Best gigs, worst gigs

Blisters - an occupational hazard for a harpist

Burst blisters - surprisingly not the worst thing that can happen at a gig

I’ve played quite a few gigs in my time – some of them good, some of them godawful. Obviously, while I’d like to pretend that every gig I every play is super-brilliant, the reality is sometimes very different. For the record, here are the highs and the lows. Feel free to add your own experiences in the comments.

Best gigs

  • Big Chill 2006: Playing 4 gigs in a weekend (Bussetti, Digitonal, The Shadow Orchestra and festival founder Pete Lawrence’s Chilled by Nature project). I was even featured in the Channel 4 documentary about that year’s festival and got a free massage. A real high point.
  • Playing KOKO with Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics earlier this year. A staggering gig – the place was packed and the calibre of the musicians was amazing. Mulatu is a living legend, and it was a privilege to play with him (especially given that he’s played with Alice Coltrane before – he was kind enough not to compare us).
  • Bussetti’s last stand at the Luminaire in Kilburn. Another sell-out, with a fantastic audience of friends all singing along. Blogged about here
  • Playing at the Sperm festival (no sniggering at the back!) in Prague with Digitonal. My first harp gig outside the UK – I borrowed one for the occasion from a local harpist who didn’t really approve of what I was doing with it. It was a real eye-opener to see how European audiences respond to electronica (awed silence during, deafening cheering and applause after) Short blog here (perhaps dwelling too much on the Becherovka)
  • InselSommer 2009 with Sunday Driver: Our first European gig, and the re-debut of tabla player Goshi.
  • Singing Carmina Burana in the Albert Hall when I was about 15, as part of a massed schools choir. Awe-inspiring sound, and a spine-tingling piece of music.
  • A concert featuring 17 harps in St Albans Cathedral. Probably sounded like the world’s biggest broken musical box, but it was a great experience to play with that many harpists, ranging from tiny kids to grownups.
  • Playing at the Edinburgh Mela in 2008 with Sunday Driver – our biggest audience to date (at that time). We played for an hour without the harp, which was a milestone, and a massive confidence boost.
  • Going on tour with Digitonal – playing at Sage in Gateshead was a particular highlight. Getting to bum around on a tourbus and pretend to be a rock star was also great fun (though coming back home and going to work in an office afterwards really sucked). Blogged here and here
  • Playing at Bestival 2006 with Digitonal – a fantastic and very surreal gig, despite nearly knocking myself out on a low beam as I got up on stage. That may have made it even more surreal. We were on stage at 3am and I was wearing a bizarre feather mask to deliberately freak out the people who had taken too many drugs.
  • Playing in “9 lessons and carols for Godless people” at the Hammersmith Apollo in December 2008 with the Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra, as backing band to Jarvis Cocker among others. Hanging around backstage were Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, Ricky Gervais and Mark Thomas, to name a few. I was utterly star-struck all night, especially when I got to chat to Jarvis in the green room.
  • Playing with the Shadow Orchestra at the Off the Tracks festival in 2008 and 2009. It’s just a lovely little festival with a fab audience.
  • Playing with the Grand Union Orchestra at the Corn Exchange with Sunday Driver a good few years back. At the time, it was the highest profile gig we’d ever done and it was an amazing experience.
  • Playing at KOKO with the Beaufort scale – an ecstatic audio-visual spectacular, even though I only played in two tunes.

Worst gigs

  • Playing a solo harp gig in the garden at a private party, and only finding out I had been perched on a manure heap afterwards. Then grabbing my harp covers out of the bushes where they were stashed, only to find someone had pissed on them.
  • Playing with Sunday Driver at a tiny festival outside Cambridge, to an audience consisting of the sound engineer, a small dog, and a really REALLY stoned guy.
  • Playing at the Battle of the Bands at Anglia Ruskin University with Sunday Driver. It was a horrific gig that we still joke about. I hadn’t realised we’d started a song, and was busy blasting out a very bad version of Three Blind Mice on the recorder (to soundcheck the mic). One of the judges walked out mid-set.
  • Playing with Sunday Driver singer Chandy in a bar in Soho. A woman in the front row was talking so loudly I couldn’t actually hear myself playing.
  • Sunday Driver at the Good Ship in Kilburn a couple of months ago. I was exhausted and had a little tantrum trying to find a parking space. The gig was alright, except I dropped my clarinet just before we started and cracked the mouthpiece in half, rendering it unplayable. Had to do the whole set on the bass clarinet, which was tough.
  • End-of-term summer concert circa 2001 with the Cambridge harp society. Not only was I woefully underprepared, but as soon as I started playing there was an almighty thunderstorm, which drowned out my poor playing. Still, I got a massive round of applause out of sympathy.
  • Sunday Driver at the Barfly in Camden. Shit sound engineer, howling bass feedback throughout the gig. What was worse was that I had finally managed to persuade loads of people to come and see us, and it sounded so bad even I felt like walking out.
  • Willow Walker homeless charity gig in Cambridge with Sunday Driver. Homeless people shouting at me to “Fuck off with your fucking posh instrument” etc etc, the sound was TERRIBLE, I had a fight with our bassist and cried all the way home on the verge of quitting the band.
  • Playing a solo gig at a Secret Cinema event at the Hackney Empire last year. It was a really fun event, but I only got paid £50 for the gig, it cost me £7 to park for 2 hours, I was 5 minutes late getting back to the car so I got landed with a £40 parking fine. Net profit =  £3. FAIL.
  • My first ever solo harp booking back in 1996. I had no idea what I was doing and basically just played arpeggios for an hour. I still feel a bit guilty and ashamed just thinking about it. Luckily, I have improved dramatically since.
  • The last night of the Digitonal tour at Audio in Brighton. Just as we were starting to play in the bar upstairs, someone waltzed around shouting “The Bays are on downstairs!” (we were on tour supporting them).  Cue a massive rush for the exits as we played to an empty room.

Weirdest gig ever

  • This one. A Church, unlimited orange squash, and an unusual use for the New English Hymnal.

So how about yours – leave your best, worst and weirdest ever gig stories in the comments.

10 responses to “Best gigs, worst gigs

  1. Playing at the Loch Ness pub in Rive Del Garda with One Little Plane… turned up to soundcheck, no-one there for 2 hours, then when we started to get set up, we discovered a poo on the stage by the drum riser.

    “Is not possible” said the owner.

    Then we slept backstage under some rugs in essentially the utility room while the venue room (separated from us by a curtain) was used for a table football tournament by a couple of drunken Italians until 4am while Muse blared out of the sound system.


  2. Oh yes and the gig itself – we were really good, and the sound system was amazing. And thoroughly appreciated by nine of the 11 people in the room. Of the remainder, one was talking to the other, who was texting on his phone *constantly*

  3. Best gigs:

    – Solo acoustic gig at the Leeds Packhorse, 2003: me, my acoustic, eight new songs. A terrifying prospect in front of an anonymous, noisy crowd, but for some reason they shut up the moment I started playing and I somehow found the zone. They clapped. I beamed. A good night.

    – Gamages Model Train Club at 93 Feet East, London, 2008: probably the most polished we’ve ever been, having spent the entire previous month rehearsing for recording the album. A break-neck speed, stupidly loud, tight, rollicking and well-attended gig.

    – Sinking Cruise Ship Rescue Drama at the Hope & Anchor, London, 2008: the power lead fell out of my amp about a minute into the gig. I went to sort it out (as the rest of the band played on), plugged it back in and unwittingly unleashed a massive wall of feedback on the venue which actually kinda got everyone going. The rest was exactly the kind of bolshy, aggressive and dramatic stuff I’d always dreamed of from the Cruise Ship. A 50-year-old chap came up afterwards and told me it was the best gig he’d seen since seeing Pink Floyd do The Wall.

    Alice Gun at the Natural History Museum, London, 2009: the band took the stage and got everything going, then Alice came out looking magical, we caught each other’s eye and everything slotted perfectly into place. It’s an old cliché I know, but I didn’t once think about the notes I was playing – the whole thing just happened. And bizarrely well-attended, too.

    Worst gigs:

    Solo acoustic thing at a Battle of the Bands at university, York, 2003: Rubbish song selection, terrible playing, horrible venue. Afterwards, a girl I desperately fancied at the time said I was “very brave”. Ouch.

    Sunset Gun at the Spread Eagle, Shoreditch, London, 2006: technical and emotional problems in the build up meant we played like a bunch of people who hated each other. Takes the prize as worst gig ever. We cut the set short, Alice threw the mic on the floor on the way out and then we smashed a load of pint glasses in the dressing room out of frustration, while shouting at each other.

    Gamages Model Train Club at the Vibe Bar, Shoreditch, London, 2008. Some sort of promotional thing for Southern Comfort. We were sandwiched on the bill between an awful comic and a burlesque dancer. The PR person asked us to “thank So-Co” between every number. She was serious, too. John demurred. She also promised us free drinks, but turns out she wasn’t serious about that one. No sign of a soundman, dodgy equipment, bad instrumentation and song choices, and the feeling of being totally and utterly exploited.

  4. Great DJ gigs…

    1. My first DJ gig ever… Bestival 2006 Hidden Tent…30 mins of fame. My set started with Fatboyslim Sunset (CHOON!), mixed it up with a friends band then Prince, MJ finishing with Teenage Kicks. Went down a storm as i got instant feedback from about 200 people who all had a banner which either said CHOON or POOH!… there was a sea of CHOONS. I was addicted. I got off the stage for people to come up to me shake my hand, hugs and everything. Still my highlight gig. Shame my opening DJ name was DJ Chickenman. Don’t ask.

    2. Prince albumn launch party. Me and my friend organised an albumn listening party for Princes ‘3121’ albumn. I worked with Universal Records in USA and the UK to pull it all together. Also Prince heard about the party and sent us over £300 to give away. I met his band who were touring around the UK at the time as well to get prizes to give away. We had over 100 people turn up, we renamed all the cocktails to Prince choons at The Players Lounge in CharingX. I was organising, mingling, DJing, hosting and giving away prizes. Top night. Shame we were out of pocket in the end by £400! We learnt a lot from the experience.

    3. My 30th bday DJ set… i played at my own 30th bday at The Gramaphone in Shoreditch. DJ set for 2-3 hrs. Loved it. I played the music thats defined me from funky 60s all the way through to present day. Magic.

    DJing nightmare gigs…

    1. Army friends private party at a very swanky private members club off the Strand. Lovely venue and great sound system. I’d been preparing for this gig over 2 weeks. I had my set list. ready. Started the party with my choons all carefully chosen. I pressed PLAY at 7pm… by 7.30pm i was told to turn the volume down to practically zero as people couldn’t hear each other talk. Crap! I was in a strop until 9pm when i cranked it back up.

    2. I DJed at a friends charity fundraiser in Soho. The CD decks didn’t work properly and the mixer was knackered. There was no mixing to be had as the CD decks decided when to play or not. I was not in control. They would jump the music, stop mid way, start a new track whenever they wanted. I was extremely pissed. I put on one mix CD i had and left the party. Not a happy franky!

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