When 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?”
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.