A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#25 “Thanks! You’ve been a wonderful audience. Goodnight!”
First published in Trad and Now magazine, April 2011
Late last year, I witnessed a reasonably unsavoury moment in crowd behaviour at a folk gig. Countrified folk. Folkified country.
No, the genre labelling wasn’t the unsavoury bit. It was the mix of ‘crowd there for music’ vs ‘crowd there for tipping several vats of beer and/or pre-mixed drinks down their throats before collapsing somewhere outside the venue’.
Which got me to thinking about the whole performer/crowd interaction cocktail (no pun intended), and how that affects a performer’s mojo on stage.
Myriad questions sprang to mind, and I planned to pose them to those best-equipped to answer them.
Months later, and with deadline looming, I threw a vague question to the four winds (ok, Facebook) one Sunday night and got a whole heap of responses. So I’ll can the investigative essay for now and just give you some responses, because they’re many, varied and some quite entertaining.
Toby Montgomery (Dingo’s Breakfast, Perth) has appreciated crowds of different shades and hues in his time:
“I grew up at gigs and festivals, sleeping under mixing desks, and sometimes touring with my father (Roger Montgomery, then in the Mucky Duck Bush Band).”
“The folk audiences are the most pleasurable to play for. Active listeners, appreciative, diverse in background, beat a pub crowd anyday. And while I still harbour fantasies of being a rock god one day, it’s playing contemporary Australian music with a blend of traditional and folk that gives the most satisfaction to me.”
Canberra-based singer songwriter Craig Dawson has a love/hate relationship with performing to changeable crowds:
“You can never ever guess what the crowd is going to be like. There doesn’t appear to be a constant, and consequently this is often a cause of anxiety for a performer.
“Some performers, like Pat Drummond for instance, can motor on no matter how perilous the circumstances and more than likely win over the audience. But I find it extremely difficult to focus if the audience is not with it or doesn’t like our act or is waiting for the main act.
“It often takes a while to recover from a bad gig. On the other hand, a good respectful audience like you usually get at folk venues definitely brings out the best in you.”
Canberra-based fiddler Jerry Everard loves all crowds: big and small.
“So long as they’re there for a good time!”
“Most memorable crowd experience was playing at a New Year’s Eve dance with 6,000, people and calling the ‘Heel and Toe Polka’. I called out: “Repeat after me: Heel!” and the response of 6,000 people letting rip with a deafening “HEEELLL!” was simply awesome – in every sense of the word.”
Rosie McDonald (Mothers of Intention/RAPT/Folklore, Sydney) has a similar tale to tell from a recent day celebrating a certain St Patrick in an undisclosed Sydney pub.
“’Fields of Athenry’ featured in each of the four sets and each time was met with a more enthusiastic and more spirited response from the well-merry crowd. Not sure if it was a high or a low point sonically speaking!”
Doug Jenner from the UK continued the St Patrick’s theme by recalling a fairly raucous night at King’s Cross:
“We were playing the last of five gigs and completely knackered. The pub was packed and all, it seemed, were [sounds like ‘pithed’] to the eyeballs. People were trying to dance and falling over.”
“One guy plunged into a boom mic and our singer cut his mouth, so we started packing up. Some [pith]-head from the crowd shouted at us and ordered us to keep playing.”
“'[Duck] off!’ we chorused at him, before realising he was the bar owner.
He waved an extra 400 bucks in our faces so we played on into and past the small hours.”
And Doug also offered this anecdote that has to be included:
“Irish band gig in Crow’s Nest with Louis Carey, Jimmy Donnelly, Ross Dixon and Johnny Duke. We got to the chorus of ‘The Nightingale’ – ‘And they kissed so sweet and comforting..’ – just as one punter king-hit another.”
“We serenaded the ensuing brawl, crying with laughter as we did so. I ended on the floor, still trying to play the fiddle with aching sides and the whole band in hysterics.”
Raucous and rowdy doesn’t have to be all bad, as Clark Gormley (Nerds and Music, Newcastle) once found out to his good fortune:
“One night I performed at a pub in Newcastle, not realising the local rugby team had celebrated their end of year function there that afternoon.”
“It was difficult. Only one of them actively heckled me, but they were extremely loud.”
“However, it wasn’t all bad. The arrangement was that we were paid a percentage of what they made over bar while I played. So I actually got paid well for that gig.”
Paul Buckberry (Buck and Deanne) recalled these memories from his rich (or not so) busking history:
“Busking outside The Ken Done Shop at The Rocks, surrounded by 40-50 people singing the chorus to American Pie so loud the shop window vibrations set the alarm off.”
“Busking in Rundle Mall, Adelaide someone yelled out: “If that’s your 15 minutes of fame I’ll come back in half an hour.”
Thanks to all who contributed. What a wondrous thing to head off to work on a Sunday night while the massed intellects of the social media can write your content for you?
As mentioned above, the genesis of this article was the thorny issue of how to deal with a problem audience member, or members. Or do you deal with them or push on through?
I’ll be exploring that next month, or in a later edition. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.