I just finished two weeks touring Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. I play with a singer named Kevin Meisel who is on a very small Swiss label called Brambus records. We played fifteen shows in fifteen days and it was a complete blast. The president of the label was there for our fourth show as well as for our final show, and he made a comment about how much tighter we were at the end compared to the earlier performance. I agree that we were tighter on that last night, but I don’t think the main reason was time. I think it had more to do with the sound quality and the venue. His comment got me thinking about what we need as a band in order to sound our best.
Assuming that we were well rehearsed (we were) and knew the songs (we did), and are competent players (we are!), the best thing we can do to sound tight is to have a good monitor mix. If I am too quiet I tend to spend the show turning my amp up and probably blasting the house with way too much guitar. If I am too loud I will play hesitantly, trying not to step on everyone else’s toes. I’m the kind of guitarist who will use my volume knob as a lead boost and turn back down for rhythm. The bassist is also the backup singer and he likes to hear the same vocal mix in the monitors as what is in the house so that he can blend with the lead singer. In other words, we like a monitor mix that reflects the front of house mix enough so that we can adjust our levels to the musical situation. If we don’t have that we are playing a guessing game and it does affect our playing. At the fourth gig we had to set up and run our own sound with no monitors. We did a good job but it was not perfect. At the final show we had a sound guy and a small PA that was the right size for the room we were playing. And we had those precious monitors! I think that the main reason we were tighter at the last show, despite the fact that we were really quite exhausted, was that we were able to hear ourselves much better.
The second reason we rocked the final performance was the crowd. There was an incredible symbiotic energy that night. Some of the people in attendance had been to earlier shows and had brought friends. It was a very intimate space. We knew it was our last night on the road. As a band we felt no pressure. It was like jamming in someone’s living room. The fourth show had a nice crowd, but they applauded politely and waited for the next song. They didn’t return the energy that we put out. In my opinion a great band should play an amazing show every night regardless of the audience, but I would be lying if I said that audience energy does not affect me. I’m a creative player and when I feel that give and take between myself and the audience I can let my creativity flow. If the crowd is not with me, I tend to hold back somewhat.
My main point here is that, as a band, it is important to make your work environment conducive to great performances. You can’t control every aspect of your gig. The PA is good or it’s crap. The sound guy is badass or he’s stoned. But the more you can make sure you have good sound on stage, the more likely you are to play a great show. Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, it sounds good in the house so that’s all that matters,” I cringe. Onstage sound is as important as house sound if your goal is a solid show.
Alex’s Bio: Alex Anest has been performing, recording and teaching music in the Southeast Michigan area since 1996. He was a founding member of the Jericho Guitar Trio, Never Nebula, and Delta 88. With Delta 88 Alex performed across the Midwest and played at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival in 2004. Since then he has toured Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Italy with songwriter Kevin Meisel. Alex currently performs with Ryan Racine and Gas for Less and the electric anti-jazz ensemble Giraffe. Giraffe is a chance for Alex to bring his many musical influences together – a very enjoyable, though sometimes difficult task for a musician who finds inspiration from artists as varied as Paco de Lucia, George Harrison, Thelonious Monk, and Jimi Hendrix. The common thread among these giants (and the goal to which Alex aspires) is the ability to transcend stylistic boundaries while keeping their own unique musical voice intact.