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Date: Sun 26 Sep, 2004 at 13:55
Headline: Wingin' It
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Greetings & Salutations!

It wouldn't be a stretch to say that set lists are an obsession of mine.

How does a band decide which songs to play at a particular concert? How do they decide the running order? How do they plan for segues, talking breaks, instrument switches? How do they balance out audience expectations with self-indulgent desires? How do they make all the tracks add up to just the right running time? How is it that one seemingly minor alteration can butterfly-effect its way out to make huge changes in the nature of the show? How do these choices combine with the audience's energy to create a synergistic state in which the concert becomes a single piece of music unto itself, with its own rhythm, tempo, and spirit, never quite the same as any other performance, even if everything is arranged 99% the same?

And...er...so on.

After years and years of studying various artists' approaches to this aspect of live performance and also doing my own dabbling (I have been responsible for set list creation in every musical situation I've ever been involved with, all the way back to high school choir), I still find it incredibly fascinating. There is a certain art to the process, and like all art, both the process and the results can be highly subjective and potentially volatile. I drive the rest of the band mad sometimes with my constant retooling of a set list, sometimes right up until the night of a show. Because we play so many local gigs I try not to ever do the same show twice, and I'm always looking for just the right combination of elements to make each show unique.

Occasionally, we will do what is ostensibly an "all-request" show, but even then I have a template set out in advance -- partly in case we don't get a lot of audience response, partly in case we get too much and the whole thing starts to slide into chaos -- then we sprinkle the requests throughout the already established structure. Lately we've found that doing a planned-out first set while the audience makes their requests in writing, then tallying up the votes during a break and basing the second set on them seems to work even better. For some reason, asking the crowd for suggestions during the set is just begging for the inevitable smartass shout-outs for "Freebird" and "Margaritaville", and rarely accomplishes much.

Last Friday's gig at Cisero's, however, was done almost completely blind. The only thing I knew going in was that we needed to get 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' out of the way up front so that Matt could switch out the sample discs in his keyboard and have the sound FX ready for songs like 'Money' or 'Time', should they come up in the course of the show. I also knew that since we had Flanders there for the night, I wanted to play 'Can't Stop Talking' (a new SoN original with space for a sax break), but that was just about it. We pretty much made up the night as we went along, and the crowd was only too happy to help out. It was cool to get requests for more obscure material like 'Cymbaline', and 'Wots Uh The Deal' -- the latter of which I didn't find out about until we finished up, and was disappointed that we didn't get a chance to give it a shot. The calls for 'Echoes' started early, but we held off on it for a while. And though we thought we were going to get away with not playing 'Comfortably Numb' for the first time ever, we were persuaded by some very insistent audience members to go up after the show proper and churn it out to a great reception as always.

The crowd even dictated some of the night's arrangements -- pouring onto the dance floor en masse for 'Young Lust', which then ballooned into an extended jam lasting for more than twice the song's original length. 'Money' and 'Any Colour You Like' received similar treatment, driving us to new areas of live improvisation, giving us all a chance to let off some musical steam and keeping the dancers on their toes. We've never done a show quite like it, and it was a blast!

I'm not giving up my penchant for structure any time soon, but I want to thank the good people at Cisero's for giving us a chance to wing it in style. Let's do it again soon!

bye for now,
-Thom