Doc Stevens on Playing in Jams, Open Mic Nights, Gigs and all that.

Saturday, January 24, 2009 4:58 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: Doc travels a lot and when he is in a new town, he likes to play at the venue or event that he is booked for, and then he always seeks out a local jam or open mic night, if his schedule permits. He usually goes down pretty well at these, and is always invited back. I have accompanied him to several over the last few years, and he truly is well liked and well received by the locals. So I asked him what advice or counsel he would have to some who wanted to go down well at a jam or open mic night.

Doc: Well I ain't good enough to be tellin' anyone else what to do or how to play but I learnt a little bit over the years at how to get a crowd likin' you and how not to get on other musician's nerves what is there.

You don't wanna come in like you think you're JImi Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Stevie Ray. Be humble and not a know it all. Aint nobody like a know it all. There's no end to the number of good talent out there and you probably aint the best what's gonna show up. Be low profile.

Second, it you play guitar, be a good rhythm player first. Most of the time there is no shortage of lead players and few rhythm players. I aint no good at lead, but I am real good at rhythm and that is all I want to be good at. [Actually, Doc is also a very good drummer, a more than proficient bass player and a decent piano player - don't let him fool you with his "aw shucks, I aint nuthin'" act. I have heard him play these instruments. - Tondeleo] I am happy to play rhythm and I enjoy hearin people play a good lead guitar over it.

Number three would be to let the other guys go first. Don't push to go first or act like you think you're on American Idol an you're gonna get discovered. You aint and you aint. Aint nobody gonna discover you. You an everyone else is there to have fun, play some songs and make some friends. That'll help you keep your cool.

Four. Do a few songs that you know well, and that you can relax with and when you're done, sit down, or pull back or whatever they do at that one. Leave em wanting more. You don't wanna be the one that people get up and go to bathroom during, or go out for a smoke.

Five, if you screw up don't let no one know it. Like on that California Blues song what you put on that Yourtube, after the first verse, I got thinkin' about somethin else and then realized I done forgot the rest of the song. But aint no one knowed it, because I made up a bridge and a couple of verses what aint never been in it before or since. Look it up on that Yourtube. [See below - Tondeleo]. But you cant tell it cause I didn't announce it or look mad or anything. If you look close you might catch it when I done realized I was lost, but that is all. They is there to have a good time, not to care about if you screwed up or not.

If you're at a open mic, you oughtta have about 4 songs you're good and relaxed at. Don't come in with somethin you learned special for that night. Play stuff you been playin' so much that you can do it in your sleep. Then you can focus on the people or on performing or you can daydream like what I done on that California Blues.

If you stick to songs what you know real good, then nothin' will distract you and make you mess up so bad you have to stop. Unless you have to hit a man what I have had to do but only a couple of times in more than 35 years of playing. One time I hit a man pretty hard with my Telecaster. But he had it comin, so that don't count.

Here's another one. Do songs what all has a good beat. A solid rhythm what gets people tappin they's feet and wavin' they's heads along with the music. If you're doin' good, people will get up along the front and dance. When me and Marilyn play outside on the streets, people always come up along the front and dance, if we is playing at night. During the day they aint much for dancing or listening too long. They gotta go to work.

It really aint about how good you sing or play but can you hold a audience. If you got them clappin' along or dancing when they walk or swayin' or any of that, you are doin' good. If there is a manager of the place, he will notice it or she will if it is a lady. Here is a trick, Tondy:

Get them to clap a lot. I get them to clap for the lady up front that is dancin'. I get them to clap for the manager! I get them to give a clap of 'preciation for the soundman, or the light man, or the bouncers! Anything to get people to clap a lot and cheer when you're playin! It makes 'em relate that clappin' to you, and the manager hears it and wants you back.

Most people want to hear songs they already know. That's a trick too. You win every time if you do songs they know and like. They aint want to hear some new song what is too slow or hard to sing along with, unless you was Paul McCartney and the song was "Yesterday." I mean in general, that's how it is. I'm talking about playing it safe.

Oh yeah. Tondy, get this one. You gotta act like you're havin' fun and then the people will have fun too. If you're scared you'll mess up, they'll be scared you're gonna mess up and you'll make them nervous. Like I aint never act like I'm scared I'm gonna mess up, because I aint scared of it. I know I'm gonna hit some bad notes but it don't matter. We're here to have fun.

Don't be too loud. Amateurs always want the sound person to turn up the guitar or turn up the mic or to turn up something else. No. Ask the sound person to turn DOWN the one that sounds just right to you, so it matches what you think is too quiet. If you ant anything to be turned up, ask for the stage monitor to be turned up so you can hear yourself. Say, "I need LESS guitar," Or "Gimme less mic." In most places what hold only a couple of hundred people, I don't even use no mic and neither does Marilyn for singing. Aint neither one of us needs one. We just amp the guitar and sometimes the harp. We both sing loud because we been singing outside for years, and that helps you sing out. I can sing louder than a bus.

Don't open with a slow song. Even if it's a pretty one. Start with something high energy, and follow with something high energy, and maybe song number 3 can be slow, but end with a fast one.

Have plenty of business cards to hand people. It aint no good to go out and play for free and not get a gig out of it somewhere or at least a meal. You also got to know what you charge or what you'll take if someone wants you go play for them. I aint no fashion plate and I aint greedy, but I gotta eat.

Like, there is circles of people what know me an they pass my name to their friends, and I get to go all over the place. Mostly I charge about $200 or $250 if Marilyn comes with me, and they gotta feed me and give me a place to sleep if it is far away.

I went down Texas an played for three days for this: They fly me out there and back. They give me rides, food, place to sleep and $1000 and a ride back to the airport. I stayed at a dude's house one night, at a motel two nights and at another dude's house one night. They played me six times in a bunch of places what I didn't know where. But it was good an for one man that is good money for a weekend. For me at least. And I left cards there and made friends and they will have me back. If you're from far away, they think you is better.

Put your name on your stuff. Name and address or cell phone number or email if you got it. I got email now. If you leave something behind they can get it back to you. Keeps people more honest by not stealing your stuff so fast and saying they thought it was theirs.

Show respect. Act like you really like everybody else what is playing. Don't be no critic, telling what you think they need to be doing better and badmouthing anyone. Whatever you send out in life comes back to you multiplied. Say something good about every body. Clap and cheer for them.

Say good things into the mic about the place you is playing, about manager, the sound person, and the audience and other players. Make sure people can tell that you really like people and that you aint no snob. Aint nobody like a snob.

Doc Stevens 003 Oh yeah, and you aint got to have good equipment. You just got to get some good sounds out of it. I like Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials and he plays $75 guitars, and I do too. Most of the ones I play is what other people laugh at, and call a piece of crap. They IS a piece of crap. But I can move a crowd with them. It aint the instrument, it's the heart of the person playin. I play crap guitars and got some cheap amps.

I have a old Peavey tube amp with 2 12's what is now my best amp. Others is worse. I have a old 1966 or 67 Telecaster what I have had forever and some people say is worth about $500 but I would not take $700 for it. That is a good enough guitar. But I usually take out pieces of crap guitars.

Street Musicians: Doc Stevens on Busking, Street Performance and Making Money - Part Three

Wednesday, January 7, 2009 4:12 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Doc Stevens 066 Tondeleo: I've gathered together some of Doc's experiences while performing as a street musician over the years. Unlike many who are street performers, Doc is not a) homeless or psycho; b) an alcoholic, or drug addict; c) someone trying to just have fun playing. d) someone hoping to be "discovered."

He plays on the streets for money if he has a bill he can't pay. He also will play in the streets , to snare an extra gig or two if he is in a strange city and wants to prolong his time there.

Clearly, he is not well educated in the traditional sense of the word, but Doc does have a basic business sense and a very keen sense of survival, as you can tell from his previous posts on not just street performance but also basic self defense and impromptu weapons.

Here are some excerpts from a conversation where we were talking about making money while performing on the street (which we call "busking" in the U.K.). I added the bold headings.

Why are you singing in the streets is important. Doc: Like I said, Tondy, you have to have a reason to be out there that's at least a little inspirin'. Your emotions is like a magnet. You gotta have emotions about what it is you want.

Playin' guitar and singin' as such aint that inspirin'. I can go down to a nursin' home an' play for free. Me and Marilyn does that when we ain't needin' the money and we have some time. When her grandmama on her mother's side was in a nursin' home down Virginia, we'd go see her an' then play a couple sets in the big activity room there. We aint need to go out on the streets just to get a audience.

Goin' out on the streets is a hassle, an' for us, it means travel to DC if we're doin' it from home. That's more than a hour, an' more'n that if we got to catch a ride to Bryans Road which is 40 minutes an' then catch the W-19 bus, which is 15 minutes wait, and then to the Metro which is another 25 minutes and then another 20 minutes. Plus we gotta pay to do that, an then we have the same thing to get back home and have to call Bruce or someone for a ride! So we BETTER make some money out there! We aint goin out thDoc Stevens 002ere for no $50.

Playin on the street for us is about making a few dollars and gettin' more gigs, even if it is just to come play at a local bar or club for $50 or $100. So I keep that in mind. I have to be entertainin' and lively and funny, but not crazy enough that a club owner will think I'm too crazy to have in his place. It's a ACT, not a fact, Tondy.

No Fun, No Mon. Pullin' money outta peoples' pockets is harder than you think. You won't make any money sitting on a chair and singing like a wooden headed dress dummy, with a box or open case at your feet. A lot of street musicians does that and then cry that there aint no money comin' in.

Look at the next one you see. Mostly sittin' on a chair with a box or open case and singing into space. Even folks what sings and plays like angels! Well, aint no money gonna fall out of space, or outta heaven, I can tell you that!

But you cain't be too wild an' scare people off. If they think you are a crazy drunk or druggie, you aint gonna make no money even if you are fun to watch. You'll scare 'em off cause they aint want to get too close to you.

"Here is a secret: People got money.

If you want money, you gotta have people. Period."

Improvising to get food and money. What I do is sometimes sit, sometimes stand, dependin' on the place I am at. I make good eye contact with the people and sometimes look 'em in the eye as they come toward me an' if I can I will sing about them as they come up to pass me by like... "Hey pretty lady in the bull ridin' t shirt... I know you gonna help a poor man eat... I KNOW you gonna reach down deep in your pocket an' give him at least a dollar... A WOMAN CUTE AS YOU AN' KINDHEARTED TOO..." I'll fit that right into the song, or will kind of chant it, in time to the song. If I do that an' smile an' look at the other people around, she will maybe half the time put in a 1 or a $5.

I have did that an' when I get hungry if a hot dog vendor is near sometimes I can sing or chant for "someone to bring the poor guitar man a footlong with sauerkraut and pretty soon!" Somebody is gonna do it, an' then I sing a verse about 'em as a thank you. It sets you apart from the wooden heads that feels embarrassed 'bout bein' out there or who ignore the people. You gotta interact and play with the people if you wanna make money.

Here is a secret: People got money. If you want money, you gotta have people. Period.

Priming the pump: I use different ways to get people to give money. Sometimes I make a cardboard sign what says: "Give this man some money and get him off the streets." and put that over my collection box. We gotta a draw string bag with a bicycle cable lock on it what is fastened to Marilyn's wrist. She will straight out approach people and say, "Give some money so I can get Uncle Doc to be quiet so we can go home. Even a couple of dollars... anything!"

Security. Like I said, our drawstring bag gots a cable lock on it. I got another with a pair of handcuffs on it, what goes to me or Marilyn. She carries pepper spray, a small squeeze bottle of ammonia and also a knife! And she bites! Bites like a Chihuahua, takin' bites of skin outta their arm. Bite an' pull! Bite an' pull!

I can take pretty good care of myself, and got that air about me. IDoc Stevens Weapon 10 Doc Stevens Neck Knife 2weigh a bit over 200 pounds. I usually got a couple of back up tools if I need them. A studded belt or dog collar is a good one. I aint givin' away no secrets here. But there is a lot more of legal self defense tools what you can carry. They already been on this blob [blog] where I talk about takin' care of yourself.

One collection box I use has a metal handle and a dog leash fastened to it, so I aint gotta worry 'bout someone come runnin' up and scoop it up an' steel it. The handle of the leash goes 'round my ankle, so if they grab my money box, they gotta drag me along with it, an' they sure aint want that!

Street Musicians: Doc Stevens on Busking, Street Performing - and making some money at it. Part Two

Sunday, January 4, 2009 8:22 PM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: Doc, I have seen you and Marilyn doing your shows many, many times now, and you two get a good crowd and seem to do better financially with being street musicians than a lot of them I have seen. Earlier you talked a bit about how to make more money as a street performer. Can you tell me some more?

Doc: OK, I was talking about making money if you're gonna be out there playing music. For me an' Marilyn, if we are out playing in the streets, whether it is in Washington, DC or anywhere else we happen to be and get a little strapped for cash, we are out there for ONE reason. That is to make money.

MONEY. You make money on the streets by playing music in two ways. One way is the money that people give you right then and there for your playing. The other way is using your street playin' as a free sample of what people would get if they paid you to do a gig. I always am thinking when we play, "how can we get a gig outta this?"

Doc Stevens & Marilyn25 SHOWMANSHIP. You need to GIVE THEM A SHOW, not just play music or sing. If they want good music, they can put on their headphones and listen to their MTV's on those mtv players they all got.

They can get good music on the radio but they cain't get Doc and Marilyn on the radio. THAT is what they pay for. Anyone can play the songs we play but aint no one but us is Doc and Marilyn. You gotta do a show and not be there like a statue what is playing music or a robot. Most the people I see what is doing music is out there ignoring the people passing by and not making eye contact or expecting money.

We make eye contact. We talk, we tease, we flirt, we joke, we laugh and yeah, we ask for money. You aint gonna make no money if you are just sitting there playing with a little box or bowl in front of you where you put in some seed money to help people figure out how to give.

GETTING THE MONEY. Here is how you make the money. Like I said, you have a show. You get people dancing, have a dance contest, get someone to sing along and have a good time. Then about every third or fourth song, you get someone to pass the collection and look people in the eye and say something about chipping in to cover production costs or something.

Doc Stevens & Marilyn26 I might say, "OK, Marilyn, it's time for church! Take up the collection! And I want all you all good people to dig deep and give your best gift! - There's a blessing on the giver!"

I got that one from a TV preacher. And like the TV preacher, I EXPECT a miracle harvest! Out on the streets, ten or twenty dollars at a time IS a miracle harvest, but we do get it. That is why we take up that collection every fifteen minutes or so. I keep playing and singing and Marilyn passes the hat, we use a wool hat, like a ski mask hat but without the eyes cut out. She holds it and goes from person to person and asks for a contribution, while I play my heart out and make up a song that has to do with giving to poor old Doc!

MAKING MONEY WHERE PANHANDLING IS PROHIBITED. Some places you aint allowed to do that. So you have to get around that. Now we ALWAYS have a cardboard sign with our cell phone and email on it so we can get other places to play.

If they aint no pan handling allowed, I make a sign what says they aint no panhandling allowed so if anyone needs to dispose of money while we are playing, they can put it in the container, which I will gesture at.

I will read that sign every three or four songs, and remind people that we are law abiding American citizens and any money that they was considering given us is now dirty money and needs to be gotten rid of!

DocStevens & Marilyn20 COPS. Cops is usually pretty good about that, if you are funny enough and aint drunk. If a cop is there getting ready to run you off, you need someone to deal with him til you finish your song. I get Marilyn to tell him that her Uncle will be done in one more verse an that we will be leaving then. Most of the time they will let you finish, and I ask the people to give the cop a great big hand for being a good cop and for serving our country. And we get our stuff and move a couple blocks.

We can usually go a half hour at a time before they make us move. You need to be able to break up and set up in a minute or less. We aint use no mikes, no drums. Just my guitar, a small amp, my stomp box and Marilyn's harps and our signs. Everything fits in my duffle bag and we move along.

But if your show is good enough and you ask the people to thank the "policeman" and clap for him, while you're packing, the cops will be good to you. They is people, too, and got to make a living just like you do.

Street Musicians: Doc Stevens on Busking, Street Performing - and making some money at it - Part One

Friday, January 2, 2009 7:58 AM Posted by Tondeleo Lee Thomas

Tondeleo: The first time I met Doc Stevens and Marilyn they were busking or as the Yanks call it, street performing. Busking is an almost unknown word in the States. I could hear them of course before I could see them, and as I turned the corner, I could see a crowd of maybe 20 to 25 people standing and listening. Some of them were singing along and some were doing impromptu dances at Doc's urging, which is very much like commanding.

People were laughing, talking, drinking, dancing and clearly having a good time. Doc was at his most "liberated," meaning he was interacting with the crowd, as he likes to do. He would tease them, flirt with the ladies, poke a little fun at the men and make sure everyone was having fun. Some people tossed some money in his "collection box."

After the show I talked with him and Marilyn. I was surprised he was as approachable as he was. But, then, I had noticed how he kept an eye on any male who was in the vicinity of Marilyn, so I kept my distance and talked mainly to Doc. That was the beginning of a long friendship and the beginning of this blog.

Doc and I were talking about street performing and I got out my digital recorder so I could capture any of his hints and tips that may be useful. Here they are, with topical dividers that I inserted.

Doc Stevens 052Doc: Well, first off, playing in the streets aint like playing in a bar. I done plenty of both. Drunks is at both places but on the streets it's different. During the day you aint runnin' into too many drunks, but at night you do, because a lot of them are lookin' for handouts and they go where the people are - just like you're doing. You aint got no bouncers on the streets, so you have to be friendly to them but take control at the same time.

DRUNKS. Like, if there's drunks trying to get you rattled.... I always try to be friendly and then challenge a drunk to a dance contest. If he is getting on my nerves, I say, "Lemme see you dance. C'mon man, I can tell you're a dancer. Give us a show and I''ll play you something good." Usually a happy type drunk'll start dancing for you. Mostly drunks is bored and want attention. I'll get the crowd cheering for him or her and now I am his hero. That also helps me get a crowd, when he's dancing and the people is clapping.

Here is some more things about if you're gonna be a street musician. Learn to sing without a mike. You gotta be heard. Street singing aint about a beautiful voice it's about being heard. You gotta be louder than a bus going by. Get over your shyness and sing out. You won't sing out if you got a mike.

EQUIPMENT. LESS IS BETTER. You gotta travel light. I seen street musicians with drums, mikes, amps, two or three guitars and a big wagon to haul them in! That's good for playing indoors, or if you got some store giving you a regular place and electricity, but I aint got that. How are you gonna carry all that stuff when the cops run you off? You gotta be able to carry everything in one trip.

Sometimes, we don't bring nothing electric. I bring my dobro and Marilyn brings her harp and a money collecting container. That's the lightest weight and is easiest for riding the bus and getting moved by the cops.

If we're going into a louder area, or into a club area at night, I bring either a Pignose amp or a old Peavey battery powered amp. The Peavey is heavier, but uses D cells so it last longer than the Pignose. It's louder, too. But it aint got a dirty channel, so I can't get the sounds that the Pignose does, for distortion.

Doc Stevens & Marilyn23I got a guitar, a small amp, and my wooden stomp box for the beat. I got a mike in it, and plug it in, too. One of my stomp boxes has a tambourine screwed to it. Got a VW hubcap and a screw going through it to fasten it to the box. You gotta have a strong beat, and I don't carry drums with me. If Marilyn's with me, she likes to use a mike for her harps.

With that little set up, I can move along if the cops ask me to and set up a block or two away and be back in business in five minutes. Marilyn just brings her harps and a container to put money in.

When we play in Washington DC, we take a bus and then the Metro, so we travel real light. One guitar I use aint got a case. It's got a handle screwed to it on top of the body. I got a old WW2 duffle bag what I use for a case sometimes. We ride up on the bus and come back on the bus. No problem.

COLLECTING MONEY.You need a money collector. Marilyn passes the hat, which is better. If you look people in the eye and pass the hat they are more likely to give. We pass the hat after every two or three songs. We aint out there because the world aint being entertained enough. We are out there to make money.

Marilyn jingles the collection box and after each person, she says a loud THANK YOU. It makes people think everyone else is putting in money and that helps fill the pot a bit quicker. Sometimes she will tell them they are very kind or something like that. It keeps us sounding successful and people like that.

DRESS & APPEARANCE. You also got to LOOK like you are interesting. People don't pay for same old same old. For us it is this easy. We are from down south and dress like the folks down here in the country. But when we go to the city, like Washington, you aint seein' folks dressed country. They is all office boys and suits and ties. Up there, camo stands out and so does overalls and work boots. Marilyn wears that skullcap rag on her head to keep her hair under control. If it's cold we got gloves with the fingers cut out.

People look at us like we are from the mountains or something. We aint dirty, but we don't look like no city people and we don't want o, and we don't like we are playing at no opera house later on. We aint look like winos, but people is always asking us where we is from. We aint tell 'em exactly where we are from, but we just say down Southern Maryland, down the country.

People like to use they imaginations. If you look like you is a professional musician and are just out there practicing because you got a gig that night, you aint gonna get no real money. Lotsa street musicians I see are dressed too nice. And they aint make no money. Don't dress like you got somewhere else to go. Dress like this is all you got.

SHOWMANSHIP. You don't want to look like a looneytoon or a nutcase or a alcoholic or drug addict. If you look psycho, ain't nobody wants to get close enough to give you money. You want to look like you are sober, and not a escapee from the psyche ward. And you gotta be happy, and really having fun.

Play with the audience, like I said. Tease them a little bit. Whenever you catch me and Marilyn playing in the streets, I flirt with every woman, but don't NEVER talk dirty. Just playful. If I see a lady and her teenage daughter, I will ALWAYS ask for her and her SISTER to come over here and let me see them up close, cause it's odd for a family to have TWO pretty girls in it at the same time. They know I'm messin' with 'em, but God aint made a woman yet what don't need a compliment.

I can get by with more stuff like that because with Marilyn with me, they can tell I am pretty safe.

Doc Stevens 075GET THE MOST OUT OF IT. Always find a way to make more money than what you are. We always make a little sign with our name and our cell phone number on it, since we finally got one back in the fall. Now we got email, so I put that on there too. Use to, we put my friend Bruce's number on the sign and he would pass the message. For a while I had a beeper and we put that number on the sign.

Sometimes people call us and pay us to play at their family reunions and bbq's or parties. It don't cost nothing to do that. We got that stamp made up with our names on it and phone number and all that. Me and Marilyn both hand them out and put them on bulletin boards when we take a break like at Burger King or McDonald's.

People have called us because they had a friend what VCR'd us or took a picture with their cell phone and then they read our number off that sign! Now they know our name and how to get us to play.

We have played at high end hotels for wedding parties. Like in DC, and Arlington, Virginia and Alexandria, too plus other places because they knew who we was and how to get ahold of us. People what hear us then pass us on to their friends.

MUSIC SELECTION. Last thing I can think of is songs. Sing and play fast songs mostly and songs what people know and what got a real good beat. Also move with the music. You got to be INTO it. We aint that good. But we put on a good show, if you catch us live where we aint too outclassed by the audience.

We act like we aint got too much sense which aint hard for us to do, also, people like slide guitar with a little distortion. Play slide, distort it a little and you will get a crowd. I got this old piece of crap acoustic guitar what I got outta a dumpster, and put a pickup on it and only three strings, like they do down in the hills. When I play songs what people know on that guitar, which sounds distorted because it has a bolt for a nut and a piece of molding for a bridge, it gets a crowd every time. They can't believe you can get real music out of a piece of garbage. I look like a redneck idiot up there in the city, but they go for it. Specially them Japanese tourists and English people.

SHOWMANSHIP. Somebody said it like this. If you get on fire enough, people will come just to watch you burn. People come to watch us more than they come to hear us, and we are musicians. We move around a bit, and we tease people, we make it a experience and a show more than just playing some songs and hoping people dont think we are too bad. We don't care if we sound bad as long as people have a good time and give us money. If they FEEL GOOD, you don't have to BE that good. Or, maybe you ARE good, if you can make them feel good.

Doc Stevens & Marilyn01 It aint about being technically good, I know that. If people wants good music, they can turn on their radio. It is about connecting with the people and helping have a good time and to make a memory. Tourists love us. Especially Japanese ones. We look like the American country people what they see in the movies but what aint wandering the streets of DC when they get here. So they take pictures of us and give us money for posing. We'll take it all! We are there to pay bills and we never forget that.

That's all I can think of right now. Turn that recorder off.