I’m sometimes asked how I assemble my set lists and whether certain songs are always in there. That’s a good question because it makes me assess not just my tastes but also my ability. Here are a few things I’ve learned over the four-plus decades I’ve been performing related to repertoire.
The first thing to consider is the venue. A rowdy bar requires an entirely different game plan than a concert and in both cases there are dozens of variables. Some you have a certain degree of control over but you must be prepared for situations that are out of your control. Your job in every case is to make sure the audience leaves with a good impression of your performance (best case) or at least does not feel intruded upon by the music. That may sound like I’m setting the bar pretty low but believe me, for a work-a-day musician playing pop music of whatever genre it is a rare and wonderful thing to experience a truly enthusiastic audience. Hopefully my opinion is not based on the product I’m presenting (!) but I’ve seen this with just about all musicians who are performing to audiences that did NOT have to pay to listen.
Let’s look at the first case I mentioned, the rowdy bar. I’m relating this to being a single acoustic guitarist/singer, or perhaps a small duo or trio, not a full blown rock band with drummer and lots of volume. You will need to come on strong – always start your show with something dynamic. That is, no mellow ballads, just straight ahead up-tempo stuff. New country tunes work well for this, songs like “Wagon Wheel” and pretty much anything by Zack Brown, Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney. Surprisingly, older tunes like (gulp!) “Take me Home, Country Road” and “Old Time Rock and Roll” still seem to get a good reaction, even though I think many of the younger people in the bar may not even have been born when those songs came out! Keep a smile on your face, talk to the audience (but not too much, keep the music going), don’t waste time between songs. And good luck with the drunks.
In a more mellow setting like a restaurant or coffee shop you have many more options. However, you must still take a good look at the audience. Is it a younger, more “hip” crowd who may know some of the great younger songwriters on the scene today? If so, be sure to have a bunch of tunes by people like Josh Ritter, Gillian Welsh, Ray Lamontagne, Martin Sexton and others at your disposal. A slightly older crowd may like songs by John Hiatt, Lyle Lovett, Eric Clapton, James Taylor and be sure to have a few good covers of Beatles tunes in your bag of tricks. But beware of mellowing out! Be sure to start strong and as a general rule, play 3 or 4 mid to fast tempo songs for every slower ballad you want to play. At the risk of sounding sexist, female acoustic performers seem to be most guilty of disregarding this and going with too many sensitive love songs. Sorry!! Just an observation….. Even the most rapt audience will drift away if there is no energy on display. And the same general performance rules apply: communicate but don’t waste time between songs tuning and fiddling with your guitar. Solid beginnings and endings to tunes are vital – don’t drift in and out! Bottom line: respect your audience and they will respect you.
Well, maybe not those drunks in the bar. (!)
Peace & good music,