“Tops and Tails”

There is nothing worse than a band who spend a minute between every song faffing around, making sure everyone’s ready, forgetting what’s next and who’s starting it, etc etc. Prime candidates for a) being heckled, b) looking unprofessional and c) losing audience interest.

A hot tip for how to improve on this, is to have what a friend of mine calls a  ‘tops and tails’ practice, where you work not on the songs but the gaps between ’em.

So – go through your set list, and for each gap between songs, make a note of:

  • who *starts* the next song
  • who’s introducing it and that they know what they’re going to say
  • who’s swapping guitars/keys patches and so on, and needs to be ready before the song can start

This allows the person who’s introducting the song to know who he or she has to check up on before finishing the intro, cause there’s nothing worse than ‘This is Fred Flintstone’s Blues!… *pause* *look round* Uh… um.. just hang on while our multi-instrumentalist finds his nose flute…”

The other trick (one I picked up from an interview with Uriah Heep on good old IM&RW – anyone remember IM&RW?) that can really pay off and make you sound slick is this:

Make sure everyone knows what the person introducing the song is going to say LAST. This allows you to sound a damn sight more slick if they’re on the ball, since he can hold off on that last line and extemporise for a sentence or two while the guitarist retunes the wayward G string. And as long as the drummer is on the ball with the four count (or wehatever) when he hears the trigger words, there’s no awkward pause between end of intro and start of song.

For a shining example, go find a video of the E-Street band doing ‘War’ live from the Born In The USA tour. Listen to Bruce’s intro, which is spoken in an almost conversational tone over Nils Lofgren’s wandering guitar picking. It ends (around the 2 minute mark on the video):

“…blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.”

And then, still in a conversational tone:

“‘Cause what I’m talking about is…”, a slight pause, then bang on pitch, shouted, “WAR!”

And that shouted ‘War’ is the start of the song, no break, no count in, no nothing. Tight as the proverbial, and just brilliantly slick.

If you do this, the onus is on the introducer to make sure everyone’s ready, and to be aware whom he’s likely to be waiting for. People who are changing instruments can check in with a nod or a quiet ‘ready’; people who have a sudden crisis need to make the introducer aware of this.

Other tip: have a few things with long ‘not everyone playing’ intros you can pull out to cover for such things as broken strings or drumheads, keyboard stands falling over (seen it), bass amps fusing when the stage power glitches (had it happen)…

I can’t say it enough: rehearse the gaps, as well as the songs.

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