"But playing in bars you have to be open to requests," he allows. "It's just part of the thing."
Man, can that thing get old, though. The request every acoustic band gets most nowadays is for "Wagon Wheel," by Old Crow Medicine Show (and now with a popular cover by Darius "Hootie" Rucker). Everyone jokes that it's the new "Freebird," except people actually expect you to play it. Jose Ayerve has a great story about finishing up a gig as A Severe Joy, which is essentially a one-man electronic performance-art show, only to find "PLAY WAGON WHEEL" in big block letters (and circled) on the email list sign-up sheet he'd put out.
"I won't do 'Wagon Wheel,'" Rowe says. "I won't even learn 'Wagon Wheel.' If they want 'Freebird' it better be printed on the back of a $50 bill, and the same goes for 'Sweet Caroline.' There's a list of songs that I absolutely refuse to learn.
"Sometimes they come up and ask for a song that I don't do, but I'll say, 'Of the millions and millions of songs ever written, that's one I don't know.' Sometimes they laugh and sometimes they say, 'You're a fucking asshole.' You just don't know what you're going to get."
At times, though, doing a requested cover is the only way to win the room. Basiner says he will actually ask for a request if he can hear the buzz of conversation starting to take over a show. "Breaking down that division between audience and artists is really important to me," he says. "You're all there to have a good time . . . Hey, Tom Petty is out there doing a rarities tour. I mean, come on, man, they want to see the hits! They're probably rarities because they're songs that aren't that good!"
Rowe finds another way to bridge the audience-request divide. He'll play covers if they're written on the backs of bills offered as tips. Of course, this can backfire, too.
"I got testy with a group who kept sending up money with requests on the back," Rowe says. "I played them, and then I played a song I wanted to play. Then they sent up a bill with, 'play something that doesn't suck,' on the back. A lot of people think we're just jukeboxes and they stick a dime in and they get what they want. But that's not the way it works."
The audience has a responsibility, Rowe and Basiner agree, to make requests that make sense. At least, they both suggest, have some understanding of what they're up there trying to do. "We got a request for a Justin Bieber tune the other day," Basiner laughs, "and it's just like, 'Really? Does that sound like something we would play?' But that's pretty rare. We've stuck so firmly to the genre that we're in that people for the most part have some sense."
"I'm an entertainer first," Rowe says, "and I am apologetic when I get a good and sensible request that I don't know. I want everyone to have fun. That's my mission, and it bothers me when I can't deliver that. But there are some people that you just can't do anything for."
And that's when you just might get punched in the head. ^