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Reading more than the setlist

With the pandemic restrictions relaxing, artists and bands are itching to get out there and hit the stages with a sense of excitement like it's their first performance all over again. At the same time, fans of live entertainment are just as excited to get out and back into an atmosphere of live entertainment, good food, friends, and leave the Covid cares outside. A couple weeks ago our small little Manitoba town held a Family fun day, and I was deemed responsible to arrange the live entertainment on stage. When I announced on local social media platforms that I was looking for artists to perform on an outdoor stage, inquiries came not just from artists, but also from those who just wanted to be there to enjoy it. Before I even had a full lineup, people were asking the usual When? Where? How much? because they didn't want to miss out on anything.

But for an artist gearing up for their show, the most common topic swirls around being what songs to play in what order? For some of the more experienced artists who have their setlists already in place and alternatives to choose from at a whim, this is a simple solution already in place for them, and not a lot of thought needs to be put forth in this. To others, there's a lot more thought put into creating the PERFECT lineup. But occasionally, to musicians young and old, the most important aspect of playing live gets overlooked, or in some cases, event ignored all together: entertaining the crowd you came to play for.

In the 1980 movie Blues Brothers, there's a scene where they arrive at a venue and get a gig opportunity by pretending to be the act that was actually scheduled for that evening. At one point, they ask "what kind of music you guys normally play here?" and the response: "Both kinds, Country AND Western!" As the show starts, they started their set with "Gimme Some Lovin" and was getting booed, heckled, and bottles thrown at them. Realizing this was going to be a tougher sell than they anticipated, they switched their opening song to the theme song from the 1960's TV series "Rawhide" - both Country and Western fans loved it.

I'll admit, I have never been in a show where I've had reactions nearly as drastic as seen on the movie, but I have recognized signs where the crowd was both appreciative and disheartened by the songs we played. As an entertainer, you want the crowd to be all eyes and ears on you from the first note to the final encore. If you want to do so, you're going to need to plan more than just a list of songs and a new set of strings. Here's a couple suggestions I've done:

No matter what your first song is, cover or original, you need it to be your opening statement. It is your unofficial first impression to the crowd of how the evening will play out while you're on that stage. The best songs that made such an impact in my opinion was always the ones that opening punch - like that rev of the engine at the lights. That first note has to hit perfect, and everyone has to be on cue. It needs to be one of the higher energy songs in the set, with nothing too fancy - save those songs for later in the set. As you play through the song, read the crowd's reaction. You may not fill the dance floor right off the bat, that's fine. But if you're making them walk off the floor, you're not doing it right.

In some bands I've been in, we were all watching for signs. In others, we had a designated spotter. The spotter could be the bass player (since he just stands there anyways) or the drummer (who just sits there anyways) or even spouses/family/friends in the crowd... since they're just sitting there anyways... While you play through your set, try to keep the momentum going. Go ahead and play a ballad or two to slow things down, but be prepared to pick it back up. Watch the reactions from the crowd and take notes. While the singer interacts with the crowd, interact with your bandmates. Be prepared to switch it up if you feel you're not getting the crowd reacting as they should, but don't waste time trying to figure out whether or not it needs to be done. If the singer introduces the song, even if you decided to change it. And just like the opening song was your first impression, the closing song needs to be the most powerful one of the set. This is the finish that will be described to others, so you need to make it the best one of the night.

The visual impression of your act on stage is just as important as the songs you play. If you're a 5 man band and you all put on less steps on your FitBit than sitting in your office cubicle, you're doing it wrong. Sure, you played that tune 50,000 times and and sincerely getting sick of hearing it, but that crowd needs to see you enjoying it, in order for THEM to enjoy it. Make eye contact with the odd patron tuned in to you, smile, acknowledge them, make them feel like they're a part of the action. There was a show I did several years ago in Dallas TX where I saw one lady dancing by herself to the side of the stage, enjoying the music but not totally losing herself in it. With my wireless bass setup, I jumped off the stage, ran over to her and danced with her. The reaction was initial shock, but followed with pure delight. Another show memorable for me was singing at a hockey arena, and a young girl maybe 5 or 6 years old was watching with such intent with her father holding her hand. While singing, I reached into our merch bag we took everywhere we went and got a guitar necklace to give to her. As we continued playing through the first and second intermissions, I honestly thought nothing more of it. At the end of the night, the Father came up to us and thanked us for a memorable experience her daughter will never forget. Apparently throughout the entire game, she could care less about anything else, she was satisfied with that necklace.

As a performer, you are there to entertain. This applies to both audible and visual. Dress the part. Drummers, if you need to wear shorts...don't go commando. Land your cues effectively. If there's choreography, don't half ass it. You're there to be heard AND seen. The idea is to make that crowd walk away from the event saying how great it was to see your band play after all these months of missing shows. Not have others talk about how you guys need months before returning to that stage.

If you put your efforts into not just the songs you perform, but also into how you want them to be presented to your audience, you will be a performer. If you have the ability to keep your crowd focused on you while you play, you will be an entertainer. If you have the ability to do both, you will be recognized and remembered for your shows, and I'm confident there will be bigger and better opportunities rewarding you for it.

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