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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Building a setlist is a crucial part of a show

By Ted Slowik

A setlist is critical to a show. I mean, it's the plot at the beginning of Martin Scorsese's 2008 Rolling Stones live concert documentary "Shine a Light," where Marty in the booth doesn't get the setlist until Keith tears into the opening riff of the opener "Jumpin' Jack Flash."

Sure, you play plenty of jams and impromptu sessions where there is no setlist. I've performed songs live with other musicians I've never played before. But if you have a show and weeks to prepare for it, here's a few reasons why a setlist is so important.

No. 1, it's better to do a few things well than a lot of things so-so. If you're like me you know hundreds of songs. At most I'll play three hours in a night. At five minutes a song that's 36 songs. It's best to try to nail those down, practice them and do them well. Variety's the spice of life and if you have time you can mix in other tunes for different shows. But find your core material and stick to it.

Second, if other musicians are going to perform with you they'll appreciate charts and recordings of the set so they can prepare. Focusing on what you do well means making decisions in advance so there's a game plan.

Third, planning a set allows you to inject audio variety to keep the listeners engaged. In the attached example, a setlist for a local New Year's Eve show I'm doing Tuesday night, no two songs in a row are in the same key. I've made myself notes as helpful reminders, so I can stay relaxed and focus on playing, singing and juggling all those other variables like sound, tone, voice quality, remembering lyrics, crowd reaction, etc.

Now, I believe while a setlist is crucial it's important to respond to an audience and remain flexible. Like when the Blues Brothers played Bob's Country Bunker. Dwight Eisenhower said "plans are useless but planning is essential." A couple weeks ago I played in a bar on a Saturday night, and I figured they'd want to hear honky tonk rock and roll. The rock wasn't going over well, and it wasn't until the second set that I realized the songs the crowd responded well to were slower ballads. They wanted to have conversations with each other while I was playing, and the uptempo stuff was too loud.

Granted, that's more of a sound thing than material choices, but the point is a quarterback's got to be able to call an audible. Make your setlist but don't get hung up on it. Live in the moment, and perform your songs with the confidence that comes from good preparation.