Every band has one: the story of a completely disastrous train wreck of a show. Sometimes it’s the venue, sometimes it’s the audience, and sometimes, it’s the venue’s inability to control the audience.
In this installment, Finnish-American singer-songwriter Jonathan Rundman shares a story of audience participation gone horribly awry.
It’s a rite of passage for young musicians to learn to endure and/or deal with aggressive audience members, hecklers, and obnoxious dudes shouting “You suck!” during shows. Certainly these can be challenging situations for bands, but those of us who perform solo have our vulnerabilities magnified. As I look back on my past decade as a touring singer/songwriter, one of these awkward moments goes down in history as My Worst Gig.
About ten years ago I was on tour as the opening act for Beki Hemingway. We were doing a run through the Midwest and Southeast, and early on in the trip we had a show at a club called The Rudyard Kipling in Louisville, KY. The venue had a barroom up front, with an adjoining performance space. When I began playing that night there were about three people in the listening room, and some folks sitting on stools at the bar.
A few songs into my set a large drunk man staggered into the performance room and climbed up on stage behind me, where I was standing at the microphone singing and playing guitar. He sat down at the old upright piano at the back of the stage and began accompanying my song.
Maybe it was due to his inebriation, but it seemed to me that this man had never played the piano before. He pounded random chords and keys while yelling, about five feet behind my right shoulder. I was not prepared for this occurrence, and had never been put in a situation like this before as a performer. As I continued singing and strumming, I weighed my options. Do I ignore the drunk pianist and keep on playing my song? Do I stop playing and ask the guy to get off the stage? The small audience was very uncomfortable, and time seemed to freeze.
Before I had a chance to address the situation publicly, the piano accompaniment went silent, quickly followed by a loud thump. The big intruder had been rocking out on the piano, which caused one of the rear spindle legs of the antique piano bench to fold beneath his weight, and the man collapsed backward onto the stage floor next to me. The crash alerted the bartender, who came in from the next room and dragged the drunk off the stage and threw him out of the club. Eventually I finished the song I had been playing, and continued my set as if the entire episode had never happened.
Whenever I hear the old showbiz cliche “the show must go on,” I immediately remember My Worst Gig with a strange mixture of discomfort and fondness.
Jonathan Rundman’s latest album, a 20-song retrospective of his decade-long solo career, is available on his website. He is also one-half of the Finnish-American folk duo Kaivama, with violinist Sara Pajunen.