It's that moment in a gig that musicians dread. The guitar lead has broken; the microphone is malfunctioning; the monitors aren't giving off a sound. The crowd waits expectantly...
This happened at a recent gig by Beach House, in an otherwise brilliantly executed set that recreated their hypnotic sound, circling guitar and keyboard riffs, to promote their recent album Bloom. During an extended delay caused by a technical hitch, the Baltimore dream-pop duo chose uncomfortable silence over improvisation, until singer and keyboardist Victoria Legrand's broke the silence with awkward chat, including recounting a visit to Starbucks.
But it doesn't have to be like that. A technical hitch can also lead to the best moment in a gig. When grime MC Mz Bratt found herself faced with technical difficulties at Lovebox festival at Victoria Park, east London, earlier this month, instead of letting it delay her set and keep fans waiting, the 23-year-old rapper began to improvise whilst her band tried to solve the problem. Freestyling her way through raps, she impressed the crowd with her spontaneous rhymes and energy.
"Initially I was having a heart attack inside," Bratt later confessed to me, no doubt echoing the feelings of many a performer, "but I thought it was only a glitch and would last a few seconds so I interacted with the crowd, and made sure they had a good time. But when I looked around at my guitarist and he looked like he was having a real heart attack, that's when I thought, 'I need to do something'. So I started to freestyle some deeper, meaningful lyrics that work in that kind of context as opposed to the high-energy set I had planned. Then my drummer caught the vibe and joined in with me. No previous rehearsals for any of it. I was surprised how people enjoyed it."
She says she picked up the skill of improvising from the many sound systems she attended as a child, when her father was an MC for Spiral Tribe. "There were always glitches and my dad would just vibe and interact with the crowd. I guess I got that initiative from him."
At singer-guitarist Karima Francis's recent gig in Hoxton, east London, when Francis's guitar lead malfunctioned, the singer called out, "shall we just do this acoustic"? Abandoning her microphone and amplifiers, the Blackpool singer, whose new album The Remedy is out in August, leapt confidently from the stage with her acoustic guitar to perform the most tender and heart-wrenching version of her song "Glory Days". It was the most emotive part of an emotive gig.
When I saw Razorlight at the Union Chapel a few years ago, frontman Johnny Borrell could be seen frantically stabbing at his earpiece and complaining about the malfunctioning equipment. But he didn't let it ruin the gig. Like a true showman, he turned the situation around to his advantage by returning, without his band, to the piano, to perform a moving version of "The House", a heartfelt song about losing his father. Then, with a new burst of energy, strapping his acoustic guitar round his neck and shouting, "you can hear me, right?" he bounced off the stage, strumming to "Before I Fall to Pieces" as he paced the aisles of the Union Chapel. The surprised and delighted crowd gave him a standing ovation.
Pop musicians should be prepared for dealing with a technical hitch. Just as when an actor drops a prop on stage, and has to improvise, a technical problem can become adapted into a gig. And it can be the most spontaneous, rewarding and unexpected part of the show that audiences will most enjoy and remember.