Once you’ve landed the gig, lets consider how to plan for the initial show. Last time, we looked at compelling reasons why you might seriously consider landing a regular restaurant gig.
When it comes to gear, less is usually more. If you play acoustic guitar and sing, a small PA or dedicated acoustic amp may be enough if only playing in their bar area. I use a Fishman Solo Artist for most of my acoustic shows and it’s plenty loud, even when running backing tracks through the amp. An acoustic electric steel or nylon string with or without a vocal mic and you’re good to go. If you are singing, I don’t recommend chintzing on the mic. I use an E V NDym 757 which sounds great with my voice and prefer over other typical dynamic mics for solo gigs. If the gig has a rotating cast of performers, bring your own vocal mic for sonic and health reasons. I learned 40 years ago from veteran bassist Don Quisenberry to be careful who sings on a mic with you. He preferred Shure SM-57’s with the removable washable windscreen to the SM-58 when doing floor shows with multiple singers using the same mic. Wash the windscreen after removing it from the mic, let it dry overnight and then remount it in time for the next gig.
If you’re a piano player and the bar has a piano, you get to schlepp less gear! (I am instantly jealous.) If you carry your own keys rig, try and simplify if possible. A small, full range keyboard amp can do a great job for most small to medium sized venues. If you have multiple room angles and/or rooms, you might need to patch into their house system for added coverage. Be sure and come in ahead of time to try this out before the paying customers arrive! Neglecting to do so may result in your not being asked back. When doing sound checks, be sure to start off at a low volume. It’s better to be asked to turn up instead of turn down. Trust me- been there, done that!
Another topic to consider is song selection and pacing. I have a variety of smooth jazz and pop tunes in my repertoire that I use to begin most shows. This allows me to get used to the room’s sound and for staff and patrons to get used to my performance and sound. I prefer to start with an instrumental if possible to get used to the sound and make any last minute tweaks before I begin singing. When I do sing the first tune, I will keep things mellow, both for my voice and the audience. A restaurant is not a coffeehouse or club date. You usually have a couple hours to warm up the crowd and your voice. Take your time and pace things. I will typically play a mid tempo piece, a more uptempo song and then a ballad. I will throw in instrumental tunes periodically if the audience applauds or seems to be really listening. I also do this if I’ve done a gig the night before or already done a gig earlier in the day.
Keep in mind that restaurant performances should be more relaxed for you as an entertainer. Clients have come to eat a meal and aren’t critiquing your every note. Do your best to keep things moving smoothly and add to the ambiance, not detract from it. Make notes of songs that need more work, a different mix or approach, and handle that on your own time. I record my shows occasionally, listen back a few days later and make adjustments to my sequences, approach or actual performance.
Just a word about audience patter. Remember you are a type of “musical waiter” at a foodie gig. It’s not necessary to talk between every song or even advisable. I will introduce myself a few times an hour, and thank diners for joining us. I make a point of asking the manager if they have any specials or announcements they’d like me to make over the mic. This lets he or she know I am there to help them build their business. Whether they have me do so or not is immaterial. I have offered and they can accept or not. A good restauranteur will be sensitive to his customers and you would do well to follow that example. Many folks do not want to be spoken to or bothered in any way at a restaurant. Don’t take it personally.
If you do a good job, people will let the owners know about it and will probably tip you as well. For this reason, get business cards printed and bring them on a small card holder like this one to put beside a tip jar. This allows folks who like your work to hire you offsite for more lucrative work. I carry my own plastic tip jar with a $1 and $5 seed money always inside. When the gig is over with, I simply put the lid over the tip jar and load it with the rest of my gear.
Be respectful and professional and you might discover performing at restaurants is just your style.
Riley Wilson began performing at restaurant gigs in raleigh, NC in the early ’90’s. His One Man Band won the “Best of 2012, 2013 and Rising Star” awards on Gigmasters. He’s a full time guitar teacher, does voiceovers and enjoys writing. Share your thoughts with him through his website, www.guitarmadesimpler.com