The legendary Graham Nash dropped in on one of the late shows recently and sat down to play one of his hits “Just a Song Before I Go.”
He has been playing this song for 40 years, performed it, no doubt, a thousand times. But on this night, live on network television in front of millions of viewers, he can’t remember the chord progressions. A few of the mistakes are slightly audible, others are clearly visible, at least to a guitarist. But he is cool and calm and finds his way through the piece.
Of course, it happens every day, in coffee houses or at Madison Square Garden or live on the Grammys. Performers make mistakes; there are technical glitches they have to endure. Sometimes the audience notices, sometimes not.
But how the performer handles the situation makes all the difference.
On another show, Celine Dion takes the stage, puts the microphone up to her mouth, but the voice emanating from the PA system is a man asking technical questions to the backstage audio crew. She puts her hand to her ear-piece and shakes her head to indicate she hears nothing. Finally, a guy rushes to stage with another microphone, and after what seems an eternity, they get the glitches worked out. She nonchalantly begins singing with a smile.
And then on one of the music awards show not long ago, Adele is performing a tribute to George Michael. She is off key, noticeably so. She decides to take matters into her own hands and abruptly halts the song, swears, and asks the band for a restart. She apologizes profusely to the audience, claiming that she has to get this right, in honor of her late countryman.
For me, in the above three examples, I admire Nash and Dion for persevering, especially Dion. None of this was her fault and yet here she was on a live broadcast looking silly. A prima donna could have (in his/her mind anyway) thrown a fit. She was graceful and resolved, and when the glitches were worked out, she carried on with her pitch-perfect tone as though nothing happened.
I’m ambivalent about Adele. She was on live TV after all, and hey, this was pretty good proof she wasn’t using auto-tuning or, worse yet, lip syncing. She claimed she was compelled to restart to honor George Michael. Maybe that was how she genuinely felt. But in that case, she was putting her feelings ahead of the audience’s. They were undoubtedly lost in the moment until she jolted them back to reality.
The press lavished praise on Adele’s bravery. Because of her star power, for her, it worked. For me, not so much.
The single biggest gift a performer can bring to his or her listeners is to make them feel transported out of that time and place, to let them feel lost in the moment of the music. It’s their time, not yours. They’ve paid money to see and hear you, and it’s your job to deliver.
The “restart because things aren’t quite just right” syndrome is behavior I see all too often. Drop into an open mic or weekend coffee house gig, and more often than not, someone is interrupting a song to retune or explain that they forgot a verse to their very own song.
If you didn’t think enough of the song to tune your guitar beforehand or to memorize your lyrics, then suck it up. That’s your fault, not the listeners’. By restarting, you get the chance to make it right in your mind. But you’ve just ruined the moment for the audience.
Lots of other greats have made mistakes and dealt with it in their ways. Ella Fitzgerald, in her later years, was performing with the inimitable jazz guitarist Joe Pass in Germany. After a flawless rendition of Nat King Cole’s hit “Nature Boy,” she asks for a do-over.
She apparently wasn’t happy with her performance for some reason, but she made it through, giving the audience the time and space. Compare that to Adele’s f-bomb-dropping fit.
Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton, in their respective “unplugged” albums in the ’90s, each made mistakes. Paul forgot his own lyrics, and started “We Can Work it Out” with the second verse. Ironically, when he restarts, he still messes up the lyrics. In my view, he could have played through the first time and the audience wouldn’t have cared. So no hall pass for him. (Though he did make light of it in his usual, goofy persona.)
Eric made a silly, unrecoverable error and had to halt his performance. He had just finished a song on the dobro using a slide on his little finger but didn’t realize he still had the slide on when he began playing the blues traditional “Alberta” using a standard guitar. He wasn’t going to get too far with that setup.
“Hang hang, hang on,” he says, laughing, and holding up his hand to reveal the slide. The audience laughs along.
Apparently, when the concert finished, he asked the audience if they would mind if he redid a few songs for the final taped version. Of course, they were happy to oblige. He repeated performances of five numbers, but the false start for “Alberta” earned a spot on the recordings, both audio and video. Proof we’re all human.
I had my Eric moment at a performance last year when I forgot to put a capo on my guitar. I played the first chord in E with the band playing in F. Not a good start.
I made a little joke, grabbed the capo and we moved on. It happens.
At another performance, I somehow managed to cut one of my fingers while playing guitar (it’s a dangerous profession). At the end of the set, the place looked like a crime scene, blood everywhere. No one but the band noticed, though. It was a little inside joke, best kept a secret.
So what’s the takeaway? First and foremost, the audience comes first.
— Play through if you can. There are mistakes you notice and ones the audience notices. Even the ones the audience notices are only a very brief moment in time.
— Be as quick as you can about a restart. If you have to take it from the top, for technical or other reasons, be as expeditious as you can to correct the situation.
— In all mishaps, be gracious and engaging with the listeners. Humor never hurts, either.
As the great jazz pianist/composer Bill Evans said, “There are no wrong notes, only wrong solutions.”
Music to my ears.