Down on the neckbone circuit

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

I first heard the term “neckbone circuit” from local musician “Neighbor” John Kelley. Neighbor is known all over North Idaho and Montana for the badass blues he brings to the table, but when he referred to the various bars, bowling alleys, coffee shops and wineries that low-level local bands play as “the neckbone circuit,” I thought the term was especially apt. Sometimes when playing these low-paying, low-interest shows, you feel as if someone has karate chopped you on the neckbone and lifted your wallet.

I’ve played in a band for about six years, first in a pick-up band called the Official Nadas (if you say it really fast, it sounds like “aficionados,” which we weren’t) then in my current band Harold’s IGA.

In the beginning, we would play anywhere someone would let us have stage time and a free beer. These shows were usually awful displays of whiskey-soaked half-bright musicians trying to remember their chords and lines. Not my finest hour.

Over the years, we’ve honed our abilities into a “fake it ‘til you make it” sort of mentality, except we’ve given up on “making it” part and are now just focused on not making complete fools of ourselves.

One thing I hear often from non-musicians is how “lucky” we are to be able to have this ability, and that playing out live must be a total blast. Yeah, sort of. I mean, it’s always fun playing live. Don’t get me wrong. But it’s also a ton of work for not a lot of money. Is it worth $50 to load a metric ton of musical gear, drive to the venue, unload the gear, unwrap knotted cords, sound check, play for three hours, break all the gear down, load it into your rig again, drive home, then load it back into the house? Add all the thousands of dollars you spend on instruments, guitar strings, tuners, speakers, mixers, fuel, poster printing, parking tickets, burritos and take all the hundreds of hours you had to spend to become proficient enough to even play on stage in front of others. Is it really worth it to play music?

Yes. Yes, it is. I’ve never regretted picking up an instrument and writing a song. It may never make me rich, or even comfortable, but those good nights, those fleeting moments where you and your band are firing on all six cylinders – that’s when it all makes sense.

Occasionally, it doesn’t seem worth it after a bad show, an empty tip jar, or a surly audience. These nights are inevitable, but as a public service to the neckbone listening public, here are a few tips for how to listen at the bottom:

•Tip. There is nothing more disheartening than playing for three hours and realizing you don’t have a single dollar in the tip jar. It’s an easy way to show support for music. So come on, drop a buck in the jar. It won’t hurt you that much, will it?

•If you want to talk amongst yourselves, that’s totally cool. I don’t need everyone to sit captivated, whispering to one another. But if you are going to talk, don’t be loud and obnoxious and don’t sit in a table right in front of the stage. We can hear everything you’re saying. Trust me.

•Speaking of talking, it always amazes me when someone tries to come up and strike up a conversation right in the middle of a song. It’s really weird. Am I supposed to stop the song and answer them? Or, more often, people will throw out a fist bump while your hands are obviously busy playing the guitar. A good rule of thumb is to treat people like they’re… up on a stage playing music. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to you, it’s just, well, I’m kinda BUSY right now!

•When people dance, it’s always a complement. Sometimes it’s even entertainment.

•When you drunkenly request “Hotel California” and the band declines out of general principle, move on cowboy. Don’t keep yelling for it. Don’t be “that guy.”

•Do not, under any circumstances, touch a singer’s microphone unless you are invited to sing or play with the band. I cannot stress this point enough.

•If you like what you hear, buy a CD. That money goes right into making more music. Or beer.

•Applause never hurts. Seriously, it’s always a little awkward when you finish playing a song and there are crickets chirping in the audience. Even if you’re not really listening, it serves as a natural segue to give the band a short burst of applause.

•Buy the band drinks. Sometimes they get free drinks from venues. Often they get one or two, then have to pay for the rest. It helps support the venue when you buy the band a drink, and it also helps show the proprietor that their customers are into the band. Always remember: the more you drink, the better we sound.

•Did I already mention the tipping thing?

•If you are watching a band that has come from out of town, chances are they are playing for free meals and a little bit of gas money. Touring is a blast, but it’s also a terrible way to make money. Do your best to help these touring bands keep on the road.

See you out there on the neckbone circuit, folks. I’ll be the guy with the whiskey, trying to remember the lyrics to that one song.

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