What makes a great acoustic live show?

I’d like to think that every entertainer ponders their live show from time to time, and strives to constantly improve. Lately, I’ve been taking a good look at my live show. Now, the live shows I’m talking about are the small, intimate acoustic shows. The house concerts, cafes, and wineries. Each have their own characteristics, and opportunities, but they can also provide you an opportunity to be lazy, and not push yourself.

So, what makes a show like that great, vs. average, vs. shoot me now. Not It’s not just how well we play the guitar, or sing, or what songs are performed, or any other single detail, but everything that goes into a show, from long before we step up to a microphone to the effect that lingers long after we’ve finished.

I’m fortunate, in that I attend a lot of small, intimate live shows, and I’ve seen some friends perform as soloists, and in their duos. It gives me a chance to see how others treat these venues, what works, and what doesn’t. Some friends could stand there, do nothing but smile and sing, and the world just might stop and take notice. Their voices are that good. Others stun with their instrumental prowess, and again, the world might stop for a bit. On the other hand, it’s been proven that you can take a world class violinist, place him in a subway, performing truly stunning and technically difficult music, and most people would just walk on by.

For me, part of the great show experience is almost always tied to charisma. A friend writes amazing songs, has awards as a songwriter, plays multiple instruments brilliently, and has a distinctive and approachable delivery. It’s like he’s playing in your living room. His partner sings like an angel. She has a dynamic vocal range, again, a multi-instrumentalist, and a winning smile. Individually, they do better than average on most occasions, though she seems to suffer more than her share of drunken come-ons when playing alone. Where they truly shine is as a duo. Their stage presence comes alive, their banter is honest and lively, truly entertaining. The songs are largely the same, but better, as they are more complete, and the audience is drawn in by the experience. When it’s right, it’s right. That’s something you just can’t fake.

Another friend, a soloist, spends her days entertaining young children with song, and performs for adults far more rarely. When she does, she doesn’t need a backing band. Every move, every emotion, and her sheer love of music is expressed. You can’t help but love hearing her. That said, she blew the doors off Trinity House Theater when she was joined by a band two years back. Two songs, maybe ten minutes, performed two years ago, and I still remember that performance. I can only recall a couple of other performers of the ten that hit the stage that night. That’s a great live performance.

So how do I apply that, when I’m by nature, an introvert. I love my music, but I’m far from a powerful vocalist. I play guitar fairly well, but I’m no shredder. I’m on stage lately as either a soloist, or joined by my bass playing son (a real blessing). For starters, I decided that I need to know the music really well, and as a result, I no longer rely on an iPad for memory aids, save for long market shows. I decided that I need to write a lot more up-tempo songs, in order to change up the feel of a show, so I’ve been doing a lot more of that as well.

The big thing that acoustic shows have in common though is that they’re just someone standing in front of a mic, playing a guitar for anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours. No motion, no other sounds, just a microphone stand that fixes the entertainer in place. and an instrument that limits the sound selection. I’ve been wondering what I could do to change that, and there’s a lot that can be done. I can set up a stool and mic for slow ballads, and a standing position for uptempo numbers. I can take the mic off the stand and walk around when doing a bit of banter. Also, I can use the stage when doing non-vocal sections. I’ve also found that I can do so much more with that acoustic guitar.

I’ve had a looping pedal for over a year, that I’ve rarely touched. I bought it, used, after watching a bunch of cool youtube videos where people were doing some amazing things with them. Granted, the pedals in the videos were RC-300’s with three built in pedals, effects, expression pedals, and so on, and mine’s … well, far more stripped down. The bottom line is, it’s a lot harder to get a good loop started than it looks. It takes practice, and I’m not the patient sort. Lately, I’ve been taking a second look though, and seeing what I could do to make the songs I’ve already written pop a little more.

On some, I’ve been adding rhythm loops, on others, I loop a rhythm section that I bring in and out, so that I can play lead riffs over them for fills. It seems to add a lot more drive to a song when suddenly, there’s a deep thumping kick sound that visually, shouldn’t be there, driving the whole song.

Lately, I’m taking a closer look at how the songs flow together over the course of a set, as well. How do the keys, tempos, tones, and subject matter flow together, what ties them together, and what sets them apart. What can I say between some of the songs that adds weight to the delivery, and what can I say that includes the audience and helps them feel included in the experience, rather than being subjected to it, or being aware of it in the background.

There’s a lot to think about, and a lot to practice. My no means is this all that goes into a great show. I’m still pondering what else I can do to improve my own, and likely will continue for years to come. Hopefully, this will add a little food for thought in your own endeavors.

Happy gigging

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