Advice on devising a killer set list

On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!

by Freddy Villano

You’ve dusted off your instruments, brushed up on your favorite tunes and gotten the band back together. You’ve rehearsed. The music sounds tight. Your first gig in years is weeks, maybe days, away. What’s next? Don’t overlook your set list. The order of songs could be critical to building the right energy at your gig. That’s why you need this advice on devising a killer set list.

“Obviously, you need to open any set with music that makes people pay attention,” offers Gerard Barberine, Jr., drummer in Strawberry Fields, a NYC-based Beatles tribute band that is an institution at BB King’s in Times Square. On any given gig, Strawberry Fields typically comes out of the gate with either “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “All My Loving,” both smash hits guaranteed to warrant some attention. Barberine does add, however, that the band will sometimes go with “All My Loving” to give the guys’ voices a chance to warm up. “We often do several sets in a row and “Hand” has some pretty high notes, which can be a challenge coming right out of the box,” he explains.

For Randy Pratt, bassist in the old school funk/blues fusion band The Funky Knights, devising a kick-ass set list “is an art” that merits lots of consideration. Like Strawberry Fields, The Funky Knights often plays at BB Kings, but frequently opens up for more established artists, like Larry Graham or Leon Russell. “An opening act gets about 45 minutes to make an impression on a group of strangers who paid to see someone else,” he says. So, it’s essential that the first song or two be attention-grabbers. “These are usually wham-bam, up-tempo songs,” says Pratt. “Their purpose is to hit hard and say ‘Hey, over here, check it out!’”

The middle of a set is where bands have the most flexibility. “Hopefully, by the third song, we’ve introduced ourselves sufficiently to go out on a limb a little,” says Pratt. Though it’s still too early in the set to slow down much, tempo-wise, he says. Songs three and four are usually “personality” numbers where “we really hope people will listen more closely.” Barberine concurs, “Although we do sometimes fall into a routine set list, the middle section of the set is more flexible.” This gives the band a chance to insert a more obscure Beatles’ B-side or extend a guitar solo. “As a cover band, if you’re going to stray from the originals (or the hits), pick you’re spots well and make sure it adds something great to the song (and the set).” Sometimes, if people are really dancing, they modify their set accordingly says Pratt. “We’ll drop the slow numbers and just stay in disco/funk heaven ’til we wear them out.”

What happens between songs can be a deal breaker with the audience, so it’s another important component to consider. “Nothing kills the momentum of a show more than dead space between songs,” says Barberine. “We don’t segue any songs together, but we do have a spot where we end ‘I Feel Fine’ and immediately count off ‘You Can’t Do That,’ while the audience is applauding.” In their second and third sets, which are performed entirely to a click track, the playlist has only four or five seconds of time between songs. The Funky Knights arranges stripped-down song sections for the singer to talk or tell stories. “Bill, our front man, has acting chops and, if set up properly by a well-constructed set list, he can really sell it,” says Pratt. Strawberry Fields employs a great deal of between-song banter, telling jokes and imparting a bit of Beatles history, but after 10 years together, Barberine says it’s pretty well scripted.

By song six, The Funky Knights typically brings things all the way down and hits the audience with a slow number before closing the show with something hard-hitting. “Song eight, the closer, is a good place for one of our more memorable, up-tempo numbers,” says Pratt. On the contrary, Strawberry Fields changes the pace and mood completely by the end of their first set. “The last song we do in our opening sequence is ‘Till There Was You,’” says Barberine. “As our audiences are typically multi-generational this song appeals to the senior members of the audience.”

Speaking of audience members, what about them? Knowing your audience can be important, even from gig to gig. “We’ve opened for ‘gentler’ acts like Lovin’ Spoonful and The Cowsills and performed whole sets of slow, romantic R&B,” says Pratt. “It is fun, but probably only right for evenings where the patrons weren’t expecting to rock out.”

When Strawberry Fields is hired as a novelty act for one or two half-hour sets, they’ll tighten up the set(s) accordingly. “We once got hired to play a total of five Sgt. Pepper era songs,” says Barberine. “If you only have to perform a short set, start with a bang, give them all the hits, then close with a bigger bang.” If you’re doing originals, give them your best material and don’t overstay your welcome. It’s better to leave them wanting more.

If you’re lucky enough to get an encore request, Barberine suggests “a high-energy rocker.” But whatever you do, it’s also about having fun. “Seeing the band have a great time is key,” says Barberine. “Most people want to be a part of what’s going on up there vicariously, but they need a kick start.” So, make sure, when devising your next set list, that you give them one.

Five pointers from the pros:

  • Open with a bang. But also know what’s best for the singer(s). You don’t want to tax him/her in the first song. Let everyone get their groove on.
  • Know the gig. Is it a corporate event, a short opening slot, or three 45-minute sets? It’s important to know what’s expected of you.
  • Plan your segues, raps, and transitions between songs. In addition, be prepared with something, a story or a musical interlude in the event that someone breaks a string or has a tuning issue (it’s inevitable, trust us).
  • Know your material and its audience. Are you playing for an older crowd, younger crowd, or mixed? What style of music are they expecting? It’ll help you dictate the pace, mood, and overall flow of your set, as well as which tunes to play.
  • Be flexible and have a go-to song. Eventually, you’ll find yourself at the mercy of a cranky soundman who may tell you it’s your last song when you’re only halfway through your set. Don’t fret. But don’t play that middle-of-the-set tune that was coming next. Go to a closer that will leave the audience floored.






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