So you pull up to the little loading dock at the little student center in the little college town of say, Pella, Iowa, the home of The Tulip Festival. The first thing you notice is that there's no one there.
You've just driven 200 miles and now you're unloading your equipment in freezing winter weather, and your hands feel like feet. You're late, it's one hour 'til showtime, and you do not feel a song coming on. It is at this point that the Student-in-Charge arrives on the scene and begins berating the school, winding up with something like "If you were any good at all, you wouldn't be playing here." Suddenly that espresso cart business idea you had looks pretty tempting.
There are white plastic lattice covers on red glass teardrop shaped candle holders. These sit on tables covered with plastic red and white checked tablecloths for that "coffeehouse" feel. Half of the chairs are facing away from the stage and there's a soft drink machine by the door which puts a loud pop in your sound system every time someone pushes a button. You are in the basement of the Student Union. Picture your glee.
Or maybe you're in the gym, unable to set up your stuff because of girls' volleyball practice, which ends half an hour before your show starts.
Performers share a sick kind of pride in trading "worst gig" stories. There are, of course, similar scenarios for small clubs, benefit shows in lifeless hotel conference rooms (ever tried to play and sing behind a podium?), package shows (no sound check), local radio and TV, etc. Each poses its own unique challenge. They each have their up side too. But the small college concert has been the greatest learning experience for me, because the students helping out often have no idea what goes into a production. They assume somehow that concerts just kind of "happen." I've heard such statements as, "You don't really need to do a sound check do you? You sounded great last year!"
Regardless of who's in charge, there invariably seems to be one person who is the audio/lighting whiz. He or she is the one who knows where the gels for the lights are, and is willing and able to go up on the catwalk to re-aim the lights (which are currently set for "Guys 'n Dolls", and if the drama teacher finds you've changed those lights he'll...). He knows how to get to the mixing console in the balcony. He knows the custodian's name and he'll find him for you.
The rest of your helpers may need to be cajoled into involvement in your show. It takes some subtlety to delegate tasks to people who are sure they already know what to do, but if you expect to return here, you must remain human in the midst of all the production crap. ("We loved the show, but we'll never have him back! What a jerk!") It's hard to do this stuff because you know that where you really need to be is in the dressing room playing your guitar!
The challenge is to eliminate the distractions and turn the room into a setting where something really moving is going to happen, so you can take the audience away with you, from this place that they know only too well. And you can.
Here are what I consider to be the basics of producing a solo or small ensemble performance:
Setting the stage.
Set the stage at the long end of the room, if possible, to avoid working to the short wall, creating coverage problems for the PA system. If the stage sounds hollow and boomy when you tap your foot, put a rug under the mic stands. Even a rubber entrance mat will do. Pay attention to what's behind you, visually as well as sound-wise.
Set the chairs in a pattern the sound system will cover, and remember the aisles. If there are tables involved, group the chairs on the side facing the stage. This may seem like a no-brainer to you, but if you don't pay attention to it, half your house will be staring at the other half.
If you're calling the shots regarding the sound system, decide where to put the sound console, (if not mixing it yourself from the stage), with respect to the best vantage for listening, and keeping in mind the audience's ability to see and get around it.
Get your monitors right. If they're too loud you'll be timid on stage and if too soft, they'll be useless and you'll be out of tune. In the end though, if you can't get the sound on stage, or in the hall, the way you want it, screw it and do it. Sometimes you have to know when to quit.
You need one. Don't fool yourself. Use a tuner on stage. Skip the purism; be effective instead.
If they're using spots, make sure they're set high enough on their stands. I remember times when a monster like shadow would cross the stage as someone in the back of the room walked in front of a spotlight. Unlikely? Just wait.
This is, of course, different strokes. As a soloist, I can change my show as I go, depending on audience response, my mood, etc. If it's a really important show, or if I'm tied to the clock, I'll know every song I'm going to do, and some of the talk in between. At other times, for spontaneity, I'll know only my opener and closer, trusting the evening. Also, I like to seesaw between ballads and up tunes, setting up the serious moments with energy. A good song sequence can really be effective. Other people start with ballads, crescendoing into a "Ben Hur" type finish. A little jive for me perhaps, but it works for many. If you're like most writers I know, you probably have too many ballads anyway, and will need to juxtapose them with some energetic stuff as you go.
Get some quiet time before the show to remember why you're there.
This is one of my pet peeves. Wind your cables carefully. Don't use your forearm as a spool to wrap them into figure eights and then tie knots in the ends. Your guitar, mic and speaker cables are not long pieces of rubber, they're long, thin strands of copper! If you crease or knot them in the same place a few times, they will break, and you will be very, very sorry. Also try to get out of the habit of standing on the plugs as they are lying on the stage floor. Just because they're under foot doesn't mean you are supposed to walk on them.
I realize that this all may sound somewhat pessimistic, but I'm assuming that you're addicted. Take heart. With all the variables that go into putting on a show, often the only place to get some peace of mind is on stage, performing. Sometimes I do my best work when everything else is going wrong.
Performing Songwriter - Volume 1, Issue 4 - January/February 1994
Photo: ©C. McArthur
More of Michael Johnson's Solo Performer columns