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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