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So I have a big gig tomorrow. Not Wembley, though I will play it as though it is. It’s big because it’s an entire evening of just me. I’m not the support, I’m the ONLY.

It’s a little intimidating, if I’m honest. I have a modest opinion of my own ability, and the thought that my random musical musings might entertain a room full of people for nearly three hours is a little too outlandish for me to believe. But someone believes I can, or they would not have asked me. I must believe I can, deep down inside, or I would not have agreed to it!

As I have sweated over set lists during the last few weeks, it led me to ponder about writing them. What makes a set list good, bad, effective, or just downright boring. Some artists don’t bother with them at all. I have seen a number of people wing it based on the mood of the crowd, or their own particular whimsy. I don’t even wing it for an open mic! I approach set lists the way I used to approach compiling mix tapes – with care, consideration and a lot of listening to beginnings and endings of songs to make sure they work in sequence.

I have concluded it’s a dark art, for a variety of reasons:

Every crowd is unique

I still remember, with crawling, cold horror, a gig I played at a local rugby club. The friend who had booked me (and knew full well that at that time, my repertoire was limited to sad, navel-gazey songs about death and breakups) swore blind that I’d be adored. The reality was a Friday night crowd who wanted a living jukebox. My friend and my wife both applauded each song but they were the only ones. The crowning moment for me was the gentleman who approached me at the end and said “You’ve a lovely voice but you made me want to slit my wrists”

Then there have been the crowds who have loudly applauded my originals but sat stonily through covers, even though I thought it would definitely be a “covers” crowd. You can’t always predict. Very experienced artists can adjust the set on the fly (see “winging it”, above) but I have never been one of those…

The length of the gig matters.

Long gigs can be hard on the voice, so it starts to matter where the more vocally challenging material goes in the set. Short gigs give you less time to make an impression, so you need to pull out your showstoppers. Decisions, decisions… My ideal length is probably 40-60 minutes, so I can really go for it without having to worry too much about stamina.

Variety is the spice of gigs…

A set will rapidly become boring if you group songs with similar themes, keys, chord progressions and styles. Because I have a bad habit of writing sad songs, I try to sandwich them between happier songs and mix up the keys and styles to keep the set interesting. I also have an unfortunate habit of writing songs using arpeggios. More of my set writing is about keeping songs apart than putting them together!

Banter – the bane of my life

Some people can play a 30 minute set and only do 5 songs, filling the remaining time with witticisms, wry observations, audience participation and stand up comic action. That is not me. I lack the gift of the gab. I try not to be averse to one liners and small talk, but on me it just tends to look like I’m trying too hard. If I’m very comfortable with the crowd, it might spontaneously happen that I tell a joke, or engage in some light banter (cautiously, and only under appropriate circumstances and wearing suitable safety apparel), but it doesn’t happen often enough for me to depend on it, so I allow a straight 4 minutes per song and do more songs per set than other people seem to. No-one has ever accused me of being boring though, so I’m going to assume it’s all good.

set list planning

Set list planning

So what’s the secret? I try to follow the old rule about writing a story. I have a opening song (usually a really easy one to play and sing that acts as a warm up) followed by a faster, happier one to wake people up. I make sure I know how the set is ending – generally with a vocally powerful, climactic number. Then I fill in the middle with songs, keeping them varied in terms of key/progression/style. Sprinkle a few covers in if appropriate (or vice versa if doing a mainly covers set) Allow an extra song as en encore, just in case. And then I throw it all into an iTunes playlist and check it works.

That’s my method. And although I nearly packed it in and put all my songs into a hat to draw out randomly at tomorrow’s gig, I’m not brave enough for that yet. Maybe next time…

(If you find yourself passing along High Petergate, York, tomorrow evening from 8pm, do call in to the Eagle and Child for an acoustic evening with me and the aforementioned set list! Entry is free and they go a fabulous selection of gins! *hic* )

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