Less Talk, More Rock: Don’t Let Stage Banter Derail Your Live Show

December 28, 2011{ 10 Comments }

iStock 000014115160XSmall 211x300 Less Talk, More Rock: Dont Let Stage Banter Derail Your Live ShowWhen the Pixies got back together in the early 2000′s, I went to one of their sold-out reunion shows. For a band that had just resurrected itself after a decade, they sounded surprisingly solid. They played a ton of songs, one right after the other, and kept the crowd on the edge of their seats for the duration of the gig, wondering what the band would play next.

And when I say they played songs one right after another, I’m not exaggerating. There was almost no talking from the band members between the tunes, aside from an occasional “Thanks.” They finished one song, checked the setlist, looked toward the person whose duty it was to start the next one, and went into it. And it was a great show. There were no lulls, no awkward moments, and never any points where the jam-packed audience looked like they were going to start restlessly winging plastic cups.

I know this is a slanted example (rarely do I see a show with so little interaction), but that all-business aspect of the show stuck with me. Of course, the Pixies are a band who notoriously bicker, so it’s possible they were fresh off a spat and peeved at one another. But to me, it seemed like they were letting the music speak for itself while eschewing any fluff that might get in the way. It’s something I wish more bands would do.

Don’t get me wrong: stage banter can be something that endears you to your audience, and it can be a fun, memorable part of a show if executed properly. It can also be awkward, annoying, and a major turn-off to people seeing you for the first time. There’s a fine line between witty asides and pointless rambling, and I’ve seen bands make an entire room uncomfortable by just saying words into a microphone.

Every situation is different, so there aren’t really any concrete dos and don’ts when it comes to the art of between-song talking, but I will happily cite some examples of bad-banter offenders I’ve seen in my concert-going experiences:

The drunk guy.

Downing a few pre-show drinks to loosen up is a ritual amongst many bands, and I would never want to deny anyone this time-honored tradition. But when you combine one-too-many with a live mic, the results can be disastrous. Learn to pace yourself, and have somebody ready to shut off the sloppy-drunk bass player’s mic as soon as he starts in on his nonsensical political tangent. He’ll thank you in the morning.

“This song is about…”

We’re musicians, and we’re under the assumption that everyone is as interested in the roots of our art as we are. Your girlfriend might be – if the song is about her – but even she probably wishes you’d finish up your moment-of-inspiration anecdote and just play the damn thing. Sometimes there’s so much buildup in pre-song stories that the actual song can never live up to your mythical tale of writing it whilst plucking your mandolin on a rainy mountainside. Just play it. If people want to know what it’s about, they’ll ask you.

“Wanna hear a joke?”

Nope.

The broken string.

The great equalizer. How a band handles a broken string (or any other number of technical difficulties) will tell you a lot about them. I once saw a show completely crumble under the weight of a broken string/buzzy amp combo, and the band never recovered. Everyone left. It was brutal.

I’ve also seen bands break a string and jump right back into the set within two minutes. And during those two minutes, the members without broken strings knew exactly what to do. They played a little jam they were comfortable with falling back on, or they talked to the crowd without fumbling it. They were prepared. And you should be, too. Unexpected stuff like this is going to happen, and it’s a perfect opportunity for your show to either persevere through a slight detour or stop dead in its tracks.

Got any good advice about stage banter or any funny stories of onstage talking gone horribly wrong? Let us know in the comments.

  • Linda Vee Sado

    I have to agree. I hate when bands babble instead of playing or crack inside jokes.
    I am there for the music, not a dissertation.

  • http://twitter.com/chunter16 Christopher Hunter

    None of those banter "don'ts" invoke audience participation- and that's 95% of why they are "don'ts."

  • Paul Gunn

    Talking in-between songs is what sorts the sheep from the goats. ie. 99% of musicians are USELESS at it. Better to shut up and play. The best ones connect with the audience like a good stand up comedian, result good songs & good chat = great show.

  • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

    Cool. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jon Patton

    I tried this recently – skipping almost all the stage banter and just focusing on creating good music.

    People who knew us told me afterward it was awkward and that I needed to talk more.

    I thought I played better music because I was more relaxed and knew that all the settings were right on the instruments before we launched into the tune, but apparently that's not the biggest concern in some circles. Some people apparently want to see a concert and not just hear music.

    Obviously everything has exceptions, but writing a blog post as "don'ts" when what you really really mean is "this worked for this show," is overly simplified. What might have been a better or at least more constructive approach is: "If your stage banter isn't good, you should work on it. But this model might work for you while you're practicing that skill or if you're in a room that isn't receptive to stage banter."

    Ever heard a Springsteen live recording? Been to hear a soul band? Watched one of David Lee Roth's drunken/high ramblings? Any experience with Counting Crows? What about Bright Eyes? Every single "don't" is broken by these artists, and almost every time it's one of the best parts of the show.

    People can hear your songs online and on CD. They can't talk back to you or make eye contact with a recording.

    • http://members.cdbaby.com CD Baby Admin

      True. There are no real prescriptions for success besides "do what works best for you."

  • Jbclark

    As I practice my trade I believe there is a fine line between, "too much talk and not enough walk". Way back in the day a bar owner told me not to try to be so perfect. "If they wanted perfect, they'd put money in the jukebox. Ham it up a little". Recently I did a show and later agonized through the viewing of the recording. My setup was way too long on many songs. I will strike a better balance at the next show.

  • JC

    I think stage banter it's a really plus on a shows, I mean, it depends the kind of show, music or kind of crowd attending the show, it's obviously that if someone goes to a concert to see a really famous band artist, performer or idol, people will laugh,clap and cheers easily on whatever the performer says, it's different for an uknown artist performer or band.

    I think it's really cool when your favorite band or artist make a direct contact and interaction with their audience, we all really love to feel part or get involved with their show.

    I play in a band, we play some kind of dancerock and sometimes in our gigs we make a low volume music break and we throw some conffetti or we try to establish a direct contact with the audience getting those people involved to the show as much as we can, obviously this not works everytime it depends of mood of people, you have to create a good and fun atmosphere first, then see the reaction of the audience and see if this could really work… sometimes we get out some cans of beer and give em' to the people for free, at least people will thank that, a lot of times people just wanna have a good time with good music obviously.

    JC
    noisebeatpropaganda,bandcamp.com
    facebook.com/noisebeatpropaganda

  • Clark Colborn

    Stage banter can go either way. It is as much of an art form as playing your instrument is, and if you aren't ready for "prime time" with both of them then you'd better woodshed. I have seen mediocre musicians absolutely captivate an audience by having good banter, and I have seen brilliant players drive an audience away by opening their mouth. In one of my old bands we knew our banter was weak if it went on too long, so we made a point of only talking for 45 seconds or so twice during each set. Our banter was good enough that those brief moments of talking enhanced the other 58 minutes of music. We were very popular.

    The part in this post that talks about being prepared in the event of a string break or whatever is right on the money. An awesome example of this is when Steve Vai broke a string during "Devil's Food" on the "Alive in an Ultra World" tour. They were recording for a live album, and the way he & the band handled the broken string was so entertaining Steve included it on the live album in spite of having multiple recordings of the same song from other nights with no issues.

    One trick I use now is to have the bass & drums playing a hooky type of thing when I am talking. You can't do it for every song or even every set, but if you're introducing the band, for example, it gives it an entertaining feel. Making a video of each show is a great way to see it from the audiences point of view. And in general, less is more when you're talking. Find the shortest way to get your point across. Unless of course you have a Jeff Dunham level of ad libbing. Then run amok. :-)

    • http://members.cdbaby.com/ CD Baby

      Excellent tips. Thanks for sharing!