May 18, 2017

FTV: Gigs in the Round


    You read that right:  “Gigs in the Round”, not “Getting Around to Gigs”.  Transportation to and from gigs is a different chapter.  This one will discuss gigs where the band is not on a traditional stage but literally surrounded by the crowd they are playing for.  The name more than likely is a play on the old “Theater in the Round” concept that has been around as long as thespians have staged plays.  My first live experience of a “Gig in the Round” (GitR for short) came courtesy of Ron Phillips and his band Sweat Equity.

    I had met Ron several years earlier when my next door neighbor took me to a Sweat Equity rehearsal on the second floor of an old building off South Front Street in Marquette.  I drive past that old store every now and then.  It is located across the street from the statue of Father Marquette that stands in the park dedicated to him.  I am not sure why the statue triggers this memory, but in my mind, Sweat Equity is paired with Father Marquette.   It was quite a haul from our neighborhood on the north end of Norway Avenue, but Harold said, “Come on, we are going to a band rehearsal” and I wasn’t going to say no to that.  Harold was always loaning me his sister’s 45 RPM records to play along with.  Maybe he had a vested interest in me learning to play the drums because this was the second time he had taken me to see a band of his friends rehearse (they first went by the name of Independence if that rings a bell for anyone).  After reading Woody Woodmansey’s book Spider from Mars:  My Life with Bowie (FTV May 10, 2017), I realize that this is how many musicians have been introduced to live music.

    Ron’s drummer “lost his drum set” along the way and somewhere near the end of my eighth  grade school career, he called me and asked if I wanted to audition for the band.  I was a bit nervous about the prospect of auditioning for a real band but I asked, “What do I have to do?”  He gave me a date and time that he would come over to check me out.  He did not mention that he was bringing the whole band and their amps and guitars.  Ron was a great role model of how a good band leader should carry on as he was always punctual and professional.  They showed up right on time, set up their stuff and proceeded to throw songs at me to play.  I did okay, but their body language told me that I wasn’t exactly killing it.  Eventually, Ron asked the band, “Anything else we should go over?” and I suggested Tommy James’ song Hanky Panky.  Apparently they were already sick of this song as a general groan went through the band, but they humored me and played through it.  “How about Wipe Out?”  Ron asked.  I knew of the song but had never tried to play it so Ron said, “Let me show it to you.”  This was kind of a surprise because their old drummer was still their lead singer, but it was Ron the guitar player who sat down and taught me the iconic tom rolls and bass drum beats that are the heart of the song.  At least they stopped rolling their eyes when I sat down and played it on the first take.

    As they were packing up, the rhythm guitar player said, “Hey, I hear there is a State bull (meaning State Policeman) that lives in this neighborhood.  Do you know where?”  I wasn’t totally sure why this came up, so I simply pointed my drum stick toward the ceiling and said, “Yeah, he is upstairs watching TV.”  They left, but I already knew I wasn’t getting the gig.  I wasn’t ready and I will assume that was a bigger reason than having a “State bull” for a father.  I never did ask why the guitar player showed me how to play Wipe Out nor did I learn how the drummer “lost his drums”, but it was still a good experience.   The Twig even got to play a two band dance with Sweat Equity a couple of years later and I figured, “If Ron Phillips thought we were good enough to play on the same bill with them, then we must be doing okay.”  

    Exactly what does this have to do with bands playing GitRs?  Sweat Equity was the first band I ever saw play a gig like this.  It took place in the Quad One dining hall which just happened to be across the street from my house.  There was a large open recreation area in the basement of the quad dining hall and one side featured a sunken pit with a fireplace at one end.  It resembled an inverted pyramid with step like levels leading down to a flat area that was just big enough for the band to set up side by side with the drummer in the middle.  By the time I got there, they were already rocking pretty good and I had to squeeze my way through the crowd to get close enough to look down on them in the bottom of this pit. They were surrounded by a large throng of listeners and nobody was dancing because there wasn’t any room to dance.

    My initial reaction to seeing them in this setting?  “That is the coolest thing I have ever seen!”  At the break, I talked to Ted Thomas, the drummer they hired after my failed audition.  I said, “Hey Ted, how’s it going?”  He proved to me that drummers must all think alike because he hollered over the noise of the crowd, “This is the coolest place we have ever played!”  Ted was somewhat of a ladies man and sans his shirt (it was a tad on the hot side with all of those people crowded together), he also had his fair share of female admirers crowding around which no doubt factored into his “coolest place ever” statement.  The Twig didn’t have a name yet and we were still rehearsing and playing parties, but in the back of my mind, I knew that I wanted to play a gig like this sometime.

    Flash forward to my senior year in high school and The Twig is now a working band.  The old Bishop Baraga High School had closed and it was being developed as a youth center.  Two of our classmates were deeply involved in the project and asked us if we would play a dance to help them raise funds for the renovation work.  What they didn’t tell us is that they put up the money to hire us for the dance.  From the size of the crowd, I am pretty sure they got their investment back, but it was such a cool gig, we probably would have done it for free had we known this at the time.  The central commons of this beautiful old school was arranged with several levels leading down to the main floor of a rotunda at the core of the building.  We set up on the second or third level down from the top and by the time we started to play, I realized that our equipment  looked like an island in a sea of bodies that stretched in front of, around, and behind us.  Had I swiveled my drum stool around with my arms out like propellers, I would have poked out a few eyes in the crowd behind me.  It sounds a bit claustrophobic but I can only go back to what Ted and I had thought about the Sweat Equity gig years before: “This is the coolest gig ever.”

    Remembering one gig forty five years ago sometimes makes me pause and consider if I am remembering events or manufacturing remembrances.  In this case, I turned to my old Sledgehammer bandmate Barry and asked him to tell me what he remembers about this gig.  Here is what he returned to me:  “What would be notable about your Twig gig at Baraga?   It was the first time I’d ever seen a rock band play live. It was very exciting, but I can’t say I have a memorable anecdote about the experience.  I saw you guys play and I thought it was cool.  I seem to recall you played Midnight Special,  plus a Creedence Clearwater Revival tune.”

    A small nugget of information, but Barry’s observations unleashed  yet another memory cascade.  Yes indeed, we played a few CCR tunes including Midnight Special and Fortunate Son.  We had been working on Heard it Through the Grapevine  for quite a long time but it would not click.  We had previously ditched Traveling Band because we could not generate the same energy CCR did, but for some reason we kept trying to work up their version of Heard it Through the Grapevine.  We never got it polished enough to try it out at a gig until this night.   We were a little stoked by the different feel of playing a GitR, so I am sure Mike forged ahead with the bass intro to Grapevine figuring it was now or never.  I joined in with a tribal tom beat and Gene followed with a tremolo laced guitar line.  With the pressure on, we finally nailed a song we never thought we would be able to pull off live.  The whole gig was fun, but looking out at a sea of heads bobbing in time with the bass and drums on what would be the first public performance of a song we had previously struggled with is something that always brings me back to that moment in time.  Maybe that is why I always enjoyed the singing California Raisins ad featuring the same tune!

    Throughout the years, many bands have done memorable gigs in the round.  One of the first widely seen was Elvis in his big comeback tour where he spent at least part of the show out in the audience with his guitar player surrounded by his adoring fans.  Def Leppard’s massive tour in the round made them a lot of money, and the shenanigans that happened beneath the stage will no doubt be fodder for some future tell all books that should let them collect big bucks for the experience again.  Playing in the round isn’t something that happens very often because there are technical issues galore, but it is such a unique event, even after all these years, it is hard to forget how much fun it was to play in a sea of people.

TOP PIECE VIDEO – Def Leppard showing how the big boys do Gigs in the Round on their 1988 tour.