Stage banter can make the difference between a good show and a great one. Does yours come off as cool or canned?
Few performers can get by with just playing music and never addressing the audience between songs. Trust me on this one—I tried to do so for many years. Finally, I got tired of lesser bands getting the good gigs because they were “more entertaining,” so I donned a pimp suit and a persona and started learning how to communicate with the audience in a way that fit the vibe of the music and the band.
It has made a huge difference.
But like musical styles, stage banter comes in several flavors and the one you pick depends on taste—yours and that of your audience.
The highest practitioner of stage banter is the storyteller who may spend as much time talking as singing. My favorite example of this kind of performer is Bruce Springsteen. Many times I have seen him tell stories—sometimes about the songs he is singing and sometimes not—that I remember a decade or more later.
Pulling off this kind of banter is not an easy thing and not for the inexperienced.
Bruce has been honing his storytelling chops onstage for a lot of years. Stories like this only work if you already have the audience’s attention in a big way and even then, the danger of a long story falling flat always exists.
When it happens the consequences can be pretty dire, including ruining an otherwise good gig.
If you aspire to this kind of dialogue, then consider rehearsing it just like you do your music. Not that it needs to be memorized and done word for word the same way each time, but have the bones of the story set in your head and practice telling it so you get the rhythm and tone right. Try it on friends before you take it onstage.
The Witty Aside
This is the style I aspire to and, unfortunately, often fail at.
The thing is, what one person thinks is witty and funny, someone else may find silly or just not get it.
Keep your audience in mind.
Literary references don’t generally work well in sports bars and off-color jokes are not likely to be welcome at that church social.
For example, my band has a couple of gigs we do every year for very different audiences. One is a conference for live event production pros (basically production, sound and lighting guys) and over the years the subjects of stage banter have included youthful indiscretions, how much people are drinking, and how married couples only come to conferences like this one in order to partake in the joys of hotel whoopee.
The other event is a concert series in an outdoor venue with a lot of families. Those jokes never get told at this gig.
We may not even play many of the same songs (we generally skip “You Can Leave Your Hat On” and “Sex Machine”). About the worst thing I can remember saying there, was noting that some of the old soul tunes we play have lyrics that are either double entendres or are pretty much nonsense. “We’re not sure what this next one is really about, but we’re pretty sure it’s really dirty.”
It got a laugh and no one was offended. I call that a win.
The Song Documentarian
Especially with songwriters, there is a temptation to explain where a song came from and what it is trying to say.
First, remember, like the saying about jokes—if you have to explain it, it’s not funny.
If you have to explain the song, you may want to take a look at the writing. But that aside, if you are trying to give the tune some context, try to make it as universal as possible.
“This next song is about this girl named Doris who dumped me and how that made me feel” is going to turn most people off.
But tweak that and make a “dedication” of sorts to anyone who has ever been dumped and many in the audience will sit up and take notice. You will be surprised how many will better relate to your tune because they can see themselves in it.
That is a big win.
Think Sonny and Cher.
It may have been a little cheesy, but the “wife putting husband in his place” shtick worked well for them for a lot of years.
Since my wife joined the band as a backup singer a number of years ago, we have kind of organically developed a similar vibe and it works. Audiences seem to find it entertaining and I am willing to take a little public abuse to make sure the crowd is entertained.
I take on a role every time I get onstage.
Offstage I am more than a little shy and don’t say a lot in public around people I don’t know well.
But put me in a pimp suit and put a guitar in front of me and I become someone else.
It was not until I could do that that the bands I fronted went from just musically good to actually entertaining.
Remember, a performance by someone who is as much storyteller as singer can be a thing of sublime beauty.
The other side of that clichéd coin is the performer who is still using the same lame lines that worked once back in the ’70s. Somewhere in between stands the singer who doesn’t tell stories or make political statements but who can verbally engage an audience between songs.
Bottom line: It all comes down to sincerity. Once you can fake that, you have it made.
– Rev Bill