We all hate the trope "Houston, we have a problem," but we do have a problem in Houston with talkative, inattentive crowds at live shows. Scanning back over reviews from the past two years, at least 20 percent of them mention crowd noise.
So what do the musicians think and, more importantly, what do they do? The last time we saw Steve Earle he pulled out Doc Watson's famous one-liner to silence a request screamer: "I remember my first beer, too, buddy." We've also seen Earle quiet two talkative ladies with the sarcastic, "Am I botherin' y'all?"
And Jon Dee Graham stopped mid-story one night a couple years back at the Continental Club and said to someone talking at the corner of the stage, "Hey, buddy, if you'd shut the fuck up you might learn something and not be a big dumb ass." And we've always loved listening to Bob Dylan's retort to a heckler at his infamous 1966 electric gig at the Royal Albert Hall. The fan screams something like "traitor" and Dylan snarls back, "Liar....I don't believe you."
Perhaps the favorite one we've ever heard was about five years back when Herb Pederson and Chris Hillman played the Mucky Duck. Two men near the front kept talking during the songs and between songs one of the guys would holler out some Flying Burrito Brothers song title as a request. This went on for 5-6 songs. Just as they were starting a song the guy called out "Gilded Palace of Sin." Hillman stopped, pointed to the guy and said very sarcastically, "Buddy, I knew you were gonna be here tonight, I just didn't know what you'd look like 'til now."
We polled some musicians on the issue and Watson's "first beer" retort is easily the most often used. But here are some others that are amusing and helpful:
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Steve Newman, Domino Kings: I like to be friendly, calm and polite when I have a Chatty Cathy in the audience. I usually start by thanking them for coming out, then ask the person for their name (they always give it). That's when I like to say something like, "Hey, everyone, this is (insert loud, rude fucker's name). Now, (loud, rude fucker) obviously wants to be noticed, so let's all take a minute and look at (loud, rude fucker). Let's say howdy to (loud, rude fucker) and acknowledge (loud, rude fucker)'s existence. (Loud, rude fucker), we see you. We know you're here with us. Now, (loud, rude fucker), if your craving for attention has been satisfied, you need to shut your fucking mouth or you can get your cover back from the doorman on your way out, and we'll go on with our little show. Thank you, (loud, rude fucker). Sometimes, this gets me into a physical altercation. But by the time I decide to do this, a fight is what I'm looking for, anyway.
Phil Lee, Nashville alt-country singer/songwriter: I've got a bunch of 'em but my favorite (short of don't make me come down there and kick your ass) is "I thought I told you to wait in the truck." It's a friendly way to get a loud mouth to quiet down. The best shut up lines are on the Homer and Jethro record Live at the Nashville Country Club.
California roots rock producer Charlie McGovern recalls a classic from Johnny Cash: "What was that? I couldn't hear you, I was talking." Folsom Prison or San Quentin, one of those awesome records.
Marshall Chapman, Nashville singer/songwriter, longtime guitarist with Jimmy Buffett: Lately, if someone is really talking loudly, I just stop what I'm doing -- even if it means stopping in the middle of a song -- and start listening to what they're saying. Usually some inane shit. Then I answer like they're talking to me -- over the mike -- and, by then, the audience is in on it. At that point, the talker usually turns around, or someone pokes them and they turn around. By then I'm grinning at them, they catch my eye, usually blush, I wink at them, and the show continues. It rarely happens at one of my shows, but when I'm opening for someone...like it happened this past summer at an outdoor amphitheater in Wilmington, North Carolina. I was opening for Todd Snider. People were filing in during my set. But this one guy, I could hear every word, so I just stopped. There's a video of this on YouTube somewhere.
Chapman continues: I heard Billy Joel in a club in Memphis one time. It was around Watergate, 1973 or so. Dylan was playing later that night at the Memphis Coliseum. It was Joel's first tour and he was at a small club packed with mostly industry-types (always the worst audiences) talking like crazy, getting primed for Dylan. Joel played the first song all the way through. (I would've stopped, it was so loud.) When it was over, he said, "For those of you who were listening, I thank you. For those of you who were talking... (pregnant pause), 'FUCK YOU!' You could've heard a pin drop.
Chuck Prophet: Guys, I got this.
R.S. Field, "The Ionizer", noted roots rock producer, former drummer Omar & The Howlers: When I was in The Howlers (pre Omar & The Howlers), Omar once jumped off the stage and fell at the feet of a table full of talkative young swells who wouldn't shut up, where he faked a Screaming Jay Hawkins-like fit.
Scott Miller, singer/songwriter: Hank Williams ( supposedly) to a heckler: 'Hey buddy, we got a surprise for you: We're gonna get your parents up here on stage and marry them.'
Donny "The Twangler" Roberts, guitarist, Webb Wilder band: During a Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young acoustic set at the Phoenix Memorial Coliseum in 1969, a guy yells out during a song, "Turn up! We can't hear you!" Crosby says nonchalantly during the song, "Well, shut up, Dumbo, and then you'll be able to." The crowd busted up laughing as did the band. This was back in the days when you didn't dare say a peep during a performance.
Jeff Chambers, longtime Houston picker: En boca cerrada, no entran moscas. (Literal translation: If you shut your mouth, no flies will get in.)
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Mark Rubin, multi-instrumentalist/songwriter for Atomic Duo; and John Conquest, publisher of Third Coast Music, both recalled a gig by now defunct Austin rockabillys, High Noon: The club was Headliners East on 6th Street. Sean Young said, "Look pal, I don't come down to McDonald's and tell you how many pickles to put on a burger, so why don't you leave me alone while I'm trying to do my job."
Kevin Russell, The Gourds and Shinyribs: I often use Tom Waits' classic, "I thought I told you to stay in the car." I attacked a Dutch fan once in The Hauge because he kept screaming the phrase, "you fucking die," over and over during our set. I dove off the stage and pinned him against the wall while screaming that phrase in his face. He was shocked and I soon figured out it was a term of endearment completely lost and shredded in translation. Still not sure what the phrase was he was trying to mimic. "you fucking kill?"
Nicholas Tremulis, front man of Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra and Candy Golde: Best one I've used is, "Buddy, lemme by you a drink. Bartender, get this man a big ol' glass of shut the fuck up." Works every time.
Rodney Crowell sent us a nice story that isn't quite a gig story, but interesting nonetheless: One evening Vinnie Santoro, the drummer in my band the Dixie Pearls, was being verbally abused on a Glasgow sidewalk by a drunken Scotsman. Vinnie listened to this man's nonsense for perhaps a minute, then silenced the guy by looking him in the eye and speaking slowly and loudly as if to a deaf lip-reader, offered this rejoinder: "Shell No Pest Strip." The drunk Scotsman skulked away mumbling to himself. I witnessed the whole thing from three feet away.