Early in my career I spent countless hours designing sets of music for a lot of different settings, including live concert performances, radio interviews (live or pre-recorded), and live television shows.
Today, because of all my obsessive lists of songs and stories written on napkins and little scraps of paper, I am generally very comfortable walking on the stage seeming totally unprepared.
In reality, when you’ve done it enough, your instincts kick in and, for myself at least, I often prefer this approach where I have a multitude of sets I can pull from. The night appears less structured as I read the crowd and adjust according to the feel of the room.
It’s almost like a sparring session where instead of jabs and uppercuts, you are throwing various tunes and stories out there. When this is done right the result is usually the creation of an enjoyable landscape of a musical experience for everyone – the performer included.
Granted, there are times when structuring the set is of the utmost importance, particularly when you are required to provide a thematic night such as blues, folk or more of a classical repertoire. I recall an evening when I was the support act for the legendary bluesman John Hammond. I prepared with all the bended note tunes and slide I could think of ranging from Ry Cooder inspired slide pieces to traditional pieces such as St. Louis Blues by W.C. Handy.
Then, out of curiosity I structured another set where I threw in Elizabeth Cotton’s popular Freight Train – a traditional folk tune along with a couple of classical contributions by J.S. Bach and Fernando Sor. There was such an obvious and palpable flatness during that portion of the set where deviating from the expected did NOT work.
Fortunately, I immediately dug myself out of that hole that I had created by launching into a rousing 12 string slide tune and I was immediately back of track.
Now, I’m not saying that this approach would always fail or that ALL blues crowds would be unaccepting of this variation within the set. You can guess all you want and be under the assumption that history dictates reality but I can easily say “there are always surprises.” For me, reading my audience is probably the most challenging and fun part of a performance.
Structuring a set list or pulling from a library of proven sets also works well when creating a CD. When it comes to choosing a theme for the project, the flow and sequence from tune to tune is almost a science in itself and a well thought out set list sets the tone for the entire listening experience.
This brings me to an interesting comment that someone recently made to me. I immediately agreed with him that with the advent of new technology, we are now (and actually have been for a while) offered a Shuffle option!
All the time that is spent by an artist or producer in the studio selecting both the sequence or theme of the musical project now can be negated with the simple push of a button by the listener when they press the shuffle button on their CD player or a little i tune machine.
The randomness of tunes played, especially when there are multiple CD’s by varied artists in a machine, can easily present the listener with something along the lines of a Gaelic piece by the artist Enya followed by Twist and Shout by the Beatles.
Not that this is something I can necessarily say is a bad thing.
It’s just a presentation that appears to be the polar opposite of what occurs with the thinking and creative process involved with the structured approach. And sometimes, like the sets I previously described, it can present a unique level of excitement as the feeling pops into the listener in quiet anticipation – “Gee, I wonder what’s coming next?!”
I don’t necessarily believe at all that the careful advanced planning should be abandoned, but it is one of the many random conversations worth talking about in the car with a friend for about 8 minutes in between sips of coffee as you roll down the highway.