Yesterday morning, I did Ron Lewis’s radio show on WNUR and I did a new song, “Backstage At the Resurrection. As I was doing the song, I realized how nervous I was, even though I have been doing this performing thing for decades.
The new stuff always makes you nervous and that brings to mind some advice for playing open mics. I hosted the open mic at Bills Blues (www.billsbluesbar.com) yesterday afternoon before I did my concert there.
When you are playing open mic’s, you usually only have about six to ten minutes on stage tops and then the next person is up there. So the first thing you must do is to be really prepared for your slot. Practice your two songs until you can do them in your sleep.
Secondly, make it easy for you to get onto the stage and off, so that the entire show doesn’t stop while you schlep all your gear off stage. If you have a lot of stuff, accept that you will merely shifting it aside and getting it on the break. Be prepared to stay all night, as I keep saying. It is courteous, supportive and you ALWAYS learn something.
But here’s the real crux of today’s post. Whatever you have prepared for the open mic, do it at all the open mics you attend. That’s right. The same two songs. I don’t mean every week at the same venue. I mean seeking out various venues and performing there. Once you have made the rounds of all the rooms, then you can do something new when you return to the first of the venues.
See, there is something that happens when you perform the same songs on the stage. The Chinese say that the purest gold burns in the hottest fires. And the spotlight is one hot fire. After you’ve done the same songs two or three times there, you get comfortable with them. You get to own the song and that makes a difference in performing it. If you are starting out this is a great way to gain confidence.
You go on stage secure in the knowledge that you have these songs under your belt and can do them with authority and musicality. Meanwhile you are practicing other songs at home to prepare for the next round of open mics.
If you do this consistently, in very little time, you will have enough songs that you can do really well to put together a set. A set that is impactful and serves you as a performer and an artist and entertains the audience goes along way towards making you a success.
If you are like me and you’ve been doing this for a long time, it still applies, but in a slightly different way. We have to take the newest songs we have and do them all over the place live. Because live is where they really demonstrate to you and the audience where they need work and where they are really effective. And if they are not really effective, then they need work.
And as you perform them live you begin to get a handle on how to best present them as a recording. If at all possible, record the performances, because as a song is performed it transmogrifies and I’ve seen many a great song be constantly changed a little in each performance by the artist until the song has lost it’s spark.
If the venue can’t record it for you, then just take a little portable and record it yourself. It’s easy and it really helps.
When I was on the road with Steven Wright, the comedian, he recorded every single show. That way he had the new stuff when it showed up and he had the proof that a certain change wasn’t as effective as the way he had previously done it.
Recording what you do is always instructive and humbling, but worth it, I swear. I have a bunch of new songs that I’ve been introducing into the second set. Yesterday I talked a little about how important it is to do the majority of the songs in the first set from the same recording. The second set you can be a little looser and take a chance on the new stuff. Because if you were good enough the first set, those people actually stayed for the second show. I love it when that happens.