A week before the show, sometimes a little earlier, the emails start: “when will we see a set list?” “do we have a set list yet?” “what songs do we want to play for this show?” “are we adding anything new this time around?” Usually the task comes down to me, the drummer, to fill. At other times our bass player, Jon will throw out a starter. The results turn out the same. The practice before the show, we’ll go through the set list and Tom, our guitar player, will throw a few things out and add others. Larry, keyboards, might decide he isn’t ready for a part or wonders why a particular song isn’t on the list (Kansas City will never be done again, let’s just get that in writing while we’re here). Then when you get to the show, sometimes the set list goes to hell in hand basket when people call out requests or someone starts the wrong song, but in theory, it is a good idea.
Probably the most interesting form of a set list was displayed at a Gomez show outside Buffalo that Tom and I attended six years ago. It was part of a day long festival of sorts and Gomez was the headliner. They seem to have caught on in other parts of the country but I think there were fifty people at best at this show which made for plenty of room to move around. About five songs in, Ian, one of their three guitarist/lead singers, mentioned that they had been touring a while and in an effort to change the setlist on a nightly basis, they needed to come up with different methods, “tonight” he said, “we went alphabetical.”
Cool. Of course, when you’re doing all originals and people came to see you play all originals and know every song no matter what order it comes in the set list, you can get away with that. However, for a bar band (not to say we don’t play parties and festivals) there is a certain amount of familiarity that is expected. So, you play the covers and mix in the originals. Quick side bar (and if I could figure out how to put something like this in a box to the right I would do that): we played a show at Johnny’s Irish Pub in Rochester, NY last night. Between the first and second sets, a tall, bespeckaled, shaved headed man told me “I’ve never seen you guys and can’t believe you played a John Hiatt tune. That’s great, I never see bands play John Hiatt.” I told him we appreciated the compliment while trying to figure out which song he thought was Hiatt. We had done Cash, Dead, Beatles, Van Morrison, Allman Brothers, Stones, Elvis, Stevie Wonder, the Doors, and Junior Wells while scattering a few Sinzibukwud originals in the mix. He started humming the line for me, “it goes something like this….” and proceeded to sing one of our originals. So, I’m guessing we now have an answer to the question, “what do you sound like.” Well, one of our songs apparently sounds like John Hiatt. (Sidebar over, back to the subject at hand).
Where was I? Oh yes, the thought that goes into a set list. It depends on the venue. When we played Montage or Monty’s Krown, it was better to play more originals than covers. Places like Lock 29, Carey Lake, and Johnny’s Irish Pub prefer more covers than originals. It also depends on the time. One 45 minute set requires a completely different thought process than a four hour show with 3 sets. The longer shows mean you can warm up the audience, you don’t have to grab them right away. Of course, if you’re in a new venue, you still want to start with a few attention getters (songs not costumes) that will get people interested. However, no matter how much thought you put into something, there is always a surprise.
We had practice this past Wednesday. The set list was written and accepted and with a show coming up in two days and three sets to work through, we had our work cut out for us. Tom walked in and suggested, as he will often do right before a show, a new song that we had never worked on. “People love this tune and not many bands play it in the city, plus it’s three chords, easy stuff.” I’ll admit, I was skeptical, I often am, of whipping something together and having it sound decent. After all, it took us three months to get a working version of U2′s New Years Day and now I’m thankful that that day only happens once a year. However, some tunes are just plain good and the right tune for the time. We ran it three times and added it to our third set as a replacement. Before you knew it, we hit that point on the set list. Jon turned to me with a “here we go” expression and Tom hit the opening chords to the Who’s “Squeezebox”. Immediately, we heard hoots and hollers and nearly everyone in the bar gathered together in front of the band to sing along lending loud voices to “in and out and in and out and in and out and in and out”. We finished the song to the biggest cheer of the evening (the crowd was smaller than the first set, but perhaps more lubricated) and I watched Tom nod to them. That was the right tune.
Sometimes you get lucky. You pick a few songs that are similar that will keep people dancing. Sometimes you mix a lighter tune in between two heavy ones to give people a break, not to mention the band (we work harder on some tunes than others but don’t tell anyone). Sometimes, in our case, we try to have one song in a set that has a different lead vocal so that Tom’s pipes aren’t clanking together by the end of the night. Sometimes you don’t hit anything right and the night feels disjointed from start to finish. Sometimes you hit the nail on the head.
Last night was one of those nights.