Well-known bands sometimes play “secret shows” at venues that are dramatically smaller than the ones they're accustomed to. These come with little or no advance notice, and they're often a way to rehearse for an upcoming tour, blow off steam, or just generate some buzz. Here are seven odd or noteworthy instances in which fans got closer to their favorite rock stars than they had ever expected.
1. THE ROLLING STONES AT TOAD'S PLACE // NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT, AUGUST 12, 1989
You might assume that the last time anyone saw the Rolling Stones for $3 was in 1965, when “Satisfaction” was still scandalizing parents. However, that is the fee a few Connecticut residents paid to see the Stones in 1989. The band hadn’t played live in the U.S. in eight years when Brian Phelps, owner of Toad’s Place (capacity: 700) in New Haven, Connecticut, got a call requesting his space the next night. In two hours, all tickets were sold.
The band had rented the Wykeham Rise School, a vacant girls’ academy in the nearby town of Washington, as a rehearsal space ahead of the tour to support their Steel Wheels album. The group’s press agent for touring told The New York Times the show “was a thank-you to Connecticut for the hospitality.” The 11-song Toad’s Place set included “Tumbling Dice,” “Miss You,” and “Jumpin' Jack Flash.” The show begat a tradition in which the Stones start tours with a surprise club gig.
2. R.E.M. AT THE BORDERLINE CLUB // LONDON, MARCH 15-16, 1991
Getting a work permit in the UK without actually working was apparently difficult in 1991, even for one of the biggest bands in the world. R.E.M. had planned a few appearances on UK radio shows to promote their 1991 album Out of Time, but they couldn’t get into the country without a paying gig, according to Reveal: The Story of R.E.M. by Johnny Black. “I think they’re worried you’ll go on Top of the Pops and then slip down to Spud-U-Like to work as a dishwasher, taking valuable jobs from Englishmen,” joked Michael Stipe.
Instead of an arena show, the band booked London’s Borderline Club (capacity: 275) for two performances, the first for fan club members and the second for the press. Two English alternative rock titans, Robyn Hitchcock and Billy Bragg, participated (Bragg as one of the opening acts). Under the name “Bingo Hand Job,” R.E.M. played mostly covers and new material, including the just-released “Losing My Religion.” Both nights included a group singalong to Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Taking the pseudonym routine to an extreme, the musicians referred to each other in code names: Bragg was “Conrad,” Hitchcock was “Violet,” Stipe was “Stinky,” and Peter Buck was “Raoul." As souvenirs, they gave out facemasks of American outlaws, perhaps inviting the audience to lose their own identities for a night.
3. RADIOHEAD AT THE TROUBADOUR // LOS ANGELES, MARCH 14, 1996
The fame-obsessed city of Los Angeles and the music industry's annual Austin, Texas-based hubbub South by Southwest aren't Thom Yorke's favorite things in the world. However, he and his band Radiohead used one to make the other tolerable in 1996, when they played a small show at Los Angeles's small-capacity Troubadour when most of the industry press was in Austin for SXSW. Though lionized by the UK music press, Radiohead was known in the United States mostly for 1993’s “Creep,” a single from which the band distanced themselves after it became a hit.
MTV’s Mark Brown, a rare press attendee, was impressed. “Four songs into Radiohead’s set, it was clear that the best days are still in front of them,” he wrote. “Album favorites such as ‘My Iron Lung’ had already been trotted out, but it was a new, untested song, ‘Electioneering,’ that brought the first epiphany of the night.” It should have: The blistering electric number was from their forthcoming album, the wildly acclaimed OK Computer. The band went on for an encore and then another encore to placate cheering fans. They also dropped their guard and played “Creep,” and then “Electioneering” again.
4. BECK AT THE DRAKE HOTEL // TORONTO, OCTOBER 17, 2006
After a show at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, Beck and his band played a raucous set on the performance stage of the Drake Hotel. “The vibe was frat-party meets alterna-hoedown,” wrote a Rolling Stone contributor on the scene. According to the magazine, the band wore wigs, downed drinks, and “cut loose with joyously sloppy versions” of Beck songs, plus David Bowie’s “Fame” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” At one point, keyboardist/guitarist Brian Lebarton, “who insisted on being called ‘Cameron’ all night,” ripped off his shirt and fought with the stage curtains.
5. PAVEMENT AT THE 5 SPOT // NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE, FEBRUARY 21, 2009
Pavement fans had waited ten years for a reunion when some keen-eyed Nashville residents noted that former drummer Bob Nastanovich’s wedding reception was advertised as a “secret show,” open to the public, on the Myspace page of local club The 5 Spot. This kicked up a flurry of social media speculation that the band was reforming. And they did, but anyone who came out to hear “Cut Your Hair” and “Summer Babe” was disappointed. As Whitney Matheson reported for Pop Candy, one of the coolest bands of the ’90s essentially acted like a wedding band, playing feel-good hits like Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” and The O’Jay’s “Love Train.” A few months later, the long-awaited Pavement reunion tour began.
6. JACK WHITE AT AN OFFICE BUILDING // LONDON, JULY 2, 2014
Jack White has gigged in some odd locales, including a mechanic’s shop and a patch of woods outside a festival. The singer/songwriter outdid himself with a bizarre collaboration with the London theater group Punchdrunk. Fans followed clues online, which led them to register to be tested for “contagious and infectious diseases” at a fictitious clinic called Vescovo & Co. They got a phone call the night of the “testing” and a follow-up text message with a location. All they knew was that the event was White-related.
At the nondescript London office building, “doctors” and “nurses” greeted the 100 or so attendees and asked them to change into scrubs and surgical masks. The group was herded into the building, where White and his band, also in medical garb, played a set of new songs and White Stripes favorites. According to Rolling Stone, White faked a seizure and was wheeled out on a stretcher. Apparently, there wouldn’t be an encore.
7. THE FOO FIGHTERS AT CONCORDE 2 // BRIGHTON, ENGLAND, SEPTEMBER 10, 2014
The UK Foo Fighters are a tribute act that keeps Britons entertained with Dave Grohl’s songs when the former Nirvana drummer and company are elsewhere. Six hundred fans who showed up for one of the band’s gigs at Concorde 2 in Brighton were no doubt delighted when their follow-up act, billed under the name "The Holy Sh*ts," turned out to be the actual Foo Fighters. According to NME, Grohl told the crowd they'd play "some of the stuff we wouldn't usually do in the big places, some old songs." He even invited UK Foo Fighters lead singer Jay Apperley to share vocals on “White Limo.”