All eyes on the screen

Andrew Booker 2008-06-08 23:33:22

Last Wednesday we played our first gig at the The Plough since January. The Pluff, as I like to call it, is a backwater, edge-of-suburbia pub close to Epping Forest.

They like us at The Pluff in our midweek slot because we're interesting and easy on the ears. I like the place too. It's very close to where I live in South Woodford, it has gear we can use, and without a PRS license it needs to have originals acts only. As a venue for us, historically it has been a bit hit and miss, with our gigs a little on-off in quality, enjoyability, general worth-bothering-with-ness. Adjective suggestions welcome for that. My brain is fresh out right now. Attendance at The Plough is unreliable, and certainly most of our friends don't want to trek all the way out there to see us. That partly amounts to why I had not troubled with a gig there since the beginning of the year. So it was a welcome relief that our 04 June 2008 showing there was a triumph.

We've done some good Improvizone gigs in our time, but I don't think I've enjoyed one as much as this. Firstly, we played well. Any Improvizone gig with Mike and Os involved is going to work. It just is. This time we had the dependably enthusiastic Nick Cottam on bass, and he played very well throughout. As for me, although I don't feel like I'll ever have time to lift my drumming technique above obscurity, here I was satisfied that, for the most part, I was helping to make music, rather than just clattering about. Though I did plenty of that too.

That was the music, but there was more.

After three or four agonising days of watching progress bars, swearing at inanimate computational devices and snapping badly-written DVDs into three pieces, I managed to bring an hour and a bit of visuals to the gig. Some other time I'll bore you with the misery, the despair, the noddy out-of-the-box software that came with my laptop, the overnight processing on two computers, the hours of 100% CPU followed by error messages saying [something] is incompatible with [something else]... [get stuffed], the locking myself out of my house at the eleventh hour... all to burn a DVD. By next time I'll have it down much more smoothly, because I have now run through this whole process from start to finish and can see many points for improvement. One. Make sure your keys are in your goddamn pocket. And so on. Meanwhile, the important story is that I brought anything to this gig at all, because to me it felt like the visuals made a big difference.

It's not hard to see why. Four largely inanimate people seated in an unflatteringly-lit corner of a room are not necessarily great to look at. Bring in clouds swirling in weather satellite pictures, streetlights whizzing past in time-lapse travel pieces, a sped-up sunset from a local viewpoint... the whole value of what we're doing is multiplied. People started walking in and sitting down to watch it. Normally we don't get to leave the doors open during the gig. This time they stayed open all evening, and people in the main bar were looking through and pointing at the Blackwall Tunnel or the footbridge over the A406 half a mile away, as they watched the sun sink below the skyline and the streetlights flickering on.

Best of all was the effect it had on the band. Pity Os couldn't see it, but Nick was constantly looking round, and Mike basically faced the screen most of the evening, reacting in his playing as the scenes changed. Sadly for the audience, the only person with the close-up view of his exquisite understated guitar-playing was me. If you were watching me, you would have seen I spent half the evening smiling, for I confess to a certain smug satisfaction and relief at having finally got some imagery together that appeared to be interesting and enagaging. You couldn't see any of us very well of course. This was kind of the point. We had all the main lights turned off, and had a couple of low voltage desk lamps on stage so we could see what we were doing. Other than that, it was the video. The murky picture of us below doesn't quite do justice to how the whole thing looked. In fact the human eye has a much better time with this kind of lighting than cameras tend to.

To me, this looked like an example of how we should be doing gigs. When I look back at some of the others, I now see that they are not. The week before this, we played a musically excellent but promotionally pointless gig in Ember in Farringdon. Back at the end of last November it had been very busy. By the end of May this year, for whatever reason, the place was empty. I was sitting at the drums in Ember enjoying our playing, thinking this music is turning out great, but it has no chance of being heard and no pulling power down here.

An empty venue at the beginning of the evening is not a disaster. So long as whoever comes in stays in, it's OK. Assuming we don't know them (my measure of a successful gig is how many of the audience are people we don't know), they'll stay if they like our music and we can hold their attention. It's clear from last week's Plough gig that adding visuals is a great way not only to hold people's interest, but to generate it in the first place. But they have to be able to see it to start with.

And that is why, from now on, I'm going to need a pretty good reason to book another Improvizone gig in a basement. I never wanted to in the first place. And also from now on, I'm going to need an equally good reason to book a gig in a place that does not support projection. I don't mind if I have to bring my own projector, ker-ching, gulp, so long as there's a suitable matt-white vertical surface to project onto.

Visuals pile up << | >> Gig: Aimless Mules 27/28 June 2008