Bruce Dickinson is one of the premiere crowd conductors in the rock 'n' roll business, but bringing an audience into a performance is not an easy skill to learn.
The Iron Maiden frontman explained in a recent conversation with Chris Jericho on the Talk Is Jericho podcast that he started working on his stagecraft at an early age, well before he had much in the way of an audience with which to practice.
Dickinson looked back on some of his early performances and suggested that he'd rather have a rowdy or difficult crowd than none at all. But you have to deliver either way.
"I had one show; I was in a band at university," he recalled. "In the old days, it would have been called a disco. Except there was nobody there — it was like the phantom disco, and there was like mirror balls and lights. And there was also the stage, and there was nobody there. But we were getting paid like 50 bucks to go and play."
Dickinson and his band went about their business in the empty room and to their surprise "one person walked in" before the show started, appearing "shocked that there was somebody actually onstage."
To his credit, the man didn't turn around and leave. Instead he grabbed a chair, placed in in the middle of the dance floor and sat down to wait for the show to begin.
Before getting started, Dickinson approached the man with the microphone, asked him his name and offered to buy him a beer.
"I said, 'Can I buy you a beer? Because we're about to do this performance just for you. The least I can do is buy you a beer. You may hate it, you know what I mean?'"
The interaction cut the tension immediately and allowed the band to relax and everyone to have a good time.
While there's merit in putting everything you've got into a performance, no matter the circumstances, Dickinson believes context is important. An artist should be present in the space, not imagining a better one.
"A pet peeve of mine is when a band goes on in what’s obviously a toilet with two beer crates at one end of the stage. And they go on there, and they pretend that they're in Madison Square Garden. And it's like ‘Hello, Cleveland!’ And I’m just like, ‘No, it’s not Cleveland – you’re in a toilet with two beer crates!’
"If you just said to people, ‘Hey, we’re all in the toilet with two beer crates,’ everybody would go, ‘These guys are great! I love these guys!’ But instead, they go, ’Oh yeah, just a bunch of posers.’ So you’ve got to be real with it.”
Dickinson hits the road with Iron Maiden on the 'Legacy of the Beast' tour early in May. In the mean time, he's touring the United States with his 'An Evening With Bruce Dickinson' spoken-word show.