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If your band has the opportunity to open for a more established artist, it’s important to respect the craft and brush up on your etiquette — even if you’re a seasoned performer. Artists tend to overlook key points in the journey from being a band that nobody knows to a band that everybody loves. And while there are a lot of failures ahead on that road, luckily for you, I’ve already experienced most of them, so you don’t have to!
If you want to succeed in an opening slot, these are the four most important tips to giving a strong support set performance (according to me, garnered from years of playing in clubs, playing on the road, and watching bands rise, fall, and sometimes really hit the ball out of the park).
1. Do your job and stick to your material.
Firstly, you have to identify your role in the big picture. What are you bringing to the night? If you’re booked as an acoustic opener for a full band, understand what your role is — keep your rig lightweight and don’t try out that new banger you’ve been working on. Conversely, if you’re part of a raucous night of punk, make sure you tailor your set to give the most punch in the shortest amount of time, perhaps saving that power ballad for another night.
Support slots are typically between 20-30 minutes, giving most artists time for about five or six songs including banter, which you should keep to a minimum (more on that later). With only six chances to deliver your message, picking the right songs is crucial. If you’re just starting out and only have an EP’s worth of material, you’ll likely be giving everything you’ve got. If you’re a bit more established, you may have to pick and choose which songs to include in your set. This can be especially challenging if you’re going from headlining your own smaller shows, to supporting another artist on their bigger shows, with a narrower time slot.
Generally, originals should always be prioritized over covers, unless there is a highly justified reason for playing another artist’s song, like you’re playing a memorial or a special event, or you’ve got a short medley that’ll get the crowd amped up. One of my favorite LA bands, the Gutter Daisies, frequently includes a medley of ’90s hits during the final chorus of one of their songs. It’s a smart move because it creates nostalgia and familiar associations, without detracting from their own songcraft in the process.
Lastly, one thing you should never, ever do is tease a song by the headliner (don’t play an entire song of theirs either!). It may seem like an innocent nod, but it sends a very strange message to the audience and it may make it hard for the headliner to complete their set’s emotional arc properly.
2. Control your banter with your setlist.
Like I said earlier, banter should be kept to a minimum. Try to arrange your first two songs so they transition nicely into each other — then, after that, you can take a short break to introduce the band, tune guitars, and have a drink of water. Nothing takes the wind out of your sails quite like a prolonged tuning break, so keep those short, too.
Opening sets in the rock and pop world tend to be intense and high-energy and fly by faster than you expect them to. You won’t have the luxury that the headliner does to play out extended vamps and jams, take breaks to switch guitars, or get chatty with the audience. In other words, everything you bring has to be as tight as it can get.
The Canadian band Priestess once took the stage as an opener for the Maryland rockers, Clutch, and vocalist and guitarist Mikey Heppner plugged in, approached the mic and said simply, “We’re Priestess from Montreal, Canada and we’re going to play a 30-minute rock set.”
The band then launched into a, well, 30-minute rock set, seamlessly transitioning between numbers until their time was up, without any unnecessary breaks. When they finished, Heppner got back on the mic to say “thank you,” and promptly walked off the stage. To me, that tightness left a positive impression — they got up and did what they needed to do, didn’t waste anyone’s time, and left something to be desired.
If stage banter is in your DNA, and you can’t help get chatty, at least make sure you’re not introducing every song. Save your “thanks” for the end of your set, when you can spend an extra few seconds to make sure you adequately mention the venue, the promoter, the sound engineer, the headliner, and anyone else responsible for your invite onto the show.
3. Be the best!
From 1980-1982, Iron Maiden was brought onboard to support Judas Priest on several of their tours and they were hell-bent on upstaging their headlining cohorts every night, to the extent that the band was once quoted as saying, “we’re going to blow the bollocks off Priest.”
That quote was a point of contention over the course of the touring cycle, with members of Judas Priest expressing distaste for that sort of attitude, creating a tense working environment on the road. While I would never condone arrogance for its own sake, a bit of healthy competition can be really beneficial! It’s what drives innovation and invention, and forces others to rise to the standard. Your goal every night should be to be the absolute best, not in an attempt to upstage the headliner, but in an effort to play to their level and in turn motivate every act to stay hungry.
This can be a form of respect. If the band you’re supporting is that good, and your goal every night is to be just as good or better, you are acknowledging their talent and commitment to excellence, by elevating your own level of play. I love when I see a young band pushing a more established group on a concert bill, it’s the quality that defines a healthy student/teacher relationship, and make no mistake, you should always retain a bit of both.
4. Don’t play scared.
If you’ve been asked to support another band, no matter the scale, you’re there because someone believes you should be there. So if you’re prone to succumbing to your nerves, make a mental note of that and tell yourself, “I deserve this” before every show. Try to see that bigger picture, and tailor your set to showcase your strengths. What is it that you do so well, so comfortably, that nobody else does? Do that!
5. Stay organized and stick to the plan.
On another note, please take care of your gear. Be responsible for your equipment, and get it off the stage as quickly as possible when your set concludes. As badly as we all want a road crew to break everything down after we smash our guitars, so we can work the room and mingle, the next band needs to start setting up to keep things moving swiftly.
Also remember, no matter how badly the audience begs for it, you don’t get an encore! Never answer the cries for “one more song” unless you’ve gotten permission ahead of time from the promoter — instead, take it as an honor, tell your new fans where they can find your merch, and make your exit. If the audience really is craving for more, they’ll follow you on Spotify or tag along to your next gig.
Now go out and get yourself a hot support set and nail it!
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