Author: Campbell, Bruce

Setlists: Friend or Foe?

Most bands I’ve been in have had a love/hate relationship with setlists.

Most bands you see moving seamlessly from song to song at a festival performance do so because they have a setlist and have practiced it as a whole. The songs are carefully chosen to convey the proper emotions to the audience, so that sum total of the performance is a pleasing mosaic of feelings. In addition to that, the song selection is designed to show off different vocalists, tempos and keys, but in a way that the band can smoothly transition from one selection to the next.

If you watch a band onstage take 30 full seconds to go from one song to the next, it can be excruciating. Sometimes, the band will have one or two members who are expert enough in engaging the audience that the gap isn’t so noticeable, but even so, 30 seconds between songs ends up being 6 or 7 minutes of non-entertainment, and a waste of 16% of the festival set.

Other bands relish choosing songs on the fly, and if the band is well-rehearsed through its repertoire and has a strong, decisive leader with a knack for reading the audience, it can really be interesting and exciting.

In general, I prefer a setlist. In a festival gig, where every moment in precious, I like to stick to it whenever possible.

In a bar or pub gig, I like to have a setlist handy because it’s easy to refer to when ideas for songs won’t spring to mind. Even you don’t play the song on the list, just seeing the list will remind me of some song I would like to play.

Some folks abhor setlists, seeing them as a barrier to creativity. Maybe that’s true, but I think musicians need to take the audience experience into account at all times, at ANY gig. Audiences don’t like a lot of space between songs, and neither does the proprietor. Considering most bluegrass songs run barely 3 minutes, why not play SOMETHING while you’re pondering the perfect thing to play?

I have a close friend who hates setlists, and always says, “Hey! Can we play something not on the list?”. To which I say “”Sure! What did you have in mind?”. The answer is usually silence.

The audience experience being paramount, I have no problem with abandoning the list if the audience ends up making a lot of requests. Let’s face it – we’re human jukeboxes anyways – why not let the audience push the song selection buttons once in a while? I am fortunate to be in bands with some folks who have encyclopedic knowledge of songs and tunes, and it always thrills folks when you play their requests.

I’m always interested to get a peek at other bands’ setlists. They reflect the personality of the band or at least the person in the band who makes them. Sometimes, they’re hastily scrawled, and other times, they’re carefully typed out, and usually have some other codes for reference. The keys in which the songs are played is most common, of course, but some bands’ setlists also have notation as to who kicks off the song, who sings what, who plays what instrument, etc. There seems to be at least one person in every band who gets impatient with confusion onstage (I’m often that guy).

My philosophy is, if we’re getting paid, we are honor-bound to provide a smooth, professional show, to the best of our abilities. We can’t really control the amount of talent we’re born with, but we can – and should – be in control of the pace of the show. So, I guess I’m a setlist guy..

Posted:  8/22/2012

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