Principles of Playing an Excellent Show

Our band cruised back through our old haunts in south Florida in January – a remarkably pleasant time to do so, meteorologically speaking – and I met with my old friend Sal at Panera one morning. He’s a young and aspiring musician and was willing to look past my greasy hair and elbow-holed flannel to ask for advice on getting his foot into the door of the independent music community.

Having been on the road for about eight months now, I’ve seen a lot of bands. Most have been lackluster; some have been cringe-worthy. Alternately, we’ve been totally honored to share the stage with The Traveling Suitcase on three different occasions. Their revival of spitfire rock ‘n roll is unlike anything else we’ve seen in our travels. Their show is shouting and politics and substance. We’ve also gotten to be friends with Tiger Darrow and her band who expertly blend pop and folk into a mystically charming performance of looped cello and pristine chemistry. The best show I’ve ever seen was Volcano Choir at the Vogue in Indianapolis where I was more moved than in most any church service I’ve ever attended.

As I fumbled to explain to Sal what I believed makes our show (or any show) one of superior quality, I realized that I could distill most of the factors into four easily digestible elements. The aforementioned artists espoused these principles just as our band strives to, and I believe them to be:

1.) Energy
I was in high school playing hardcore shows for 300 kids in a Catholic church fellowship hall on weekends, trying not to slip in pools of sweat or let the sharpied “X” rub off my hands. It was horrible, formulaic music and I knew it, but the kids loved it. And I loved it too. Why? Guitar spins. Synchronized dipping. Power-stancing so low my Les Paul was sweeping the floor.

I’m on to folk-rock now, but we try to bring that same passion of showmanship to each gig, so far as it is appropriate. Our antics have shifted horizontally, but we still aim to charge our performance with foot-stomping, member interplay, and a sense of motion. Hardly a show passes without someone complimenting the moxie of the set.

If you’re not comfortable moving on stage, get comfortable. Hire a live producer to fine-tune your stage show. Or just watch your favorite bands. It doesn’t have to be The Chariot either. Electronic enigma Slow Magic drums like a tribal demon from beyond whilst getting down in the crowd and letting the people cue his sampler. The frontman of folkies Good Old War has an endearingly goofy dance. Don’t just stand there.

2.) Brand
In business school, this word becomes a recurring joke. Every sophomore with a startup peppers “branding” into their vocabulary ad nauseum. However, when you have an hour to leave an impression of your band on an audience, the idea of a consistent and unique brand is deserving of the hype.

Much of the professionalism that you can infuse into your band’s presentation is in the strength, focus, and constancy of your brand: the way you dress, the kind of gear you use, the design of your merch, etc. Nothing is trivial. If you go to see a folk band with pastoral-themed merch, but they’re playing Schecter guitars, there is a serious problem. Or if you catch a punk band with eye-catching merch and road-worn instruments, but the guitarist is wearing Sperry Topsiders and Dockers, the illusion they are attempting to cast is suddenly handicapped.

Our band takes a thoughtful approach to consistency. Our band name was picked to evoke rural imagery. The arrow-crossed circle logo was designed to reflect that. That logo is on our website, stickers, tank top, and kick drum head. Even though the current members (Jacob and Sam) have their own sense of personal style, you won’t catch them on stage in tank tops or trucker hats or, God forbid, shorts. Everything associated with your act needs to look/sound/feel the part.

3.) Persona
Josh Tillman of Father John Misty spoke in an interview about his crowds’ eyes glazing over when he’d play his solo J. Tillman songs, only to see their spark of engagement reawakened when he’d converse with them between tunes. People don’t go to concerts to hear the album – they go for an experience.

Creating emotional connections with your audience is paramount to the success of your show. (Former or current Chick-fil-A employees may recognize this lingo, but I’ll be danged if it isn’t a sound business model.) The human element in music is much of what makes it the accessibly universal language it is. Stories, explanations, acknowledgments, jokes, and anecdotes built in to a set will exponentially increase your chance to connect with an audience.

They may like your music or they may not. But if you haven’t hooked them with riffs or textures, there’s a chance they’ll still make some effort to receive you if you demonstrate some charisma. Just shouting out the song title beforehand isn’t enough. Tell them your name multiple times. Plug your social media presences. Make them laugh for a second. Explain why they should care what you’re singing about right now. 

4.) Dynamic
If you listen to almost any record, you’ll notice that the first song is invariably one of the best. You have to begin with the hook. On the other side, you need to save your K.O. song for last. Folks may forget almost everything about your set, but they’ll remember how you started and how you finished. (And when you messed up, but for that, read my previous blog.)

When an album is mastered, intentionality goes into tracklisting. Songs are staggered by tempo, dynamic, and feel. Our record, Man Is Born For Trouble, starts with what we consider a fan-favorite track. The momentum stays up with the second song, then tapers off with a slower and more melancholic song by track 3. It ends with “From Hell to Houston,” which on the album, is the heaviest song.

Shows work the same. Integrate and pace your dynamic range. Don’t start with anything less than your best. Don’t play too many fast songs or slow songs in a row if you can help it. And don’t be afraid to embrace extremes. My friend Doug Mains used to get off-mic and sing so quietly that the room had to be perfectly silent for you to hear him. Know what? If it wasn’t already still, it got still. Explore the p and the ff that you can expand in a live setting, and everything in between. This is also a practical way to combat ear fatigue.

Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to put on a better show than the next band. These are my humble submissions toward presenting your band in a live setting as a professional collective: one with high energy, a consistent brand, winsome magnetism, and a range of expansive dynamics.

Whose shows have you seen that left an impression? What made it so much better than the rest?

5 responses to “Principles of Playing an Excellent Show

  1. My favorite concert ever was when I got to see my favorite musician ever, Booker T. Jones, in Chicago. But the concert itself was a bit disappointing (his band did their best to steal the spotlight.) So, my Actual Favorite Concert would be Capital Cities at Old National Center a few months ago. It was basically a big dance party, but not a rave; the band did have a ton of energy, but they connected personally with the audience rather than letting the music run away with itself. Whether they were sharing their genuine newfound admiration of the city in which they were playing or dancing a dance they had just taught everyone, they created the feeling that everybody in the room was part of a united group with the mission of having a really fun and memorable night. So yeah basically you’re right on.

  2. Since you didn’t talk about quality of the music in this article (covered in the earlier article), this made me think of KISS. Energy, branding, persona, and dynamic. The music may not be the best, but you remember the show… forever.

  3. Totally agree with you on most of the Brand stuff. I wouldn’t be too quick to judge an artist based on what they wear though. I agree with the look of the merch, site, set up, and sound- but just because “back-up on bass” is sportin top-siders, don’t assume he can’t rock out to something that doesn’t scream “prep” on stage. Sometimes personal style can differ from musical style entirely. However, it’s good to point out that if you wear what matches what you play, people will be 1000% more likely to remember your sound. Plus, you’ll seem that much more passionate your songs if you look like what you’re singing. Great ideas, friend!

  4. Here’s a question for you our anyone who wants to respond. I play in an Irish/Scottish folk music group with instrumentation being uilleann pipes, bodhran, DADGAD tuned guitar, vocals, bodhran, and tin whistles. Anyway, do we, as an Irish/Scottish folk group have the responsibility to wear Kilts here in the US when in Scotland/Ireland, wearing a kilt while on stage would be sometimes seen as an insult? Or do we just suck up what may be an insult to some to go for what could be part of the entertainment/experience of our show. Currently, I don’t wear a kilt but I own 3 of them because of a previous band I was in. Just curious as to what your thoughts were.

    • Matt – it would appear that your group values authenticity immensely. That said, I think you could go either way. It wouldn’t be your “responsibility” to wear a kilt, but it may add to the uniformity of the performance and provide a complementary visual component.

      Our band’s recent LP features a cover with a woman wearing a Native American war bonnet. It’s my understanding that in that culture, a woman would never wear that particular headdress, and the image could be interpreted by a Native American audience as offensive. I elected, however, to keep the image because I loved the aesthetic. And of course, the one time I was approached about it, I aimed to be apologetic as I explained my choice.

      No one won’t take you seriously for not wearing kilts, but they might take you MORE seriously if you are.

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