The shows that truly stick in our minds often transcend just great music, using stunning visuals or other dramatic elements to emphasize the emotional power of the performance. Here we look at how artists can take their show to the next level and give fans a truly unforgettable experience.
Guest post by Evan Zwisler for Soundfly's Flypaper
Great, memorable shows go so far beyond the music itself. Great performers will tap into what makes their music special, their sound and image unique, and they’ll use visual and dramatic elements to reinforce and cement the emotional power of their songs.
I’ve played in touring rock bands for over 10 years, so I know a thing or two about how to engage an audience, but I’m by no means an expert on the subject. So I sought out two people who, in my opinion, are creating some of the best live show experiences in New York City right now — Claudi Love of Pinc Louds and Elijah Sokolow from The Living Strange — to ask them about how they put on such electrifying and unforgettable performances. Here’s what they had to say.
Show that you value your audience’s time.
It’s always helpful to keep a goal in the back of your mind when you take the stage. One such goal is to make sure you’re doing everything you can to entertain your audience in any given moment. How can you reconfigure the raw materials of your live set to provide them with the most exciting thing they’ll see all night? You don’t want to have them thinking that they wished they’d done something else. Here’s Claudi Love’s advice:
“People can listen to your music on the internet. If they come to a show, it’s because they want an experience. Give them something beautiful and unforgettable. Give them something no one else can.”
You need to think about what you’re bringing to the performance beyond the music. Once you feel you can play your set well, continue to work on giving your songs a living element on stage. Here’s how Pinc Louds does it:
Give every show a theme.
Another recommendation straight from Love is to “Give your show a theme… just something that can hold the songs together.”
If you have an overarching idea about what you’re trying to do, then the audience will feel as if they’re part of something special. It’s always more fun to be part of a conceptualized experience, then simply watching a group of people play 10 songs in a row.
“The concept of our shows,” says Elijah Sokolow of The Living Strange, “is to break down what the typical rock concert is and leave the audience members feeling like they saw something unique. We often do things that we wish other bands would do.”
Giving your show a theme is, at its core, a helpful way to force yourself to think about what you’re doing and how to be a more interesting act. While The Living Strange takes a broader approach, Pinc Louds went really specific for their last show:
“We built our last NYC show around the fact that we were going to Puerto Rico in a couple of days. First we told the audience about how we’d dug a subway tunnel to the Caribbean. After a couple of songs, we showed the audience how to peel a mango. Later we sang a song in Spanish, and at the end we left on a giant subway puppet destined for Puerto Rico.”
Of course, not every band has (or wants) puppets, but it’s about storytelling. And you can get your story across just by talking to the audience between songs (or “stage banter”).
It’s always good to thank the venue, promoter, sound engineer, and other bands, but think about ways to make your inter-song announcements kind of funny and interesting. Audiences love anything unpredictable that takes them by surprise. But great shows can also feature consistent visual styles or repeated motifs that support the music.
Be a performer, dammit!
Powerful performances can take all shapes and forms. Whether it’s the wavering voice of Daniel Johnston, David Lee Roth doing back flips, or Prince shredding “Purple Rain” in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl while wearing four-inch heels, a powerful performance is more that just recreating your music live.
“Every artist has to figure out their own unique voice,” says Love, “but what’s important to remember is that there is an audience, and that each person in that audience has a different story, a different life, a different apartment in a different part of the city and a different subway route they took to come here to see you. They’re here to see you. Don’t take that for granted.”
The Living Strange’s shows are a crazy theatrical cavalcade of insanity, too. “Our shows have no rules for both us and the audience,” says Sokolow. “One time, an audience member ended up playing an impromptu slide whistle solo. Another time, I brought everyone down with a toy ray gun while playing a guitar solo. Twice, our bassist Miles died onstage in a Shakespearean manner. Usually, I talk to the audience through samples recorded on my phone.”
It’s important for you to develop your own live persona. You want to make sure that you’re able to command the attention of everyone in the room while you’re playing.
It never hurts to over-prepare.
Preparation for a show goes far beyond rehearsing your music. Think about what’s going to happen both before and after you play. For example, how are you going to transition between songs? Is there one small thing you can mention that will make the experience of a particular song so much better for the audience?
Take time to address all the little things that go into making your set something special, but always try to leave room for improvisation, too! Love explains:
“Once you know what you want to happen in your show, write a script that also includes the setlist. This way everyone is on the same page. I script our shows very lightly. I give a general idea of what has to happen and the message that has to come across, but I never write what has to be said word for word because we want some flexibility to work with. It’s important to be able to improvise and feed off of what the crowd gives us.”
In other words, always plan for the unexpected!
I hope this has given you some things to think about in terms of how to infuse your live show with a bit more excitement (that hopefully doesn’t include getting injured!). Have you already mastered this art? How do you elevate your performance? Share your advice with us in the comments below!
Evan Zwisler is a NYC-based musician who is most notably known for his work with The Values as a songwriter and guitarist. He is an active member of the Brooklyn music scene, throwing fundraisers and organizing compilations for Planned Parenthood and the Anti-Violence Project. He started playing music in the underground punk scene of Shanghai with various local bands when he was in high school before going to California for college and finally moving to New York in 2012.