finished my song I joked with the guy, “Hey, you in the pink hat. Do you like music? You don’t hate it do you?”
“Yeah, I hate music” the guy joked back at me.
“Awesome, we should write a song about that”, and then the guy, perhaps realizing what was up, put $10 in the tip jar and stuck around to listen to a song. My faith in the social contract was partially restored.
After the show I checked in with my friend who left during my set, via text. I was worried for her and concerned that if this blew up it might affect the project we are working on together. She wrote back that she agreed we should talk but she needed time to take care of her dad. I wrote back telling her to take all the time she needed. She said “Thank you” and a few days later I got an e-mail full of paragraphs like this…
“I care about you deeply, Andras, and am open to clearing up any confusion or misunderstandings, as long as there is no gaslighting involved. After being thrown out of my hometown bar that I introduced you to, by you, as if you own the place, before I could enjoy my $30 order that was wasted (or eaten?)… I really want you to hear my perspective. I must express that I do not find your controlling boundary/expectation of “captive audience or bust…” friendly—I find it overly narcissistic. I am your friend, not your groupie, and I will not be expected to act like one. Being exiled by a friend I had busted my ass to support made me think about how precious my time is, and remembering the directions where my energy is best spent… where I am treated with respect, kindness and dignity. I never disrespected you. I just didn’t stare at you silently. (Did you see the Barbie movie? There’s a scene about this very phenomenon.)”
Instead of the embarrassed apology (and legitimate excuse about her father) I expected from my friend, what I got was a much more intense and personal version of what the lady from The Cinema Bar laid on me. I’m not going to share it all here because that would be annoying for you, unfair to her, and pointless for me but…there was so much more. She accused me of playing songs specifically aimed at hurting her. She claimed that things I said from stage made her feel “unsafe”. Mostly she insisted that I had been furious at her and that I kicked her out of the bar because I needed her total attention. None of which is true and the video of the night shows this. Nothing I said, nor the fact of the video evidence demonstrating the benign reality of the events of the evening, made any difference to my friend and associate. She was convinced that what happened onstage that night was an attack against her personally, but she could not see that coming to my place of work and behaving in such a way that I had to ask her to be quiet, and then sending me threatening and accusatory e-mails, was a rude and potentially dangerous way for her to behave, especially coming from someone who has the capacity to harm me professionally. She insisted that if neither I nor the video evidence agreed with her version of events, I was gaslighting her…which kind of feels like gaslighting, right?
As I feared, my friend’s reaction to being asked not to talk in front of the stage HAS jeopardized the project we were working on, and my relationship with the organization that commissioned this project has likely been irreparably damaged.
This issue is personal to me on a number of levels and I know I’m not the only one. People talking during shows is something, even as an audience member, I consider just short of criminality. A social misdemeanor. Like spitting in a restaurant or taking up two parking spaces on a crowded street. Particularly at solo shows. Especially for indie artists playing in small rooms. Bands can play over the talkers in an audience. Not that they should have to, but they can. Famous acts generally get treated with respect simply based on the ticket price. Solo indies may drive hundreds of miles for nothing but tips to have their show ruined if there are just a couple of loud talkers at the bar. I’ve seen it happen to Elliott Smith, Beck, Rickie Lee Jones and others while those of us who came out to see their show had to suffer these fools or do something about it.
One of my greatest live music memories is attending a Dan Bern show at Berbatti’s Pan in Portland, with the drummer Chad Austinson (I think Chad will corroborate my memory here)…We were sitting at the bar when Dan started playing and there was a guy at a table near the front of the stage who was talking through Dan’s first song.
I picked up a matchbox from the bar, placed it between my thumb and index finger on my left hand, and with my right index finger…I flicked it.
It flew perfectly through the air (at least 20 feet) over many heads, to land on or near enough to the talker…shutting him up.
I don’t think I have a prouder moment. Did the audience applaud? In my memory they did (even as I am sure they didn’t). It was probably just Chad.
Music isn’t simply a matter of notes and words. It’s about the silence between the notes. The pauses between the words. And if a performer has to stop their show to ask an unruly audience member to quiet down, as described and demonstrated several times above, it can make that performer the target of personal attacks the rest of the audience may not be aware of. I know when I’m at a show, if a person is talking loudly, I feel no shame (and take a certain amount of pride) in getting them to be quiet. I don’t mind being a little bit rude to a rude audience member especially in a dark and/or crowded room. As a member of the crowd, doing so doesn’t generally put a target on my back, especially if other audience members back me up.
I’d love to see more audience members taking on this proactive role in support of performers doing their/our best to keep a tradition of writing songs and playing them for small groups of people in intimate spaces alive.
Here’s the rest of the Oberon’s show. If you suffered through the rough part you might as well get the good stuff before my phone died…