Set List Science
How to sort out which order to play your songs in, from dramatic intro to tumultuous encores
It's not just your songs, it's the way that you play them. Especially the order. Jon Lewin gets the crowd going, but saves a good one for the encore.
SO WHAT happens? How does a band go about deciding the running order of its live set? Well, from my own experience, I'd say the main prerequisites for working out a set list are three minutes of quiet after the soundcheck, a pen, a soggy beermat, a song that at least one of the players really hates and the audience like, and an argument.
But there are other ways, like being logical and sensible, taking all factors into consideration and stuff. You could think of the process of working out a running order as being a flow chart, where each question in its leetle box makes it easier to work out what you're doing. Or not.
Question The First could be "what are we?" This isn't an excuse for an hour's existentialising, simply a suggestion that you find out whether you're headlining or playing on a five band bill.
Whenever possible, check what time you're due on and off stage. If you're put on at 8pm then playing 90 minutes of Grateful Dead-inspired freakout to three winos and the barman is probably not a good idea. And it doesn't do to keep the headliners from their crowd, as both can be vengeful in their wrath.
The lower down the running order you are, the fewer liberties you can take with the length of your set and the diversity/weirdness of the material you include. If you're headlining, you should obviously have more time to play with (and in), so lengthen the set accordingly.
Question Le Deuxieme est, peut-etre, "where are we?" Not now, dummy, I mean where is the gig taking place? If it's in your home town, you should be able to drag enough pals along to get you a reasonable reception. Others there might have heard of you, even if they haven't seen you before. The advantage of this is they're likely to be more tolerant to start with, more willing to give you a chance.
However, should you be playing on strange territory, it makes sense to change your plans accordingly. When you're on early in front of a crowd that's not there to see you, it makes sense to pick your strongest, punchiest and most familiar material — cover versions if you do any. If you've ever had a song played on the radio or TV, do it early on, as there's just a chance one of the aliens out there might remember it.
On a more basic level, adjust your set to accommodate any minority groups in the audience. My band once had to drop a ditty called 'Paraplegic Song' (with lyrics by Dumb Chum Rowson) at very short notice when we realised the gig was actually a benefit for the Physically Handicapped. Equally, it's no good playing Irish Republican marching songs to a crowd of squaddies.
Third Thing you should know is (ahem) how long it is. As I've already said, you should temper the length of the set to suit your position on the bill, but it can be a temptation to play for too long if you're headlining. An audience that's charmed by 40 minutes of your anglo-African gothic soul music might well be bored by an hour's worth. But if you play too short a set, the crowd is equally likely to get stroppy — remember the outrage at the Jesus & Mary Chain's early 20 minute gigs? It's partly a question of what you feel comfortable playing, and the old-fashioned concept of value for money. After all, even The Ramones only get away with half hour sets because they cram so much into them.
The Fourth Question has to be "so when are you going to tell me how to fill the set-list in, then?" I thought you'd never ask. The simplest way of working on an order is to start at the end and work backwards.
Groups usually know which are their strongest songs, so work out first the close of your set from a sequence of maybe two or three faster numbers which are the likeliest candidates for getting an encore (if you do them, that is). End with a bang.
Once you've sorted out the finale (good showbiz word), the process of elimination means you have a clearer view of what's left. So let's turn to the other end — how are you going to start the set? If you're on early, a fair proportion of the crowd are likely to miss the beginning of your performance. However, you still need a good strong song to start the set, but it's not sensible to pick any kind of extreme (like the fastest, heaviest, flashiest, best, etc), otherwise you risk letting the rest seem like an anti-climax. Mind you, this doesn't mean that you can't start with a song that itself begins quietly.
Remember that for those who are there, your first tune will pigeonhole you, so if you play mainly original material, doing a cover first will not give the right impression. It's not as simple as it looks, this business ...
It's often smart to put danceable songs near the beginning — get Les Punter up on his/her feet, and the incipient effects of alcohol mean he/she'll probably stay there for a while, at least. Lob that cover version of 'Thriller' in second, maybe, and watch them get on with it. Or not.
Part The Fifth is the other stuff: criteria you impose yourself on the order in which you things do. The singist might say 'we can't do that one early on as I need to warm my voice up', or the bassist could moan 'we can't play those two together, as my fingers need a rest after my solo'. Alternatively, there might be two songs with similar tempo and structure that it might be sensible to keep apart.
The Sixth box contains the word "DYNAMICS". This is the reason you worry about set lists in the first place. Dictionary definition is the science of "matter and motion", which could simply mean making people dance. But in our context, it has to do with varying levels of intensity in your performance — big loud songs juxtaposed against small quiet songs, show-band leaders saying "now we're going to slow things down a little..." Get the idea? Concentrate on the dynamics of your set: think of it as a sexual metaphor, a coruscating whirl of sheer pleasure, speeding up, slowing down, then speeding up again, and increasing in tempo until it bursts upon the audience at the end of your performance, leaving them hot, sweaty and fulfilled, yet longing for more. Phew!
Feature by Jon Lewin
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