In 1991, Pearl Jam opened for the Smashing Pumpkins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In Kim Neely’s Pearl Jam book Five Against One, drummer Dave Abbruzzese said, “We’d play for 30 minutes, and it was like the Smashing Pumpkins had to earn their 30 minutes, and the Peppers had to earn theirs. By the end of that tour, it was almost like they were our audience in a lot of respects.”
In 1986, Billboard reviewed a concert of headliner 38 Special, saying they gave a “quite good” performance. However, they were “upstaged by their opening act” Bon Jovi, who gave an “explosive performance.”
In 1969, an obscure band named Led Zeppelin opened for well-known Iron Butterfly at the Filmore East in NYC. Apparently, the crowd had them playing so long with so many encores, Iron Butterfly knew they couldn’t top it and refused to play!…
… OK, so that’s not what you want to do. There is such a thing as opening act etiquette. But you do want to be the opening act everyone remembers, right?
In order to have the audience leave your concert talking positively about you (or maybe even saying you were better than the headliner), there are 4 rules to follow.
1. Don’t Cram In as Many Songs as Possible
You’ll be given 15, 20, 30 minutes… whatever the length of time the production staff says you can have. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking, “OK, how many songs can we cram into that amount of time?” You see, that tells me you’re assuming the audience is coming to see you, and you have so many awesome songs, so you’d better play as many as possible… that’s just wrong!
Remember, you’re there for your audience. They don’t know who you are. They don’t know your songs. You are dating your audience. And you need to introduce yourself with that in mind. An up-tempo, easy to move to, no extended solo, first song Introduction Moment, sung to your audience. No angst-driven lyrics, no blow-their-heads-off mania, no surprise ending. Actually, it should have a trash can ending so you can read their response to you.
2. Make Sure Your Last Song Helps them Respond to You
Let’s skip to the last song in your set for a “moment.” And I mean that literally. You need a Closing Moment. It might start slow and “down,” building to high energy by the end. Or it may be high energy all the way. You need to put a trash can ending on this one, too, with an emotional high for your audience to respond to.
This song might very well be the kind of thing that encourages your listeners to “go out and change the world.” Something that leaves them inspired, excited, encouraged, motivated, happy, and glad they heard what you had to say.
3. Then Put In the Moments that Fit the Best
“Oh, sure, Tom! How do I know what those are?” Well, I can’t answer for every artist in every situation. But I can tell you it’s much like what baseball managers do with their teams in the final innings of a close game. They look up and down the bench, checking to see what players they have to put in so they win the game.
It will depend on who you are, where and when you’re playing, and who your audience is. As always, don’t think “songs” — think “moments”! What moments have you created that are the best for this show and this audience? Do you have a great song with some stellar players? Maybe you should use your Great Song/Musical Moment. Are you playing for a young crowd that want to jump and dance to your music? Maybe this is a time to use that Big Fun Moment with audience participation. Follow your instincts!
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks
When you’re choosing those “in between” moments (between the Introduction Moment and the Closing Moment), have the courage to take some risks.
If you know for sure that a couple of your Moments would be perfect for this situation, but you’re thinking there may not be enough time for both of them, rearrange the songs to make them fit. There have been times I’ve worked with a band to do this, and I’ve shortened some of the parts of a song (maybe cut a verse or chorus out) to keep the moment and still make it all fit within the time frame of the set.
Or maybe you should take the opposite approach. Perhaps you have one song that would be absolutely epic with moments that would have your audience talking about you for years to come. Then just do that song! Who cares if nobody else does it that way?
You want to be remembered. Whatever your situation, whether it’s “lights up” before a big act, “half lights,” or with full production, you can be the opening act they remember — for the right reasons!