Stories From The Road – The Worst Most Awesome Show Ever

I’ve done a lot of awesome shows.  I’ve done a lot of really bad shows.  This particular one was a really awesome bad show.  It was February 10th, 1997.  I only know that because I googled the bill and someone actually has it listed on a webpage.  That makes me think that person doesn’t get out much.

The show was at the Edge in Palo Alto, CA.  The booker asked me if we’d like to open for Ronnie James Dio.  Now, we weren’t a metal band and I didn’t think Dio’s audience would like us.  The booker, however, seemed to think it would work.  And he said the show was a guaranteed sellout (1000 people) so we wouldn’t have to promote that much.  And we’d get to play the middle slot instead of opening like we usually did.  How could I say no?

I’d seen Dio play a couple times before, so I knew that it was a “dude” crowd.  When an 80’s band comes to town the mullets come out from under the rocks in force.  But hey, we would just do what we do and hope for the best.

We get there for soundcheck and a voice booms “Welcome to the Ronnie James Dio stage,” through the monitors.  “Here are the rules…” And it was stuff like don’t put your feet on the monitors, yadda, yadda, yadda.  They made it clear that we weren’t the stars in the house that night.  Great, we get it.  Turn my guitar up.

Show time rolled around and the opening band, Mystic Rage, went on.  Now, MR is a metal band.  And they worked their asses off for the 20 minutes they played.  They put blood, sweat, tears, and more blood into that performance.  And the crowd booed them the whole time.  Yikes.  We assumed this would be the worst 45 minutes of our short career.  And we were wrong… and right.

Mystic Rage gets off stage looking like they’d just performed in a live war zone and then tried to sell CDs to the wrong side.  My guys and I took a deep breath and headed up to the stage to set up our gear and…

…the crowd went nuts.  Cheers, screaming, woo-hoo’ing.  Devil horns in the air, as dudes are wont to do.  I looked over at my roadie and said, “Is that for us?”  We’d been playing around town a lot at that point, so we figured out reputation had preceded us.  Awesome.  We were going to tear the house down.

I did notice that none of the girls were cheering.  They looked bored.  Like they’d been dragged there by their boyfriends.  Looking at me as I got set up like, “You’re not going to play more of that crap are you?”

So we’re set up and ready to go.  My singer is still backstage since he didn’t have any set up to do.  This was before I was a singer.  The lights dim and the place goes … ape… shit.  Hardcore.  1000 people cheering before we’ve even played a single note.  It was a turning point kind of moment where the world feels like your oyster and the trajectory is solidly set to “up”.

I take a deep breath and focus on my strings.  The announcement comes… “Please welcome to the stage…. ROADSIDE ATTRACTION!” and…..


If there were ever at “WTF?” moment it was that one.  Then my tall, blond singer walked on stage and the booing doubled in intensity.  We hadn’t even started playing yet.  Was the sound guy playing ABBA through the PA system and I couldn’t hear it?

The only thing possibly more surreal than 1000 people cheering for you if hearing those same 1000 people start booing you for an unknown reason.  Had my singer decided to wear a “Metal Sucks” t-shirt on stage?  What in Satan’s name had started this crowd booing?

Ok, well… Let’s start playing and see what happens.  I honest don’t remember what songs we played.  But they sure didn’t like them.  At the end of each, the booing would grow louder.  Except…. I did notice the girls in the front row smiling and cheering for us.  Apparently we weren’t the crap they were expecting.  At least there was that.

About 15 minutes into our set the booker called up to the sound booth to pass us the message of “You guys don’t need this.  Do one more song and exit the stage.”  Now in the moment, that sounded like we were getting kicked off.  In reality, he was doing us a favor by letting us off early and still paying us.  But we were pissed.

A quick pow-wow in the middle of the stage..
“What should we close with?’
“We should do something heavy.”
“No, screw them.  Let’s do our regular closing song.”

It was a song called “Love Makes You Stupid”.  It was in a sort of early Red Hot Chili Peppers vein and I was sure the crowd would hate it just like everything else.  We ripped into the song like a jilted lover into a tub of Ben and Jerry’s.  And the most bizarre thing happened.  They danced.  They cheered.  They laughed.  They gave us a solid applause break at the end of the song.  We’d won a good chunk of the crowd over with our funky little love song.

… And we got the hell off stage quick.

Needless to say, we didn’t sell any CDs that night.  And my singer headed straight from the backstage to the bar and looked like he was ready to pick a fight with the first jackass to say something to him.  I huddled in a corner trying to ride out the rest of the night and figure out what the hell happened.

To his credit, Ronnie James Dio didn’t take the stage early.  He didn’t even start on time.  That crowd waited almost two hours to see their main attraction.  He may have been just pulling some Axl-inspired rock star shit.  But in our minds he was paying the crowd back for what they gave us.  “Oh, you don’t want to give them your attention?  Well you can’t wait extra until you get mine.”  We couldn’t ask him because we never saw him.  He stayed on his tour bus the whole time until he hit the stage.  And he was gone just as fast afterwards. Like the little magical elf man he was.

We found out the next day that the local radio station had been announcing that Dio was on at 10pm.  WE were on at 10pm.  And when we came out to set up our gear, without our singer… Well, who the hell knows what Dio’s band looks like?  They assumed I would be ripping into “Rainbow In The Dark” as Ronnie the elf took the stage.  So not only were we dealing with not being a metal band, we were also dealing with the misplaced expectations of a drunk crowd.  That’s like going to a baseball game and them showing a complete episode of Oprah Winfrey on the big screen before tossing out the first ball.

I spent months explaining to every booker in town what happened.  All they heard was we got booed off stage.  And every weekend for the next two years I’d run into someone at a club that said, “Dude, you guys got a raw deal at the that Dio show.  I thought you were good.”  And I’d say, “Thanks.  Were you booing?”  And, sheepishly, they would answer “Yeah.”

Ironically, we made a lot of fans from that show.  They booed, but they reconsidered later and decided they liked us.  It’s not an optimum way of gaining new fans, but I won’t say I haven’t used it since.  Piss them off and sluice out the few that like what I’m doing.

And that, my friends, is the worst most awesome show I ever had.

Phil Johnson


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