It was an outside concert and the promoters hadn’t made peace with the local authorities, so it looked like we were going to be playing to nobody, or more frustrating, to a huddle of folks looking in through a chain link fence. It was a gorgeous day, dry and warm and blue. We sat around, waiting for information, thinking we might be playing to no one.
How many shows have I played for no one? Or I should say, for the bar staff, and if lucky, for the other bands. How many excuses have I heard over the years for the lack of attendance? There is a big event in town taking people away from our show. There is an article in the local paper about gang violence at the venue. The sports team is in the playoffs and everyone is at the bar up the street because they have television. No one knows the promoter, or he’s pissed people off, or he’s on drugs, or he really just has no idea what he’s doing and the wan faces of the bartenders hint at secret stories of drama and corruption. It’s a beautiful day and everyone wants to be outside. It’s a rainy/snowy/steamy day and everyone wants to be on the couch.
As a musician, you can’t help but to develop an ability to roll with the flow. We load into a venue and it’s a big echoey concrete place, and the minutes click by and it gets closer to set time and it begins to dawn on us, there is not going to be anyone here. We start giving each other those ironic, bemused looks. Every time the front door opens heads turn in anticipation, as if waiting for a busload of rockers ready to party. After a while, hope escapes the room, and we go from anticipation to resignation to a kind of giddiness at the ridiculousness of giving a party for no one.
Rule of Thumb: You play as if there were 300 people there. Always and without question. First, because that’s what you’re getting paid for (if you’re lucky), but second and most important, because this is what you do. This is what every moment of your life leading up to this point has been for. All the lessons and practicing and travel and money spent, this is what it’s for. You get to play your instrument. You get to play with the people on stage with you. Your whole life is for the love of it, and this minor annoyance of the empty venue is just par for the course. We always say, well, it’s a paid practice, but when the music starts it never feels like practice. It’s the real thing no matter who is there.
You close your eyes and find joy in your instrument. You have fun on stage with your bandmates. You listen closely to the songs and try some stuff out that you always wanted to try. You put on a great show. There’s no other option. Never mind that at such a show, playing to 10 people, one of the 10 hired my band to perform on the Warped Tour. Those things have happened one maybe two times in all the shows in all the empty venues and you can think, well you gotta give it your all since you never know who will walk in that door, but that remote possibility is not what it’s about. You get to play, that’s it. The last note ripples out in the big empty room like a dying thunderclap and the house music comes on after a pregnant pause, like titters of rain after the storm. You laugh, you pack your stuff, you chalk it up.
The time came to play that outside concert, the one that happened recently. As we sort of embarrassedly took the stage I felt a kind of frustration and for a minute wished I was doing something else. I sat down and tapped that thought away with the sticks on my legs. Then the first song started, and I guess the gates finally opened and the few folks who hadn’t given up hope started to trickle into the beer garden. I looked out and saw the movement of bodies and relaxed. Then I saw a face, a drummer was my first thought, because he was fixed on me. A Bonham lover, I could see it in his eyes. I recognized the expression I’ve felt on my own face as I watched other drummers, taking it all in via a kind a visual osmosis that sinks the beat into my limbs. It was funny, because I saw that he was in a wheelchair, but I identified him as a drummer at the same time.
Very rarely am I able to see the audience while I play. I put my head down from the start and just fall inside of the music, and my eyes soft-focus any other reality. I guess because I was there on stage, in the afternoon sunlight, waiting to see if people were going to be allowed into the grassy area, I wasn’t plugged in as usual. So I caught this man’s eye, and sat up straighter. Well, if no one else comes to the show, who really cares, I thought. This person is here, and this drummer and I are going to get inside this music together. We’re going to play. I filled with the love of the song, felt the strength in my arms, the balance of my back and my legs, and I fell into my heart, opened up and brought him in there while I played, surrounding him with this deep bliss of movement. I wanted to send this feeling out to him. In my mind’s eye we were playing double drums, and from behind the wall of hair in front of my face I telegraphed this feeling to him, hoping that in some capacity he was there with me.
As I played, I filled up with gratitude for my physical being, for music and its gorgeous language of connection, for this afternoon in the beer garden and the fact that the small group of people made it inside the chain link fence. I played drums with this man in the front row, feeling Zeppelin wash over both of us and connect us in this gratitude for movement, for life, for the beauty of music and for the love we get to feel when connecting like this. I imagined the sound circling our hearts together, ribbons of sound waves wrapping around us and our bodies filling with the energy of those pounding drums.
There were other people there. There could have been just one. It just doesn’t matter. Rule of Thumb: Always grateful.
After the show, I met Geno, and now we’re friends. He sent me video of him playing the drums, and if you want to check it out, it’s here: Geno Hopkins. He has a true joy and ability when he plays, and now we get to be friends forever, brought together by drumming and music and of course, Zeppelin.