Can an iPod Replace A Live Band?!

I have been performing live gigs with various bands, playing both original material and more recently covers, for well over a decade now and in that time I have noticed a worrying change in the expectations of live audiences. Particularly at weddings now, it seems that punters want all the entertainment and spontaneity of a live band, as well as expecting them to know every song ever recorded.

Don’t get me wrong, throughout the years I’ve had many strange song requests (bear in mind we are a 4 piece, all male band with no keyboard) including: Chicquita by Abba, Superman by Black Lace, White Riot by The Clash and Ape Man by The Kinks – a number of which are good songs, but not really suitable for a 60th birthday or little David’s Christening. I always knew it was probably a mistake to play an NWA track  for the first dance – still, you live and learn.
Anyway, I accept that you’re always going to get some mentally unbalanced member of the audience shouting at the top of their lungs, “Do Talking Heads, Psycho Killer!” but these days it isn’t just the odd request that bothers me. The word ‘request’ isn’t really accurate. Now it’s more like a demand, followed by gasps of incredulity when you have to politely inform the groom that you don’t play some obscure Soundgarden B-side from 1987.
“You don’t play that? You’re joking right? It’s dead easy, just goes . . .”
He then attempts to hum the tune into my ear whilst the rest of the band ‘tuts’ and tells me to ignore him. To be fair, the rest of the band spend most of their time ‘tutting’ disapprovingly at me anyway – I’m the singer, so I’m used to regular abuse and taunts. Although, I don’t complain too much when members of the audience are dishing out the compliments after the gig – seemingly oblivious to the fact that there are 4 of us in the band. Which kind of emphasizes my next point.
I honestly believe that the average person thinks that the actual music – the playing of the instruments etc – just somehow ‘happens’ and that it’s as straightforward as selecting a track on their iPod. I hate to shatter any illusions, but it doesn’t just ‘happen’.
Although their have been many occasions when, like most experienced musicians, we have been able to bluff our way through stuff with only a moment’s notice, most songs require some kind of rehearsal. We don’t just turn up at the gig and hope for the best. We learn new stuff all of the time and try to make sure we have plenty of stuff for differing tastes and occasions. Between us we know dozens of songs but sometimes it’s never enough. We recently finished playing at a charity gig, having played 2 encores and having a fantastic response, only to be accosted by some miserable sod on the way out:
“You were quite good tonight, but really can’t believe you didn’t play ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. You’d have had them eating out of your hand if you’d played that. Very disappointing.”
Before you ask, it wasn’t a room full of Liverpool football club supporters, so don’t know why he thought we should play that. Wouldn’t mind, but he didn’t even bother to request it when we were playing!
The latest trend I’ve noticed is for the client to ask if we can send them our repertoire so that they can ‘choose the songs and the order’ etc. I always politely refuse. Would you ask a plumber if you could check out all of the tools and parts he’s going to use for a job so that you could tell him how to do it properly? Not unless you had a burning desire to know what it feels like to remove a monkey wrench from your bottom. By the way, that isn’t the metaphor I use with a client.
The fact of the matter is, even a great DJ can’t quite grab an audience like a great live band can. A band usually has a much better grasp of what an audience wants – and can also change gears, knowing when to really push them and when to back off a bit. We can drop the volume and repeat a chorus a few times to get the whole room singing with us. Because that’s the real attraction of live entertainment – it’s a two way thing and when done right it should be charged with energy and spontaneity.
It’s a conversation and as such we actively seek feedback and we want interaction. We don’t mind receiving requests either. As long as that is what it is – a request. Not a command. If we don’t know the specific track they’ve asked for, we play another song by that artist or something in the same vain. It’s a bit like the Genius function on iTunes, except that our method actually works. We also ask the client, beforehand, if there is a particular track they would like us to learn for their event and make sure we put in the extra time to learn it.
So whilst we may not know every top 100 hit of the last 60 years, we can play a pretty diverse range of stuff from a 50’s Rock n Roll track, through to Motown, Glamrock, 80’s Pop and Modern Indie. And, unlike an iPod, our battery won’t die half way through the night (as long as the drummer gets his fair share of the buffet).
We have instruments and we’re not afraid to use them. So, just for a night, ditch the iPod attitude and go and find some live music.
You never know. You might just like it.
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Author: Wayne

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