Anatomy of a set list

As some people know from following me in other areas of my life, I’m a member of the Macworld All-Star Band—a somewhat highfalutin name for a gaggle of guys who have some connection with the Macintosh community. The members of the band include Paul Kent on guitar (the guy who runs Macworld/iWorld), Dave Hamilton who operates Backbeat Media and plays drums, guitar player Bryan Chaffin from the Mac Observer, man-about-town and bass player Chuck La Tournous, “Dr. Mac” Bob LeVitus on yet another guitar, and UC Berkeley IT guy Duane Straub who also plays bass. I play keyboards.

Each year “leadership” of the band rotates among the four members who have spent the most time in real bands—me, Paul, Dave, and Chuck. This year it was my turn. 

Being leader of the MWASB is a pretty loose affair. Essentially you decide when to start talking about the band’s next performance (and that performance is generally confined to the Cirque du Mac party held during Macworld/iWorld, though this year we also opened the Mac’s 30th Anniversary party in January), initiate conversations about what the band will play, make a few decisions during the single rehearsal before the gig, and—importantly—decide which songs make the cut and the order in which the band will play them. This last task is what I’d like to talk about here.

Throughout the course of the night the MWASB has its highs and lows. The highs include just playing together—we’re friends and we share some common musical interests—as well as those moments when the band clicks. The inevitable lows are when a tune falls apart because we missed a change, we didn’t communicate adequately while playing it, someone got distracted, or the song was simply too ambitious and didn’t hold together under pressure. While we increasingly play like a real band, those “damn, that happened” moments frustrate us as we know we can do better. So this year, as leader, I tried a little experiment.

Rather than going round the horn asking each member to suggest some new songs to play as we usually do, I solicited Dave for a list of every song we’ve ever played. He threw the list into a Google spreadsheet and I asked the band to mark those song that completely worked, meaning that not only did the audience like them, but we played them well. About 40 songs made the cut among a majority of the members.

I then put on my leader hat and made some crucial decisions. First, no new songs, period. The idea being that we take stock of what we know and play the best of that material. With familiarity should come confidence, which should then translate into a more comfortable (and fun) gig. Given that we were bringing back some material we hadn’t played in years I didn’t feel like we were at risk of phoning it in (if you can even do that when you play just once a year).

Secondly, the more familiar the tune to the audience, the better chance it had of being played. There were a few songs on the list that we do really well that very few people know—Long John Baldry’s “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie Woogie (On the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll)", for example. It’s a killer song that I proposed a few years ago but it’s obscure. Likewise, last year Duane brought in “The High Cost of Living” by Dr. Hector & The Groove Injectors—a great funky blues tune that almost no one knows. I nixed them without a second thought.

Thirdly, even though material was important, it was just as important that each member of the band got their moment in the spotlight. Everyone sings, everyone has their favorite songs, and those who solo want to let ’er rip when the time comes. So some consideration was given to fairness in this regard. Both Paul and Dave have a load of great songs they can sing, but to make it fair to the rest of the band, we had to skip some of their tunes.

Finally, when you break a gig like this into two sets the room loses energy between them. It can be difficult to build it back up, particularly when both the band and the audience have used that time to visit the bar. So the plan was to do a single two-hour set (an idea Paul proposed in earlier years).

Normally when I put together set lists for my regular band doing a bar-band gig I’ll create them with a rhythm. Early in the gig you open with a familiar song that the band is comfortable with that typifies the kind of music you play—for the first few songs you’re basically marketing the band to the audience. Generally this is mid- to medium-fast tempo material. If you storm out of the gate it can be a shock to the crowd. If you start too slow, the build takes too long.

From there you build up through four or five tunes and then peak on something with a lot of energy. Then take it way down to something slow or a “let’s just listen to this one” feel. This gives the audience a rest. Then start building back up and peak at the end of the set. The next set begins with more intensity.

(Of course, the rhythm of your set will depend entirely on the venue and kind of band you are. Metal bands are naturally going to start at 11 and go up from there. Singer-songwriters may move only from depressing to lugubrious over the course of their set.)

In the case of Cirque du Mac I felt that the typical bar-band rhythm was inappropriate. The crowd was there to blow off stream, the drinks were flowing liberally, we had just a couple of hours to play, and the audience (as friends and colleagues) loves the band. We should start strong (but familiar for both us and the audience) and then roll like a train from beginning to end. Valleys and peaks remain, but the valleys should never be very deep. At the same time, if you’re constantly blowing out the room with volume, tempo, and intensity, it wears out the audience (and band) so you still plan your peaks.

The setlist worked out this way:

  • No Matter What (Badfinger)
  • Come Together (The Beatles)
  • Badge (Cream/Clapton)
  • Money for Nothin’ (Dire Straits)
  • I’m a Believer (The Monkees)
  • Glory Days (Springsteen)
  • Feelin’ Alright (Joe Cocker version)
  • Just Like Heaven (The Cure)
  • Listen to Her Heart (Tom Petty)
  • Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash)
  • Viva Las Vegas (Elvis)
  • Superstition (Stevie Wonder)
  • You May Be Right (Billy Joel)
  • Melt With You (Modern English)
  • The Seeker (The Who)
  • Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
  • Fool in the Rain (Led Zeppelin) 
  • I Will Follow (U2)
  • Get Ready (Rare Earth version)
  • Little Sister (Elvis)
  • Whipping Post (The Allman Brothers Band)
  • E. Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond, Boston version)
  • E. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding (Elvis Costello version)

We played it from beginning to end and, for the most part, it worked as planned. The band was comfortable from the beginning (partly because we’d played the first three songs in the set for the 30th Anniversary Mac gig). The first two tunes were anything but dull, but they built nicely to “Badge,” which marked the beginning of where the train really gets rolling. By that time the band was playing confidently. Paul, in particular, was one joyful cat, and that kind of energy spreads easily. 

I could analyze the peaks and valleys forever because the dynamics of this kind of thing fascinate me, but I expect it would bore you to tears. One observation I will make is that the energy flagged near the end when we moved from “I Will Follow” to “Get Ready.” “I Will Follow” is normally a peak tune—it’s something you want to end on before you make a radical shift in mood. “Get Ready” is also a strong tune, but it doesn’t have the energy of the U2 song and so it wasn’t quite on.

In hindsight the better choice would have been to go from “I Will Follow” to “Little Sister” and then do “Get Ready.” “Little Sister” is a great swampy blues tune that’s anything but boring, but it would have represented the kind of break indicating that “we’re into something completely different here” rather than “we’re going to try to keep this going with a tune that isn’t quite at the energy level of the one you just heard.” Building up from “Little Sister” to “Get Ready” makes more sense than the other way around.

“Whipping Post” was the closer with “Caroline” and “What’s So Funny” chosen for the encores. It may have been a vanity pick in that I sing it, plus it closes with a note about six whole steps above the reasonable top of my range (meaning that if I shred my voice reaching for it I don’t have to worry about singing anything after). 

But it’s also an “impress me” tune. It’s in a weird meter (11/8 when it opens and 12/8 during the verse, chorus, and solos), which is kind of fun to play and listen to, but the thing is just so darned epic that it’s tempting to use as a closer. Paul burned through the guitar solo, I didn’t completely fall apart during the organ solo, I got darned close to hitting that high C, and the audience liked it so I’ll count it as a win. 

When we finished “Post” the audience, quite honestly, wasn’t all that interested in an encore. And—though I may be kidding myself—I take that as confirmation that the set worked. We simply wore ‘em out. “Post” was the final statement I’d hoped it would be—we came, we saw, we rocked.

Although we weren’t begged for the encore tunes I’m glad we did them. I’m a west-coast guy who, until we played the thing for the first time, had no idea there was such a strong east coast connection to “Sweet Caroline.” Out west no one sings along with the thing, but play it with Easties in the crowd and suddenly the place goes nuts (I still missed a load of the breaks where the audience shouts its parts). And “What’s So Funny” is a great way to end the night. It’s powerful in a pure-pop way, but though Nick Lowe wrote it with tongue in cheek, Costello’s version gives it an incredibly positive passion. What better message to carry with you as you close out the night?