Rock 'n' roll superstars, music legends, indie rock darlings, pop divas and radio kings — and even your cousin who plays in that wedding band — all had to start somewhere.
No one played to an arena full of fans at a first concert.
More likely, they took the stage in a coffee shop, living room, church choir loft or packed basement with sweaty palms, shaky fingers, broken equipment and a quavering voice.
We talked to a rock legend, a country singer, indie rock bands, a comedian, several local musicians and others about their first gigs: where they played, what they were thinking and how they got over those awful nerves.
Omaha native Stephen Bartolomei of Mal Madrigal first played in front of people in 2002 at Newell's Bar in Omaha, where songwriters Brendan Hagberg and Ted Stevens, as well as Lori Tatreau, were hosting a music night:
I had moved back to Omaha from college in St. Louis. One night I worked up the courage to ask about playing. I really wasn't ready to perform live but figured creating a deadline would be motivation to prepare a set.
I had a few songs in the works at that time, most of them barely finished and embarrassingly bad. There was a surprise blizzard the evening of the show. It was treacherous. I hardly made it to the bar myself. After my short set of country-ish folk tunes, Caron Easley gave me an old photo of Sylvia Plath which she kept for inspiration. I taped it to the cover of my lyric notebook of the time. I still have that notebook and photo.
Thanks to the blizzard, hardly anyone attended that show. My dad was there, (plus) a few high school friends and a couple rowdy regulars whose drunken ramblings punctuated my singing. In my mind, both the songs and the performance were a disaster. From there on, I was dead set on improving, writing better songs and finding confidence in singing. In many ways, every gig since is propelled by this same sentiment: “The next time I'll make it better.”
The Smiths are considered one of the most important alternative bands of all time. Before that, the group's British guitarist, Johnny Marr, played in a band with friends. He's now on tour promoting his solo album, “The Messenger,” (including a date next Monday at The Waiting Room Lounge):
My first-ever gig was me and a bunch of friends who were called the Paris Valentinos. I can't take the blame for the name — that was someone else. We were playing in the street, and it was in 1977 because it was the queen's silver jubilee celebrations. Our lead singer got so drunk that he passed out halfway through the second song.
Our set consisted of “Suffragette City” by David Bowie, “Don't Believe a Word” by Thin Lizzy, a Faces song and a couple of songs that I'd written that I'm glad to have forgotten.
I don't know whether it was because we were English or kids or wayward or both, but we had to carry our frontman home after maybe four songs. Then, amazingly, the next proper gig I did with a different band, the different frontman did the same thing.
Country singer Brett Eldredge didn't start out in a coffee house or a music venue, but in church:
I was staring at the floor the entire time. I was so nervous to get up onstage. It was a scary world for me. I was only 11 or whatever. You're really putting yourself out there, and it's just you.
I got up there and I was nervous and I was staring at the floor and I paced back and forth. It took a little bit to really start to get it. There's no place I'm more comfortable now.
I do remember the first time I sang at a neighborhood party. It was the national anthem and I was like 4 years old. My body would shake. I was this little tiny kid and had this big voice coming out. They would pay me $5 to do it. That was my intro to the music biz.
Daniel Pujol of Saddle Creek Records band PUJOL still uses the same amplifier he used during his first-ever show when he was a junior in high school. He credits the amp (which has been modified a few times) for the guitar sound he gets in his garage rock band:
My buddy played drums and I played guitar, and we did a show in the gym in Nashville. The first song I ever sang was “Hey Sandy,” the theme song to “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.”
I think I was pretty nervous, but I did it.
I still use the same amp. It has a really interesting reverb and gain thing that works well with this Telecaster (guitar) I have. It's been the same since the first show.
Comedian and actor Wayne Brady, known for his stint on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and as host of “Let's Make a Deal,” took a regular character and made him funny when he was 15:
The first time I was on stage was the school play, and it was absolutely, mind-numbingly scary. The cool part was that as soon as you get that first bit of applause, it's instant crack. There is a reason why showbiz is addictive. It does appeal to that thing in every single person of, “Oh, people like what I just did?”
I remember it was called “The Dark of the Moon,” and I was playing this country old guy called Uncle Smelicue. It was this weird, weird old drama, and I was the comic relief.
I found everything that I said funny. It was a regular character, but I managed to make it funny. That was the first time that I went, “Oh, this is powerful.”
And girls liked it, so I was hooked.
William Beckett's band, The Academy Is..., was on a major label before Beckett ended the group and struck out on his own. But first, he played songs in his basement for a one-woman audience:
Back in high school, I would write songs in my basement and my sister would come down. I'd play it for her, and she was really brutally honest. She'd tell me, “This part's really cool,” or, “That part's really bad. Don't ever sing that word again.”
When I wrote a few songs that she was like, “That's awesome,” or she had nothing negative to say, I thought I could start playing for other people.
I did a little show at my friend's house where my friends came and a bunch of girls. I played a set of the six or seven songs that I'd written. They loved it and they made homemade shirts and stuff. They were really really into it, and that was the beginning of when I realized I might have something here.”
Also, for me personally, I realized how much I loved connecting with people through my songs. When you play a song and you can physically see on someone's face how it's affecting them, whether it's a smile or excitement or sadness, that connection is priceless. It's one of the main reasons I like performing.
Greg Edds of Little Brazil first took the stage at Central High School during his sophomore year. It didn't go well:
Landon Hedges, myself, and a couple other friends were auditioning for a spot in the so-called “talent show.” We played a song from Landon's side project at the time, Secret Behind Sunday. If memory serves me correctly, we were denied into the show because our composition was considered “abrasive and too loud.” Abrasive?!? Ironically, my amp was broken and wasn't even turned on. In the grand scheme of things, it was for the better as I didn't know how to tune my own instrument anyway. What am I thinking? I still don't know how to play guitar.
SA Martinez grew up in Omaha before joining 311. The rock band made it big, and members moved to Los Angeles. Long, long before that, he sang at the Happy Time Preschool graduation ceremony:
There were three of us lined up together singing into one mic. I was on the end, on the left. Can't remember the song we were singing, but about midway through the tune I do remember feeling as if my little 4-year-old voice wasn't being heard, so I just grabbed the mic and the rest is history. I also recall the grownups getting a nice laugh out of that move.
One other early one was the fifth-grade spring concert at Pawnee Elementary School. I sang a solo, as no one else could carry a tune. The song was “Candle on the Water” from “Pete's Dragon.” Great song. Anyway, it was my first solo in front of a big crowd. Song went great, kept my eye on the accompanist and just sang the song the way it was meant to be sung. Ended up getting a standing O, led by some family members, I'm sure, and right after was swamped with some love interest from a few girls that I had no idea even knew I existed. I was like, “Where do I sign?”
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