Taking Your Live Show To The Next Level

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We’ve all been to bars and seen the bands playing the original showcases. Let’s face it; many bands leave most people slightly less than impressed. Live performance can be a tricky beast with so many variables and in-the-moment developments, it’s nearly impossible to plan for every contingency. Here are ten tips to help your band take your live show to the next level.

Your show begins long before you step on stage, having a gig come off great begins in the rehearsal room. If you’ve spent time, properly rehearsing, no matter what might go wrong on stage, you should still be able to play your parts. It is your business to know these songs, front and back, inside and out. Nothing less is acceptable. Since you can never prepare for every possible thing that might go wrong in a set, you must prepare to play through just about anything. You can only do this through focused, proper rehearsal, where mistakes are recognized, corrected and the proper parts are drilled.

Keep in mind you’re not just rehearsing the songs, you’re rehearsing the show. Once your at a proficient level of playing the tunes themselves, you need to practice the look, the image, the moves. Nobody wants to watch a band just standing there playing songs, you’re an entertainer, entertain.

Communicate with Venue Staff
You need to establish a friendly and professional relationship with the promoter or booker from the get-go. From the moment you email or call looking for a gig, till you leave the venue after the show, you should keep easy lines of communication open with whoever is responsible for rebooking your band.

Also keep a strong dialog going with the sound person. He or she can make or break your set, keep them on your side. Do this by advancing a stage plot a couple of weeks before the show. Be sure to include your band name and contact on the stage plot and bring a printed copy with you to the show in case the original never finds it’s way to the sound tech.

You also want to keep communication open during sound check. Ask for what you need, don’t demand it. Sure, some sound techs in local clubs aren’t exactly rocket scientists behind the board, but that’s who you’ve got that night, by being friendly and not trying to act like an A-list rock star expecting sound for the sports arena, you keep them wanting to make your band sound it’s best. Remember, the audience doesn’t really hear what you hear on stage, they hear what the sound tech wants them to.

Be Punctual
Nothing gets a gig started on the wrong foot faster than load-in at 6:00 and the drummer doesn’t show up till 6:30. You can’t exactly get the stage set up without the drummer and now you’re a half hour behind schedule. This will piss off the sound tech because sound check will not be on time, will make it difficult for the other bands if you’re sharing the bill and will add just enough tension to take everyone in the band off their A-game. Show up on time, load in quickly and be ready for sound check at the scheduled time. If the club staff doesn’t have you miced up at the moment they said they would, but you did everything according to schedule, it’s not your fault. Don’t act unprofessional just because someone else does.

Keep Hydrated
Especially if you’re a vocalist and really even if you’re not, the simple task of staying hydrated will change the quality of your show. Under even modest stage lighting, it can get really hot up there. With the smokin’ rock moves you’ve been rehearsing, you’re going to be losing some significant amounts of water. You need to replenish your body if you want it to perform at its top level.

You also should be staying away from alcohol on show nights. I know, I just kill all the fun. Bottom line, especially if you’re a singer, there isn’t much that dries out your vocal cords as quickly as alcohol. Take it from someone who used to drink a lot at shows. Now that my drinking is mainly reduced to water on show night, my voice stays much stronger and less forced for as many nights in a row as I need it.

Not to mention, even a couple of drinks can slow your reflexes down just enough to nullify all that focused rehearsal you’ve been doing. There isn’t much worse than spending countless hours perfecting your set and you nail it in the rehearsal room, then have it less than great when you’re on stage all in the name of a beer or two to loosen you up. Remember, bands are supposed to be tight, not loose. You don’t need loosening up, you need a sharp focus.

Stay Flexible
This especially applies when you’re doing shows with multiple acts. How many times have you been told that your set is at 10:00 PM, but with other bands before you each taking three minutes extra on their set and that one band insisting on setting up and breaking down on stage, rather than staging and striking their gear off to the side, taking up an extra half hour from the schedule, you finally find yourself taking the stage at 11:15? Yes, this can be very annoying and it’s your business to talk to the promoter about it, after your set. You don’t want to address issues with the person who might book you again before your set. First, it looks unprofessional and second, you’ll take the stage in a negative state of mind. You are there to do a job, to the best of your ability that is to entertain the audience with your performance. People don’t care if your mad because your band is an hour late getting on stage.

This isn’t the only issue you’ll need to be flexible on. My band is pretty large, we’re seven pieces, I use two different amps on stage and our keyboardist uses two boards. If the venue only has one DI for the keys, he only plays one board. It’s not optimal for him or our show and we try to make it clear that we’ll need two DIs, but some clubs just aren’t prepared for a band our size. He can play our set on one board, he just doesn’t prefer doing it that way. I can play our set with just one amp, I just like my overdrive sound to come from a low wattage amp cranked up rather than from a stomp box. If they can’t mic both of my amps, I pick which one I want to use and call it good for the night. Sure, the Rolling Stones don’t have to be flexible in these kind of ways, but neither you nor I are the Stones and when you play club shows, it’s a luxury to get what you want, but know the minimum you need to do your show and be prepared to perform with that on occasion.

Stay Focused on the Music
A live gig can be very distracting. From the subpar stage sound you often get, to the drunk guy yelling for Free Bird between every song, to good looking girls on the dance floor, still, your job is to do your show. The trick is to have it rehearsed enough that you can acknowledge all of these distractions without being thrown off your game. Participating in some of the fun is what live gigs are all about, but never do it at the expense of your show.

You need to be keeping in your mind what the next cue is, or stomping on the lead boost in 3, 2, 1, now, or remembering to hit that drum fill that cues the whole band to go in to the bridge section. The idea is to create the illusion that the show is effortless and you’re just up there jamming, but in reality you’re running through the script of your show for your entire set.

Pacing Your Show
It never ceases to amaze me how many song writers will rehearse their show, create a set list with a nice flow, think about the times they want to interact with the crowd, then come show night, they somehow feel compelled to explain what every song is written about in detail. I’m going to give you song writers a hard truth right now that you might not like, but that doesn’t stop it from being true nonetheless. People don’t care. I’ve said it, check your pulse, make sure you’re still breathing and accept that pretty much nobody cares what the inspiration behind your original tunes is when you’re playing club gigs. People are there to sing and dance, that they’re even acknowledging your band is great, but don’t push it by ruining their dance time with your stories. Let your lyrics tell the stories.

In the end, the only people who will ever give a damn about your lyrics are your loyal fans. If you have loyal fans, they’ve bought your cd and have probably listened to it in an environment without the loud club noise and have gotten to digest some of your lyrics. They also have possibly read your liner notes in your cd jacket. At the next show they come to, they’ll know what your originals are about, you don’t need to remind them and nobody else in the room cares. The average time a person will stay on the dance floor between songs is four seconds, move it along.

This doesn’t say never address the audience. Your whole show is a conversation with them, some of this should be spoken, most of it should be sung and played. Plan out when is a good time in your set to address the crowd. Does someone switch instruments between two songs? This is a great time to say, “Hi,” “thanks,” “tip your bar tender,” and if you really want to, give a very short synopsis about the next song.

To properly pace your show you also need to be thinking about your set list. Which songs transition well in to each other? Do you have two songs that when played back to back sound perfect? I play in a rock and roll band and the way I like to pace my show if we’re doing our long set, is we start off with three or four songs that rock and just go practically right in to one another. I like hitting them with a bang, getting them dancing early.

After about the fourth song I plug our cds, email list and give a big thanks for coming out to the show. Then we have this little two pack of songs, one from the last album and one from the new that both rock and they transition perfectly in to one another. After this the band and the audience need a breather, but I don’t want to go from six rockin tunes to our slowest, so I throw in a nice piece to transition to a slower section. It’s still up-tempo, but much more singer-song writer than the rockers.

Then we do a couple of slow songs and once everyone’s been able to order drinks and catch their breath, we kick it in to high gear again. When we have shorter sets we tend to cut the transitional song, as well as one of the slower songs and focus more on the rock material because we’d rather have a full dance floor than full chairs. Of course, this is just for our style, this format won’t work for many other bands, but know what you want out of your audience and your show and surprisingly you can accomplish much of it with something as simple as your song order.

Be Gracious
We are lucky. So many people would love to be performing in front of live audiences and we are. Always remember this fact and be grateful and gracious. It’s not difficult to go up to the promoter before or after the set and say thanks, or give them a little shout-out from the stage. Always remember to thank your sound tech. They work hard and want you to sound your best, they put in as much work as the bands without the cheering fans. Also remember to always remind people to tip the bar tender. If the club owner isn’t there, but wants to know how your band did, the first person they go to is the bar keep. Make this person your friend. Doing all of these things from the stage makes you look sincere and grateful and takes all of thirty seconds of your show.

Know Your Fans
Knowing your fans is probably the most important thing you can do. It will help you tailor the show to their tastes, will provide merchandising ideas and will make them feel like they’re a part of it rather than just a spectator. My band has a lot of good party songs, so our merch table is filled up with cds, t-shirts, then the stuff that really sells, Cory Wilkins Band shot glasses and bottle opener key chains. If we did calmer, more reflective singer-song writer songs primarily, we’d be more likely to have CWB coffee mugs and mouse pads. By knowing our fans, we know what will sell and be representative of our image and what won’t.

Don’t forget to send someone from the band to the merch table as soon as the show is over. Be accessible. If you need a super fast load-out, this might not be possible, but as often as you can, get back to your merch table and meet these people who are spending their money to watch you play.

Don’t Make Your Problems the Audience’s Problems
Sometimes you’re going to have shows with problems. There’s nothing you can do about it. It might be bad monitors, broken strings, bass drum creep whatever, but try and keep those problems contained as much as possible. Once I played a show and my amplifier quit mid-song. My back-up amp was in the shop, so I had no possible way to amplify my electric guitar. I didn’t complain about it, we ended up just plugging my pedal board direct in to the PA and going along with the show. I didn’t like it, I was annoyed that my killer guitar tone was gone and now I’m playing a Telecaster through a pa head and it sounds like crap, but I didn’t take it out on anybody. We just played as if nothing bad had happened. Keep any issues you have on the stage, not out with your fans.

Next time you set up a gig, keep these ten tips in mind. Work hard and stick to it and you’ll be surprised at the difference it makes in the way you feel about your live show and the way your fans respond to it. Always try to bring yourself and your band to the next level, it’s worth every minute.