Nothing can make a stage performance more uncomfortable than a stinkin' drunk heckler out in the crowd yelling "FREE BIRD!" I've always threatened to learn "Free Bird" so I can play it for an hour and a half next time somebody does that.
Another commonly-used taunt - in Alaska anyway - is "Play somethin' good!" The best way for the performer to avoid this one and others like it is to keep the show going without giving hecklers enough of a pause in the action to think of something to say. But it is inevitable if you are performing on the bar circuit that you are going to run into some smart-asses, and it's usually one of your friends. If a good friend heckles you, there should be no compunction about slamming the offender's ego into the ground with a well-placed jab about their mother, intelligence or level of intoxication. I've got a Steve Martin album, complete with killer banjo picking, on which Steve replies to a heckler with "I remember my first beer."
An insult is generally considered to be the best way to deal with a heckler, although this can go wrong in a bar environment where you might find some huge frat boy rushing the stage yelling "NOBODY talks about my mother!" Microphone stands are a good defense against this eventuality, but not as good as cutting and running, which is what I do. I can run extremely fast when chased, and I know my way around town better than most people. Always have an exit strategy.
Has the heckler got you tongue-tied and flustered? Can't un-sheath the right words with which to cut down your opponent's unsolicited attack on your character? You better just count one off and start playin', preferably as loud as possible. Everybody knows music can both kill memories and evoke them, so tearing into a tune during an uncomfortable silence in a heckling situation is your last resort in the event of a brain fart on stage. If you have to do that, you've lost face and will have to work to get the crowd back.
Even a well-meaning fan or friend can turn, unintentionally, into a heckler. For example, the fan may not realize that the song title they've been screaming for an hour is one we've already played .... twice! And not to discourage folks from getting drinks for the band, but buying them five shots of whiskey each per set is a dangerous thing to do, especially around bluegrass musicians. The well-meaning drink buyer can single-handedly derail a bluegrass band in about a half hour. Broken ball-end strings will litter the stage; if the stage is level, the banjo player will drool from both sides of his or her mouth; lyrics may become unintelligible; and blood will likely flow.
I hope not to discourage music fans and supporters from yelling out requests, "hell yeah's" and even deserved epithets. Most musicians playing the bar circuit aren't likely to be doing it for the money, because there really isn't any. They are playing live because they enjoy interacting with the listeners and dancers, and thrive on the feedback from the crowd. So don't hold back, but do hold back, just a little, maybe, if you have to, I guess.
Support live music!
Sean Tracey is a local cheap canned beer connoisseur with summer tour dates posted on www.myspace.com/seanetracey.
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