Playing an Art Show – Getting Ready
As someone who makes music on the internet and is a local super-recluse, I’m rarely booked for live shows, but it happens now and again. I have a sort of standing invite at a local nerd art show called Altekrea, I think because I’m the only person they know who’ll do a two hour set for fun. A bit of guitar, a bit of nerd comedy, and the occasional slow jazz jam of Trogdor have made it a good time in past years. I’ve played a lot of other local art shows over the past decade, and there are a few things that help me prepare for it every time.
When someone yells “Freebird” reply with “I’m not a jukebox” and then set them on fire with your mind.
Two hours is a long time, and there will be actual, physical people there. There are never any of those in my apartment. They can heckle, make requests, and walk away if they’re not into it. How do I operate a songbook and a guitar at the same time against the dreaded three page song, or do I just make sure I memorize the end bit so I can dodge having to turn the page? What if no one likes my covers? What if no one likes my originals? What if they actually bought that big, wicker hook they’ve been threatening to?
A good bout of panicking helps me prepare to take a show seriously, and make sure I give it my best. The chill, coffee house show is wonderful, but it’s not a two hour set in front of artists. It helps put into perspective that I’m not only there to make music, I’m there to help creators sell their art, and they deserve someone who commits.
Oh, the lists. The set list is the obvious one, but it’s only the beginning. I’ll make a list of the artists in the show and mark it with where they are, so it’s easy to do an impromptu callout. I make a list of people to thank. The show, the venue, the sponsors, the creators for making such wicked things, and the organizers by name or by brand. If I don’t have a list, I’ll forget. I like callouts, depending on my read of the crowd. If I’ve got a Dr. Who tune in my set and there’s an artist in the show who makes Dalek decoupage, I’ll throw to them before or after it. Even of none of the passers by bite, the artists know I see them and I’m with them. On top of that, way before the show, I make a list of times when I can fit in some extra practice, to polish the tunes I haven’t played in months, and learn a few new ones. I make a list of the gear I need to bring, and if I need any help. Am I recording it? Video? Audio? Am I playing acoustic, bringing an amp, or plugging in to their sound?
I sidelined the set list, but the set list matters. Audience matters. The set I’m doing this year is in our City Hall, at 11am on a Sunday. I like the lazy Sunday crowd, but it means there will be kids there, so all my songs with swearing or about gross internet things get out, and my song about farts is 100% in. The artists there are also my audience. Passers by are there for maybe ten minutes, but the artists are locked in the hall with me for the full two hours, so maybe they don’t want to have to hear my impression of Skeletor singing Wonderwall three times, no matter how noble it may be. I have other opinions about set lists, but they are irrelevant.
This means more than changing the strings on my guitar and making sure my tuner is charged. It means cleaning it completely. I have never been so embarrassed as I was when I lent my guitar to someone at a show, and saw the lights reflecting all my finger smudges and handprints and went “God, that’s what my guitar looks like from here?” Guitars get gross. Test any other equipment, even if it’s just been sitting still for two months. Find all the right cables and put them in a pile that’s findable.
I am my own instrument. I’m a guitarist and singer, so my hands and voice need to be able to stand up for two hours of songs about videogames and D&D. I need to be able to handle the brief foray into Celine Dion that I’ve planned, and be ready to basically do two hours of light cardio while telling jokes. No one appreciates the version of Hello delivered by a singer who’s laying on the stage heaving breathy lyrics into the microphone. Maintaining myself also means cleaning up, getting a haircut and picking out clothes on the day. Looking good and feeling good make me way less self-conscious, which makes for a better show. I think people can tell the difference between “Nerd singing science song” and “Nerd singing science song who super wishes he hadn’t worn a hoodie on to the stage”. Even if they can’t, it makes me happier, which makes for good shows.
The show is on June 19th, so next week I’ll put together a post about what I do when I arrive at the show, and then the following week I’ll put together a post with some videos of the set, my art haul for the show, and reflections on playing shows like this, especially for fun. It seems like a lot of work for two hours, and I don’t know why I enjoy it as much as I do.