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Local Gigs

And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown.”
-Luke 4:24

Performing in one’s hometown is harder than you might think. First, we ask the same people to show up year after year. Second – but relatedly – it can be difficult to expand the audience beyond that group of friends/fans.   

I mean, seriously, how many times does anyone want to see the same artist, even if you grew up/went to college/worked with that artist? There were three or four people at my most recent gig in San Francisco who were literally at my first-ever gig in New York in the mid-90s. I’ve written new songs since then, obviously, and evolved as a performer. And, there’s the tantalizing possibility of a fun night out. Still, some constituents may have a “been there, done that” reaction to my gig announcements. The challenge, then, is to make each event unique and interesting in some way and to some people. Those of you with marketing backgrounds may have ascertained that I’m basically talking about “differentiation” and “targeting.”

One simple way to keep things interesting for everyone is to introduce new faces into the mix, e.g. songwriters your people don’t know but might like. Along those lines, I recruited an excellent songwriter named Jeff Desira for a show at the Lost Church. When Jeff recruited his friend Jesse Bridges, we had a nice little triple bill about which I could say: “come see me and my new friends in a groovy space, you will not be disappointed on any level.” As an added benefit, the format relieved some of the pressure, since each of us would only have to fill ~1/3 of the room. The corollary, of course, is that we had an opportunity to sing for and potentially seduce the other ~2/3. And, when you trade off songs like we did that night, the audience is “forced” to listen to all three artists instead of checking out their friend and leaving. Everyone wins!

Another time, Wendy Beckerman and I figured we could attract an audience in San Francisco by playing an early show in a family-friendly venue. Unusual specs, right? A solution presented itself when a gallery owner offered her space on Alabama St. in the Mission. We locked down a Sunday evening, and sweetened the deal with an art opening (a carpet installation, which you can see behind me in the picture). No one’s audience expanded as a result of this venture – the demographic skewed young – but we met the needs of an underserved constituency. And, in an unexpected development, one seven-year-old blew my mind and filled my heart by knowing all the songs and singing along.

One consistent source of local gigs has been the Hotel Utah, a strangely-configured room in the SOMA area. At this point, having played there on and off for years, I have a good relationship with the talent buyer. He doesn’t work with me because I’m famous or a genius, but because I arrive on time, show consideration for the employees and other acts, draw my share of paying customers, and put on a decent show. Knowing from long experience that I will deliver, he takes my proposals seriously, and I’ve found my way onto a bunch of great bills including Martin Zellar (from the Gear Daddies), Freedy Johnston, Tracy Grammar, and Peter Himmelman. A couple of years ago, he even reached out to me for a gig, which has happened maybe one other time in my entire career. I don’t always get what I want – there was stiff competition for the Jesse Malin show, and Garland Jeffries needed a bigger name – but the Hotel Utah’s one venue where I know I can get in front of people I don’t know from time to time.

Unsurprisingly, there’s stiff competition for the very best gigs: every local act wants to open for the same touring artists in the same venues. Often, the artist carries support in the form of a protegé, which means the game’s over before it begins. And, when a headliner does want a local opener to help fill the room, it’s not like the gatekeepers are haunting the clubs looking for fresh talent: they have their go-to artists, some of whom they’re personally invested in developing. The only way to get the best gigs, then, is to keep banging your head against the wall without getting a concussion: write more songs, take advantage of whatever opportunities come your way, keep it real, and embody patience. If you write good songs, get out of the house regularly, and avoid the appearance of desperation, you will make an impression and doors will start to open.

Not many doors are open for me in San Francisco, though I’ve lived here for almost ten years. I should emphasize that I wasn’t trying for the first seven or so of those ten years: I wrote songs and performed occasionally, but directed most of my time and energy at young kids and demanding jobs. When I came out of semi-retirement a few years ago, I sussed out the singer/songwriter scene and was able to get a few things going. For example, Beth Marlin invited me to share her CD-release house concert, and promoter KC Turner included me in the lineup for his annual Bazaar Stock event. The point of all this was not career advancement, but community: I started hanging out with music people again, which is something I’ve missed since New York City in the 90s.

Back then, I was part of a robust scene that grew up around the original Living Room on the corner of Stanton and Allen on the Lower East Side. As far as I can tell, there’s always been a singer-songwriter haven in NYC: Sin-é → Living Room → Rockwood Music Hall. Sin-é was the happening spot when I was starting out, Jeff Buckley having recently released Live at Sin-é and made the place famous, but I couldn’t get a gig for the simple and logical reason that I wasn’t ready. I was ready by the time the Living Room opened, and I and most of the songwriters I knew called it home. The Living Room was NOT a place to make money, because there was no cover and we played for a “suggested donation.” Rather, it was a place to log stage time, test drive new songs, try out new combinations of musicians, etc. In short, it was a community hub and incubator of talent, and I recall those days with extreme fondness. 

The closest thing San Francisco has to The Living Room is probably the Bazaar Café, whose owner has supported singer/songwriters forever. In particular, the monthly Tuesday night residencies have community potential. The problem is, Bay Area geography discourages drop-ins: unlike in New York – where you’re always just a few subway stops away – San Francisco has bridges, traffic, parking, etc. Factor in tech jobs and families, and the stage is set for non-participation.

I myself don’t drop in at the Bazaar Café very often, but I also don’t drop in regularly at the Hotel Utah, the Lost Church – which is practically walking distance from my home – the Backroom and the Monkey House in Berkeley, or any of the other venues that welcome local and developing talent. I blame my children, who have turned me into a morning person. Be that as it may, most aspiring songwriters must build a reputation in small venues along the lines of the above if they ever want to graduate to larger audiences. In the Bay Area, that means The Chapel, The Independent, Slim’s, the Great American Music Hall, the Freight & Salvage, and – if the stars align – the Fillmore Auditorium.

I played the Fillmore twice as an opening act, but that was “back in the day” and my relationship was with the headliner not the venue. Recently, I thought I might have a shot at opening for Ian Hunter & the Rant Band because their guitarist, who played on my second album, offered to interface with the agent. Ian’s people were open to it but wanted someone who could sell a significant number of tickets. I withdrew my candidacy, and they ended up with Chuck Prophet & the Mission Express, a great band that’s popular enough to fill the 600-capacity Great American Music Hall on its own.

Should I have lied about my draw?!? People do it all the time, and it’s hard to tell who’s there to see whom in a place the size of the Fillmore (1,150 capacity). Still, it’s risky business, and the last thing I want to do is burn a bridge at the most prestigious venue in my hometown. In this case, karmic justice intervened: I was hired to play that night in the Poster Room, the upstairs bar that features acoustic music before the show and between the acts. I’ve been trying to get into the Poster Room literally for years, and was paid to attend a show I would have paid to attend.

The Great American Music Hall is another nut we’d all love to crack. I’d hoped to open for Suzanne Vega there last November, and her tour manager said he’d make it happen, but – in the time that elapsed between that handshake deal and the run-up to the event – he exited Team Vega and Teddy Thompson was added to her entire West Coast run. Like in the Ian Hunter example, I can’t complain: Teddy Thompson is a fine singer and songwriter who puts butts in seats. I had another near miss when The Weepies invited me to open a few dates on a short West Coast tour. I played Seattle and Portland, and would have been welcome at GAMH, but they added a second show and there wasn’t time for another act. 

In short, it’s hard to land a local dream gig, even when you have an “in.” Luckily, those gigs usually go to a deserving soul who needs opportunities as badly as you do. In rare cases, however, they go to someone who doesn’t deliver the goods in terms of art and/or commerce. A few years ago, I convinced a friend to consider me for his show at a prominent venue, but his agent wanted a female with a national profile. I went to the show, and the opener was NOT female. I don’t know about his profile, but the music was not better than mine or that of a number of other local candidates, each of whom would have drummed up more business. One thing you can’t do in these situations is begrudge the opener, who’s only doing his/her job. The other thing is to avoid over-analyzing: the powers that be have mysterious agendas that defy guesswork.

I actually know what it’s like to supplant local talent, having opened for Suzanne Vega all over the U.S. and Europe on her Songs in Red & Gray tour in the early 00s. I’m confident that there were large handfuls of artists who would have contributed good songs and sold tickets, but I had them boxed out. Usually, the promoters were OK with my presence – one less headache! – but there were exceptions. A Paris promoter, for example, told me all about the up-and-coming French singer/songwriter he had wanted to “introduce” that night, just as he had “introduced” another up-and-coming French singer/songwriter on a previous Vega show. Merci beaucoup, monsieur! A venue in Southern California flexed its muscles by adding a third act to the mid-week bill, so that I was the second opening act and twice as unwelcome.

But I digress! I’ve had a lot of great gigs in my various hometowns, and – although I can’t get a gig everywhere in the Bay Area – I can get them in decent places and regularly. I do my best to keep it interesting for my friends/fans, and find opportunities to play for people I don’t know. I have to admit, though, that I’d like to make a little more noise so that bigger, better venues start paying attention. Maybe you know a guy who knows a guy?

Bob Hillman Administrator

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