On Tuesday, Feb. 4, around 11 p.m., word hit the Internet that Prince would play an impromptu "open soundcheck" at the Electric Ballroom in London. Twitter was flooded with messages about the surprise performance and the venue was flooded with would-be attendees. A few hundred people were treated to an intimate show, the first in a series of "guerilla gigs" throughout the city this month.
For publicity, fun, or to give back to true fans, many well-known artists play similar secret shows that cost far less to see than any on Ticketmaster. Sometimes a group will book a gig under a pseudonym and attendees will have no idea who they're actually going to see until the lights flood the stage. The pseudonym may be a hint that only loyal fans would pick up on. Arcade Fire has appeared as the Reflektors to promote the release of their album Reflektor -- pretty obvious if you know what you're looking for. Arena acts sometimes play "warm-up" shows before big tours, as the Rolling Stones did for $20 a ticket at the Echoplex in Los Angeles last year. Up-and-coming bands have also taken to these types of surprise performances as a way to build awareness and hype.
Most spur-of-the-moment shows take place in large cities where the performers live, but unsuspecting fans can also be surprised by an act that's just passing through. That's what happened to Kim Karelis of Boston when she was enjoying a meal at The Darby, a now-closed supper club in New York, in 2012. She had been told that high-profile musicians sometimes stop by for a bite and perform a song -- the previous week Bruno Mars had done just that. Sure enough, Lionel Richie hopped on stage for a quick rendition of "Hello."
Where else might you see a spontaneous secret show?
On the way to work.They say three makes a trend -- if that's the case, then commuters may want to keep their eyes and ears open. Few people noticed when Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violinist, played in a metro station in Washington, DC, for 45 minutes in 2007. Prime seats for his sold-out performance just two days before at Boston's Symphony Hall commanded more than $100 apiece. In 2011, the singer Avril Lavigne hopped between subway stations and moving subway cars in New York with three bandmates. They made about $16 during the performance (and promptly gave it away). Then, last year, crooner Michael Buble performed at New York's Lincoln Center subway station before a small group of passers-by. More recently, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis took the "stage" on a New York City bus to perform a hit song for a Grammy promo.
Island hopping.Meredith Hannon experienced a surprise performance on the tiny Caribbean island of Grand Cayman in 2009. She and her husband were there on their honeymoon from Virginia and stopped to try some rum cake samples at a Margaritaville restaurant in George Town. Intrigued by an "awesome"-sounding Jimmy Buffett cover band, they dropped the cake and ran upstairs when they learned that the group was, in fact, Mr. Buffett and his band. He has played similar impromptu shows at Margaritaville locations in the Caribbean and his sister's restaurant, LuLu's, in Gulf Shores, Ala.
At a comedy club.Guest appearances and surprise shows aren't solely the province of musicians. Many well-known actors and comedians enjoy jumping onstage unannounced. Comedian Dan Nainan related to us an encounter with Jerry Seinfeld at the Gotham Comedy Club in New York. According to the club's website, audiences have seen drop-in appearances by Jim Gaffigan, Judah Friedlander, and Louis C.K. The Comedy Cellar and Carolines are two other New York venues known for surprise guests. The Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) Theatre in the Chelsea neighborhood regularly hosts famous comedians -- even during the free Sunday-night show.
Of course, you can't predict when something like this might happen; it is supposed to be a secret, after all. Even if you live in New York or London, nailing down a single venue as a go-to spot is hard to do. Following artists' official feeds and well-connected individuals on Twitter is perhaps the surest way to get a heads-up your favorite band has something brewing. The Stones show popped up on their Twitter feed the same day and Prince's performance was announced by his manager on Twitter just a few hours before it happened. Artists' fan clubs are generally free to join and may also give you an inside track.