Stage Down

The life of a musician

Story by Steve Miller

If there’s ever been a polarizing song, it’s Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones.” It’s not so much the first two-thirds that elicit strong feelings either way (though the campy ‘80s synths and falsetto vocals alone can do that); it’s the last third. After Prince states, “What’s it gonna be, babe? Do you want him, or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you,” he spends the rest of the song in a wild wail. For any live performer, there’s no better way to find out who his real fans are than busting out “The Beautiful Ones” within the first few songs of a set.

Playing in front of an audience is an ongoing experiment; a constant study of what works, what falls flat and/or what horribly fails. When I perform live — be it solo acoustic or with a full band — I strive to inspire strong likes or dislikes. Since the dawn of my gigging years, I’ve witnessed the entire spectrum of audience-to-performer reactions, from the pinnacle of live performing to its absolute nadir.

One of the more recent trial runs in my analysis took place March 12, 2010, at the Palace, a quaint, dimly lit basement in downtown Missoula. It was a Thursday night and the streets bustled with the usual horde of college students looking to take advantage of the near-end-of-week drink specials. But only a small percentage of these masses came to see our inaugural gig as Newsfeed Anxiety.

After playing a joint mini-set with a group of friends, we dove right into “The Beautiful Ones.” The screeching vocals and blasting guitar were met with a fairly lukewarm response — casual clapping and a “woot” or two. But nobody headed for the door, which, after that song, wouldn’t have been surprising. No sooner had the applause subsided that one of the head-banging patrons (a dreadlocked man with patchy and unkempt facial hair) shouted “Free Bird.”

People unversed in proper audience etiquette always seem to find humor in yelling out requests of “Free Bird” at a concert. The smaller the venue, the more insufferable the demand, and the more it annoys both those who know their place as spectators (watch, listen, applaud, repeat) and the musicians themselves. Yet, after multiple obtrusive insistences, I humored him:

“Funny you should mention that song, because this next one is called ‘Free Bird Part Three,’” I said. “And this one’s dedicated to you.” 

My bandmates and I launched into one of our originals, “Everybody’s Got Somebody,” while I alternated between my own lyrics and those pertaining to “Free Bird.” From then on, the stray requests ceased for the night.

It seemed we had lost them. Peering through the multi-colored stage lights, I saw two women leaving. Near the conclusion of our set, I noticed that even the friends who had shared the stage with us earlier were now playing pool in the southwest corner of the Palace.

Luckily, we’d saved the best song for last: Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” done in the style of the White Stripes, with a psychedelic noise jam tacked on. Like “The Beautiful Ones,” it’s designed to either repulse or enthrall; the dynamic shift from a softly sung verse to a clamorous and screamed chorus can be fairly unpleasant to some listeners, and fairly powerful to others.

By the end of the song, we had the audience’s attention: even Mr. Free Bird was on his feet yelling “Yeah! You guys rocked!” I looked down at my hand and saw a stream of blood trickling from the nail of my middle finger. I wore it as a badge of honor. We did our job as performers, even if the crowd size wasn’t anything spectacular.

If there’s one thing I fear about being a musician, it’s bland mediocrity — to be a faceless performer who leaves people walking away with an indifferent shrug and is forgotten by the time they get home. The challenge is how to make an impression while maintaining artistic integrity.

I noticed from watching and playing with my older brother’s band, the Clintons, that humorous and conversational interaction can go a long way to establish a bond between band and audience. They have to feel that you are aware of them. Appreciative. Grateful. But if the audience is either unresponsive, or, in some cases, non-existent, the organic flow of performing is disrupted. Sometimes, that can be endearing, like when my first band, 2%Tipp, played at our eighth-grade graduation party (at one point in the archived recording, you can hear one of our classmates yell, “Get off the stage, retards!”) Other times, it can be disheartening, like practically hearing crickets after playing “The Beautiful Ones” at Sean Kelly’s open mike night, or finishing a 15-minute jam to look out at the Badlander and see an empty floor.

In instances like these, I’ve learned not to lose faith in what I’m doing — even the Beatles had off nights.

The truth is this: if a song has a good, upbeat tempo, people are more inclined to dance, especially within a bar setting. Alcohol seems to help this cause, too. Before you know it, the place is packed, the audience cheers heartily after every song and people go home content. There’s something to be said about any group able to generate this type of response. And yet, there’s a great difference between a social-outing band and a band that commands focused attention. I, of course, strive for the latter. While there’s nothing wrong with playing music to people who want to let loose and drink PBR, I’d rather be watched and listened to with undivided attention. It’s not so much about the social, end-of-the-week-kick-back-and-chill experience. It’s about expunging inner demons, captivating someone’s soul, and, above all else, inspiring someone to create in their own way.

Playing “The Beautiful Ones,” “Jolene” and several originals loaded with personal feelings of disappointment and disillusionment reflect my desire to be more than just a provider of mood-setting drone: To put it bluntly, when I’m on stage, I want to be the center of attention. I want people to hear me and see me. I want people to honestly examine their own lives. I even want them to feel a little unsettled at times.

Steve Miller plays a solo acoustic version of his original song "Vices" at the Yellowstone Valley Brewery in Billings. (Photo by Alexander Savas Miller)

Such a connection is hard to come by, especially for an unknown musician such as myself. I’ve played the guitar for almost 10 years, and yet I get hand cramps when I try to solo; I have a nondescript voice that tends to waver at times; my six-string always manages to de-tune itself; and I’ve even been told by one of my music-savvy uncles that the subject matter of certain originals verged on being “too self-revelatory.”

The majority of people going downtown to a show don’t really care for this deeper level of appreciation —they just want a good time, nothing more. If you can dance to it, that’s all that matters. I fully realized this when my brother’s band went into a tongue-in-cheek version of a Wiggles song, “Fruit Salad.” As they sang about constructing the perfect healthy snack (keep in mind this song is intended for the Nickelodeon Jr. demographic), most of the audience continued to bump and grind, completely oblivious to the subject matter. Further proof that if it’s danceable, it’s passable.

Lately, I’ve tried to strike a balance between catchy toe-tapping instrumentation and highly cynical lyrics, but that’s mainly to beguile listeners into thinking they are hearing something upbeat and peppy, when, beneath the surface, it’s antagonizing and critical. I’m not sure there’s a market for this type of music, which is something to consider if I ever want to receive a monetary return for my efforts. At some point, when I’m in the real world (a.k.a. the world outside of school), I fear I may have to make concessions as far as making and playing music is concerned. I fear having to become more accessible to the average, casual listener, and any sort of genuine self-expression will have to go by the wayside in favor of something catchier and easier to digest. I fear that I’ll end up in a wedding band playing “Mony Mony” and “Mustang Sally” for bleary-eyed people in formalwear.  

Then again, I take heart when I listen to people like local musician and performer David Boone.

For the last decade or so, Boone has become one of the most prominent songwriters in the area — not by conforming to what’s popular or hip, but by staying true to himself. He said his songs derive from personal experiences and he writes only when he’s inspired, never forcing something in the hope of sounding cool or gaining popularity. He said he writes with “deliberate intent” — a focused message he’s trying to convey to the listener.

Most of all, Boone said his success stems from finding a connection with the listener through the songs he crafts.

“If (the songs) resonate, they’ll be more catchy,” he said.

As I walked to the University Center the following Thursday for my 10 p.m. open mike slot, the words of Boone rang in my ears: Be true to yourself, and the rest will fall into place. If it worked for him, perhaps it might work for me.

As usual, the UC Game Room had its share of pool players who aren’t really there to listen to the performers unless they hear something they like. But the area was particularly crammed this night because the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament was on TV. I hadn’t really thought of a set list prior to arriving, so I decided to wing it, making sure to pick songs people would notice; I wasn’t about to play second fiddle to the University of Montana Grizzlies, no matter how close the game was.

At UC open mike nights of the past, I’ve seen the chairs filled with friends and well-wishers of the musicians playing on the fold-away stage. Almost immediately after these sets, everyone leaves.

I expected the people watching the performers before me to jet as soon as I walked on stage. But, contrary to personal experience, they didn’t. As I played my first song — a Queen tune called “’39” — I could discern through the stage lights that people were actually listening, some even tapping their feet. Wanting to push the boundaries slightly, I went into “Vices,” and even told them it was an original (which I don’t always do out of fear they don’t take it seriously, knowing it came from my head). Still, they stayed. I played Prince’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” (no “The Beautiful Ones” tonight; I wasn’t in the mood) and they stayed.

By the time I went into “Everybody’s Got Somebody,” the Grizzlies were staging a late second-half comeback, and the crowd assembled at the plasma screens began to cheer. I craned my head sideways to see the TV mounted on the wall and I jokingly said, “Looks like things are starting to get interesting. I sort of wish I was watching right now.”

“Music’s more important,” said a fellow sitting in the front row. He had played just before me as part of a guitar-vocalist-saxophone trio; he was the guitar player, and his skills were superior to mine. But the fact remains that he and the vocalist, along with the other faithful and attentive crowd members, stayed to last chord of “Jolene.”

Perhaps there is hope after all.

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