I’ve played shows for beer, many times. Although I haven’t done so lately. I quit drinking in 1997, when I realized I’d had my share. And possibly yours. I’m that way now, with chocolate. I want mine, I want yours, I want theirs…. I need my hand slapped sometimes.
Playing for beer is a time-honored tradition for musicians. When people want a band, and they can’t or don’t want to pay them, they just say, “Well, let’s give ‘em all the beer they want”. — I think this is a really bad idea. It just helps musicians become, or remain, broke alcoholics. And that’s not what we want….
I’ve played big private parties, New Year’s Eve shindigs, jam sessions and open mikes for beer. No pay, just beer. Or maybe even hard liquor. But, and is this logical or what: whenever possible, I would try to go for the ultimate combo: money and beer. And in many clubs, that was the policy. You got paid, and you still got all the beer you wanted! Those clubs had no shortage of bands lined up and wanting to play.
Every once in a while, a musician will voluntarily play a free gig; either for charity, or because it’s such a big event. — Like a festival. Take for instance, the Northwest Regional Folklife Festival, which has been happening in Seattle, Washington for over forty years.
I’ve performed at the Folklife Festival seven times over the years, including six times with my late wife, Sally Jo Davis, in our folk duo Spirit Ridge. For a long time, the way to be chosen to play Folklife has been to submit an application, along with a sample of your music. And then, the good people of Folklife Programming will decide if they have room for you. Because, for a free gig, it’s very popular. If you’re an acoustic musician, it’s just about a must to play “Folklife”. And now, even hip-hop artists are turning in their applications in great numbers, since the festival saw a need to be more inclusive. You can hear a little of everything at Folklife now, from ska to shape-note singing. You can see everything from Morris dancers to Native American dancers.
I’ve had my Folklife application turned down a couple of times. There are a few people who play there every year; like the incredible Crow Quill Night Owls, who do amazing renditions of songs right out of the 1930’s; but basically no one’s a shoo-in. So, being picked feels good.
For a free gig, it’s one where I always put out 110% effort, in order to give the absolute-best show ever. If you do well enough, you may be picked to have one of your songs included on a Folklife compilation album. Or, someone may hear you and offer you a booking. And, of course you get a Folklife Participant button to display on your guitar strap, as a way of bragging to other musicians that yes, you played Folklife.
In 1975, my musical partner in crime was a great young fellow, Mike “Sixball” Stengel. For those of you who remember my other story which features Mike, he journeyed to Seattle back in ’74, to become part of our music scene. Before long, we had formed an acoustic folk/folk-rock/blues duo. We busked all over the place. We busked at the wonderful Pike Place Market. We played open mikes at the very atmospheric Last Exit On Brooklyn, until the owner, Irv Cisski, said we had to quit, because he didn’t want professionals playing his open mikes. Here we were, a couple of long-haired guitar players, practically living on the street. But Irv heard us, and what he heard was professional musicians. I guess it was hard for us to be too upset….
But Mike and I really did roam all over Seattle, looking for primo places to play, to pick up a few dollars. In May, 1975, when we were both very new to town, we decided to go on down to Seattle Center, and see if maybe we could find a good busking spot at an event we’d been hearing about, called the Folklife Festival. We easily found the event; it was spread out all over the Center. There were stages everywhere. We found a nice spot by the sidewalk, not too near a stage, where we were able to do our busking. We set out an open guitar case in front of us (the international symbol of busking), and started playing our blend of great acoustic music. We were experienced and talented, and we’d played together a lot. Every day. We played songs like “Ride Me Down Easy”, “Accentuate The Positive”, “Catfish John”, and “Glendale Train”. Soon, we started seeing the dimes and quarters roll in. And even a couple of bills.
As were going great guns, a young woman approached us. She was wearing a Folklife Button. She waited for us to finish our song, and then she complimented us. She thought we were pretty good. She asked us if we’d like to play at the festival. – Well, I guess back then, Folklife was kind-of just getting going, and they had more open time slots than they had musicians to fill them. Mike and I looked at each other, and quickly decided to do it. We were trying to get established, and here was a chance to play on a stage with sound equipment, an announcer, a dedicated audience – all that. So we said, yes.
The young woman led us to a booth located next to a really big outdoor stage. She said, “You can play on this stage”. Well, that was perfect, because the weather was fantastic, and very warm. Playing outside was the norm for us, anyway.
She said her name was Lily, and we told her ours. She asked us to sign-up on her clipboard, and to pick a time. Yes — we even got to pick our own time. Since we had just played a whole bunch of tunes on the sidewalk, Mike and I thought, “Well, let’s play in 90 minutes. That’ll give us time to cool off, relax, and get ready”. Lily said that was perfect. She said, “Just tell the sound guy what you need, and have a good show”. We tipped our hats to her, like well-mannered cosmic cowboys would, and thanked her. We started to walk off, to go relax and discuss what songs we should play. Then, Lily added, “And the beer tent is over there”. We went, “What?” She said, “Well, yeah, it’s our way of thanking you for participating in the festival. Go enjoy”. — Well, what could we do? We went to the beer tent.
It really was a warm day. We were quite honestly worn out, hot and in need of refreshment. And Mike and I did like our beer. So we had one, and toasted our luck. Here we were, about to make our Big Folklife Debut. We decided, since we were that lucky, we should have another, and toast our luck again. So we did.
I doubt I had ever seen Mike have just one or two beers. And he had never, ever seen me have just one or two beers. And this time was no exception. I have no idea how many we had, but it was more than we meant to. Our friendly beertender never batted an eye as we returned again and again to his little bar.
We got snockered. Really. We could hardly talk, let alone sing. I have no idea how we got home, but I do remember sneaking out of the beer tent, trying to keep ourselves small, while bumbling and stumbling in the opposite direction from the huge stage where we were scheduled to make our Big Folklife Debut.
Moral Of The Story
If you are gonna give musicians “all the beer they want”, give it to them after they play.
I can only imagine the conversation which took place in the beer tent, when we failed to show up at the stage. Lily: “Have you seen two guys with guitar cases?” Beertender: “Well, yeah, this is Folklife”.
I’m sorry, Lily…. It never happened again.
To read more of the adventures of Mike and Randy, here ya go: https://randybowlestories.wordpress.com/2015/03/19/would-you-like-to-be-humiliated-on-tv/
Here I am playing at the 2013 Northwest Regional Folklife Festival.