Playing a concert for two hours is pie. I would do that every minute of every day if I could. I love to perform. It’s the 22 hours before the next show that kills you.
– Kid Rock
According to most people’s online dating profiles, pretty much everyone loves going to see live music (how many of those actually do this is debatable). When people do head out for local live music, most of them show up to the venue after the music has started and leave before the band (or performer) is done. In between the coming and going, there are drinks, maybe some dancing and likely some awkward flirting.
While you’re trying to figure out if that attractive person is flirting with you or, in fact, is just really drunk– the band is putting on the best show they can to entertain you and get you to dance. Because dancing people are not only more fun to play for– they get thirsty and order more drinks… And that means the venue is happy, and that means you’re likely to get booked again.
There’s a lot that goes into a local rock show, probably more than you’d think. The following is the general effort that goes into each show my band puts on, using a regular bar show as an example. Keep these steps in mind as you’re sloshing your tap beer all over the person you’re hitting on… Who, most likely, already has a significant other.
Time: One Month to the Show
Details: This is about the time we add new songs for a specific show. Our band uses a shared playlist on Spotify for potential songs that we think we should cover, and then our band manager/lead guitarist culls through these to determine what the best fits are for us.
There’s an extensive vetting process for any potential new song (which may surprise people), and will definitely surprise the drunk dude who keeps yelling for Bob Seger. Any song we cover needs to fall into a very small portion of a Venn Diagram for the following categories: Songs We’d Like to Play, Songs People Know, Songs People Will Dance/Sing Along To.
We also have to keep in mind the technical aspects of the song– e.g., songs with a horn section are great and we may want to play them, but we don’t have horns in the band… So we’ll likely have to nix those. If we played everything we wanted, it would be a boring show for the audience– so we have to play what people want to hear, no matter how much we may hate Jessie’s Girl.
Once the songs are set, anywhere from two to four notes are sent to the band indicating who’s singing each tune, and what band members are playing which parts. Now it’s time for each of us to practice them on our own.
Time: Two Weeks and Two Days to the Show
Details: Granted, we had the last two weeks to practice the songs on our own, but I play rhythm guitar… So most songs are pretty easy to learn and memorize, and this is about when I start actually practicing a tune. Some songs, depending on the difficulty, may take 10-20 minutes to learn. Others may take a couple of hours, depending on the difficulty.
Time: Two Weeks to the Show
Details: It’s time for full-band practice. The goal with our practices is for everyone to have their parts to the new songs down completely, (i.e. memorized), by the time we get together. This allows us to pull the music together in short order and focus– not on learning the songs– but on making sure all of the parts meld together properly. Plus, it makes practices go much faster (which is good when you still have a 35-minute drive home afterwards).
Sometimes we’ll do an acoustic practice instead of full band, which is basically the whole band except our drummer. This is mostly for songs which have a lot of vocal harmony and can be difficult to work through, and can be really boring for the drummer.
Time: One Week to Show
Details: We’ll practice again if we really need to, or this will be a full-band practice if we previously did an acoustic run-through. Otherwise, we generally ignore each other until show time.
Time: Two Days to the Show
Details: The show’s set list comes out. Bickering ensues about the song choices and the order– some concessions are made, and eventually the set-list creator announces that he’s in the right and the set list stays as is. We all know that we’ll have to make set list changes on the fly anyway, so the rest of us give in.
Set list creation is an art form for any performing artist. You have to know when to put in your big dance songs, yet space them out enough to keep the crowd interested. For instance, if you put five big dance songs at the end of your set, the dance floor will be packed… But if you intersperse other songs in-between, you have a better chance of keeping people on the dance floor for the entire set– not just the end. For bands that play a couple of slow songs (like we do), you have to know which of your other songs should be used to lead in and out of the slow song. Like I said, it’s an art form– but it’s also a lot of experimentation to see what works best.
Time: Day of Show. T minus 7 Hours
Details: I love sleep. A lot. And considering I’m no spring chicken anymore and can’t stay up as late as I used to, I do my best to get a nap in sometime during the day if we play that night. Playing music for three hours takes a lot out of you, so I like to think I’m resting up in order to put on an amazing rock and roll show. (Or maybe I just really like naps.) Either way, it’s not all a rock and roll lifestyle, so naps are pretty much essential for me.
Time: Day of Show. T minus 3.5 to 4 Hours
Details: Most bar shows start around 9:30pm, so we try to get to the venue around 6-6:30pm to make sure we have enough time to load in, set up, sound check, and grab a bite to eat beforehand. Depending on the venue, this means leaving my house around a half an hour before I need to be at the venue. I hate being late for things, so I’m usually the first one there.
Heading down with me is my friend, whom I’ll call “Chad.” Chad rarely misses a show and, being a big guy who’s not afraid to be intimidating when he needs to, runs security for the band. (No, seriously… He even has a shirt that says “Security” on it).
Time: Day of Show. T minus 3 Hours
Details: We’ve arrived at the venue and immediately unpack our vehicles to start loading in. My car is packed with all of my gear, which consists of: Three guitars, amp head, amp 4×12 cabinet, pedal board, wireless guitar system, a case with cables and chords, multi-guitar stand and clothes for the show.
That’s a lot of stuff to carry in, so this is where Chad also plays the role of roadie. He’s quite good at setting up my rig by now, which is awesome for me. Loading in and setting up takes about half an hour. It also involves a guitarist doing one of their favorite things– noodling. This is where a guitarist keeps playing their guitar long after they need to, just because they can… And it’s annoying to everyone but the guitarist. (Don’t tell anyone, but that’s why we do it.)
Time: Day of Show. T minus 1.5 Hours
Details: We try to have our sound check completed about an hour to an hour and a half before we start playing. That way all of our levels are where we need them for the show and we don’t have to worry about having to adjust mid-set. That said, we all almost always need our levels adjusted mid-set.
Sound checks are extremely boring to watch as well as to participate in. Essentially, everyone stands around on the stage waiting for the sound guy to tell you it’s your turn to play. When it’s your turn, you play (or sing, if that’s your job) while the sound guy adjusts levels for the house and then in the monitors on stage (pretty much the only way you’ll hear yourself). Every member goes through this, and then we usually play through a song to make sure we can hear ourselves properly on stage.
After that, we set down the instruments and walk off stage to get ready for the actual show.
Time: Day of Show. T minus 30 Minutes
Details: With a half an hour left until show time, we plug in an iPod or iPhone with a preset list of songs, letting us count down until we play. A preset song list like this allows us to control the momentum and feeling just prior to the show, which hopefully gets the crowd in the mood to dance and party with us.
At some point, we change into our show clothes. We don’t play in what we show up in, so when we get on stage the crowd is experiencing us as a band, not a bunch of random people making noise. We may or may not take a shot as a band, as well. (You know, just to loosen ourselves up.)
Time: Day of Show. SHOWTIME. Set One
Details: Set One starts more or less on time. We like to start with a bang and make an impression, which is where the carefully scripted set list comes into play. As I mentioned, there are inevitable issues with us not being able to hear ourselves– which we try to fix without the crowd knowing. (Wild gestures and pantomimes to the sound guy usually work).
The first set rarely has people out on the dance floor, but you can’t slack off. You have to put on the full show every set, every song. For us, that means a lot of energy, moving around, jumping, running, and crowd interaction. The drummer is the only one without a wireless system (because he’s sitting), and the rest of us aren’t afraid to get out into the crowd to encourage them to start dancing. Due to the amount of energy we use– combined with the extremely hot stage lights– I’m always sweating profusely by the second or third song in.
Set one lets us feel out the crowd and determine what they may or may not respond to. We can then adjust the next two sets accordingly.
Time: Day of Show. SET BREAK ONE
Details: Set Break One involves mingling with the crowd, refilling our drinks, and figuring out what songs we’re cutting from the Second Set because we’re already running behind schedule.
Time: Day of Show. SHOWTIME. Set Two
Details: Set Two is the power-house set, especially the second half, where we normally put our best, most well-known songs. This is where people get out on the dance floor and we capitalize on it. We’ll pull people on stage for songs, go out into the crowd for songs, and generally try to entertain. By the end, we’re getting tired.
Time: Day of Show. SET BREAK TWO
Details: Two hours of music in for the night and we’re really starting to tire. That’s why, during our second set break– we refuel with additional drinks, more mingling with the random people and water. Lots and lots of water.
Time: Day of Show. SHOWTIME. Set Three
Details: Set Three is the final hour of music for the night. Here you’ll find more fan favorites and the big sing-along songs. Depending on the time of year and the venue, the dance floor is either still packed or almost dead… But either way, the people left are most likely drunk and singing loudly along with whatever we’re playing.
We finish the night with a huge sing-a-long song and everything from the past month is worth it. It’s great to see people, arms wrapped around each other, belting out lyrics to Journey or Neil Diamond.
Time: Day of Show. Post-Show
Details: With the show over we spend a couple of minutes chatting with folks in the crowd, making sure to thank them for coming out and supporting not only us, but live music in general. Trust me: When a musician thanks you for coming out to their show, they truly are grateful.
After that, it’s time to tear down all of our gear and pack it back into our vehicles. Depending on where we’re playing, the tear down and pack lasts until 1:30-2am. Tear down (like set up) takes about a half an hour… And I’m usually exhausted and running mostly on adrenaline from the show. As soon as I’m packed up, I hit the road for home.
Time: Day of Show. Post-Show – 30 Minutes to 1 hour
Details: After I drop off Chad (either at his house or by his truck at my house), it can be anywhere from 2:30-3:30am. Despite being completely spent, it’s often tough to fall asleep– so I’ve grown used to doing something to relax myself. I’ll watch a little TV, maybe play a video game or read a book before crawling into bed. The night is officially over, and I start mentally preparing to do it all over again in a week or two.
There you have it– what actually goes into a normal rock show at a local venue. Other shows can be even more convoluted (think weddings, festivals and corporate shows), all of which usually involve much more planning and coordination. We’ve played festivals and weddings three hours away where we had to be done with sound check seven hours before we actually played– which makes for an even longer day than what I just outlined.
Is it exhausting, both mentally and physically? Yes. But do I love it? Definitely. And every moment– from the month beforehand to the wee hours of the morning after the show– is worthwhile… Especially when you see a packed dance floor and know that you’re causing that joy and excitement. In my opinion, there aren’t many feelings better than that.