I saw a band called White Witch in a bar in New Orleans in the 70s (yes, I was under age). They had a smoke machine, a light-show, props, and costume changes. The show was totally choreographed and it was fantastic! I saw another band called Ace Pancakes in another bar in Denver in the 80s. They wore their street clothes, played what they felt, and joked with the crowd and they too, were fantastic. So, how do you present your band? Is it a big production or an informal presentation? Well, we can start by making a set list. A set list can be a blueprint for a successful show or a wedge that drives you away from your audience. Do you need one? How to make one? When to abandon one? Here's what I think.
1. Do you need a setlist? I know performers who effortlessly throw out one cool song after another. To do that, you need a deep repertoire and a quick mind. You may have just the right song but you gotta remember what's in your bag of tricks. Sometimes, at the end of the night I think of all the good tunes I forgot to play because I was excited, or nervous, or maybe a little drunk. If this is you, then you need a setlist. There are two kinds of list. I call them the 'menu' and the 'recipe'. The 'menu' is just a list of the songs you know. This way, you don't rely on memory to pick the next tune. Put notes by the titles with song details like who sings it or if it's a proven crowd pleaser. This helps with pacing and variety. The 'recipe' lists the songs in the order they will be played. This brings us to question two.
2. How to make a setlist. I think every set should be like a little movie. It should grab your attention and convince you to join the fun. It should build intensity while alternating light and dark, loud and soft, sad and happy. It should reach a crescendo and then release you gracefully. Start with a 'menu' style list and explore different ways to categorize the tunes. For example, all the dance tunes, or the ones with excellent harmonies, then put them in order. When making the set, play just the end of one song and then the beginning of another to see if they fit. Take your listeners on a journey (just don't play any 'Journey' ha ha). Use repetition and contrast. Wanna make 'em cry? Try a funny song followed by a sad one. Don't wear out a dancing crowd with one rhythm or tempo. One last thing... If you play multiple sets, each one may be different from the others. The first set might be more listening and the last two might be more dancing.
3. When to abandon the setlist. No matter how you plan, things might not go as you expected. Be sensitive to your audience. If your carefully planned list isn't working, don't go blindly lurching forward like a broken robot. Try to give 'em what they want if you can. I once showed up expecting to play a house concert which turned out to be a beginning ukulele class, so we learned three chords and sang some songs and had fun. Your carefully planned list can still be a menu for picking songs on the fly. Sometimes my band goes without a list. Right before we start a set, we huddle and agree on the first three songs, from then on we talk to each other as we play to choose the next song.
Like I said at the start, formal or informal, a good band makes people feel good. Planning ahead is always a good idea but be ready to go with the flow. Project a good feeling, give it your best, and have fun. When you do that, your audience will have fun too.