Ultimate Guide To Going Live. Part 2: What To Play?
The second part of Ultimate Guide To Going Live is to help those of you just starting their live careers who are looking everywhere for a few decent covers to sing. Hopefully, this column will give some useful advice as to what is a good choice in any situation. Enjoy!
Greetings, oh faithful one, and welcome to the second part of the Ultimate Guide To Going Live (read "Ultimate Guide To Going Live. Part 1: The Basics"). The second part is to help those of you just starting their live careers who are looking everywhere for a few decent covers to sing. Hopefully, this column will give some useful advice as to what is a good choice in any situation. Enjoy!
Who Is This Column For?
There are basically two different kinds of gigs which you might be playing. The first is a covers gig and the second is where you are being paid to play your own music. For each, and the broader spectrum including gigs where you can play a few of your own songs, the same basic rules apply. At the end of the day, you need to be interesting enough to get people to stay and listen and more importantly, you need to have fun while doing it. This column mainly focusses on covers bands as the experienced musician, like so many more before them, will by now have worked out what they should be playing
Below is a short guide to tell you what to play, what not to play and how to tell what your audience (all 14 of them) want to hear.
Your Guitar And Covers
Your own music is written to reflect the instruments it will be played on (Jimi Hendrix on a keyboard, anyone?). As this is a guitar site and we are all guitarists of some form or another, it is worth knowing what restrictions you should play. Ask your self this, "I'm holding a seven-string, drop-tuned Ibanez plugged in a 150W Hughs & Kettner Warp 7 amplifier, should I play Chili Peppers, Busted or Korn?" and you'll see what I mean. You can't just choose any song to cover because you may end up butchering it unless you completely rewrite it. Luckily, everything you need to know on what covers to play is already in your head. I'm guessing you didn't buy that Gretsch hollowbody because you like Slipknot, did you? Just play the songs which you and more than likely the audience which have come to see you.
That said, a developing Nu-Metal band should be able to reach into the depths of melody every now and again, and just because your first love is ska, you can always turn up the overdrive and play some Maiden, can't you?. Keep your options open, you never know who you'll be playing to!
Hook, Line And Sinker
As a golden rule, your first song needs to be the most rocking thing ever written, and the second needs to be even better. First impressions last longest, and you'd be doing yourself a favour if you started off with one of those songs with really recognisable introductions. Under The Bridge, God Save The Queen (the Sex Pistols version, dumb-ass) and Vegas Two Times by the Stereophonics are all tried and tested. They are both real crowd-pleasers and also have great introductions. Remember that most people will judge you by the first two songs you play, so you need to make a good first impression.
Judging The Audience
The best way to show how to judge your audience is through example. If you're in a bar early in your career, you can't really play your own songs. If you don't have any "fans" present, then you're not doing yourself any favours by playing songs no-one in the room has ever heard before, you'll just annoy them. Instead, play some quiet cover songs that the little groups in the corners of the club will recognise. When you've drawn some attention towards yourself, get up on the mic and tell everyone that you want to play some of your own songs, this way people will listen. Tod eviate from the topic slightly, they may even buy your CD if you've been clever enough bring a box of them along with you (drunk people will always buy cheap CD's).
And say some people near the stage are talking loudly and it's throwing you off. Don't turn the volume up, they'll just talk louder. Instead, why not turn it down and those talking will become self-conscious and shut up.
The rest is obvious, if they're all wearing black nail-polish and leather, don't start singing Shiny Happy People. Playing Metallica to a room full of young families will cause children to cry and parents to scowl. And just to clarify, Kiss is not a good choice for an audience made up of mohawk-sporting punks. It's all pretty self-explanatory, but I've seen bands bomb because they play the wrong songs. The medical term is "Party-DJ syndrome".
There's one little trick I picked up one evening. If you grab the microphone and do a little comedy routine to ask the crowd what they want to hear, you can judge their tastes and keep them interested. Lines like "What, you expected us to do all of the work, did you?" and "Well, if you think we're doing it wrong, help us out a little!" are always well recieved if you keep smiling to show you're joking. You run the risk of pissing everyone off but, if you're bombing, then it's worth trying to get the audience involved and see what they want to hear. Hopefully you'll never need to resort to these measures.
What Not to Play And What Never to Play
Generally, the obvious songs you shouldn't play are the ones that you can't. If there's a good chance you will mess up that solo, then don't play that song! Skirting around a song which you can't really perform as well as the rest of your repertoire will lose you no respect, meanwhile, if you c*** up the shred solo from Get Inside (Stone Sour) then the audience are just going to laugh. And for god's sake, don't let your Barry White impersonating vocalist attempt to perform anything from the 80's, with that vocal-chord worrying falsetto.
There are some songs which should not even be attempted for less obvious reasons. How many times have you seen a piss-poor rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody which ruined an otherwise great set? Don't think those vocals quite matched up to Plant's in "Fred Zeppelin's" remake Stairway To Heaven? Some songs are signature tracks of great artists and your performance of Sultans Of Swing or Bat Out Of Hell will not sound as good. Although they are recognised as some of the greatest songs ever, when someone else does their own version, they never sound right. I'm don't really mean never play them, but remember that the moment you hit the first chord of Freebird, about half your audience is going to groan. The high-profile cover is dangerous ground, even if you're good at what you do.
I'm going to end my column by telling you how to end your set. There's two ways to do this, go out with a bang and play your most impressive song, or be clever about it. I saw Meatloaf live only a month ago, and Bat Out Of Hell is possibly the ultimate way to end a set, but as I mentioned earlier, you shouldn't even think of possibly ruining a great song like this. Huge, monstrous riffs are definitely the way to go though and so it's worth thinking of a list of songs where you can thrill the crowd with a real rocker.
The other way to end a set is to be clever and end with something like Nice To Know You by Incubus. These songs share the common theme of an ending and give a little more meaning to your last song. Songs can be used to give some meaning to different parts of the set, and to use Meatloaf as an example again, half way through the gig, he apologised for cancelling two shows in a row and then went straight into "All Revved Up And No Place To Go". A cover always seems to lose some of it's impact as it's not your emotions you are expressing. If you use them to portray the situation, it can add to them slightly.
No, not of your set. Unless you're selling out arenas, then you don't need encores. This is an encore of this column. The Guide To Playing Live is going to consist of around half a dozen articles covering everything from getting a gig to PA management. Look out for Frigginjerk and Whiskey Leech among others who will guide you through everything you need to know about taking your sound to the masses, but from me this is goodbye, as I'm going to carry on dictating what you should all be buying!
Geldof The Grey,
aka Steve (email, pm)