Listen to music of the type your band is performing. This may seem like it goes without saying, but often bands come from disparate backgrounds. Just because in your new bluegrass band both you and the mandolin player have every recording Bill Monroe’s horse Uncle Wilkie every whinnied doesn’t mean that the new bass player from Chicago knows where Kentucky is located. Everyone should be listening to what others are doing. It’s perfectly okay to get your inspiration from Miles Davis for your next mandolin solo, but I bet your band mates would prefer you were channeling Sam Bush instead.
And when it comes to performance, GO SEE YOUR COMPETITION. Learn from them, meet them, borrow money from them. Truthfully, love thine enemy. If you can get on friendly terms with your competition, you can find out about gigs, and maybe even pick up some of their overflow. But primarily, watch how they perform. Listen to their arrangements. Note their vocals, their instrumentation. Check out their clothes. Really! Maybe you’ve spent $2,987 on matching vintage Nudie suits, and your competition is wearing old running suits from Target that look twice as hip. Uh oh.
The last thing you want to do is to clone some other band that is playing the kind of music you are performing, but you can learn from them. Does your group chatter between songs for three minutes, tuning and gossiping, where their group moves swiftly from one tune to the next? Does your group sometimes give a rambling intro to a song, where their group has a short humorous statement and back to the music? How about their use of dynamics?
I think if there is one thing that is lacking in many folk/roots musical groups, it’s the proper use of dynamics. Take that 12 piece old time string band Flock of Beagles. You know, the band that also does covers of 1980s pop hits. After a few songs, you can’t help but notice that all 12 pieces start out on every song, and all 12 pieces play through every song. The volume stays pretty much the same. The folks singing lead and harmony are the same on every number, and…your notes stop here because you fell into a deep, satisfying slumber 27 minutes into the night’s show.
Let’s take this same 12 piece old time I Love the 80s band after a few sessions at Dynamics R Us. First, only one or two of the instruments open some of the songs, with the others added as the tune requires. On some numbers, a few band members DON’T PLAY ANYTHING. It’s amazing. The lead vocalist shares the duties with others. Some songs have three part harmony, some songs have two part harmony and SOME SONGS DON’T HAVE ANY HARMONY VOCALS AT ALL. Some in the audience are swooning, but they’ll get used to it. And the mandolin player switches instruments with the bass player on one song! The media is alerted.
Seriously, the use of dynamics makes for a much better performance. If you have to yell "No fills in the first verse, harmonica does the fills in the second!" before you kick off the song, so be it. It’s better than winching when Sonny Boy blasts a Paul Butterfield squeal past you on your first line of lyric.
Along with dynamics, introductions and endings of songs are by far the most important thing to deal with professionally. Nothing smells more amateur than counting in "One two three FOUR!" at a different tempo than you follow with. If you do this and you have a drummer in your band, prepare to flinch from a stick hitting the back of your head. If you can’t count a song in correctly (and I am in this group) then take the time to establish the beat in your head, transfer that to your hands and your instrument and THEN count in. It may not be super clean, but at least you won’t have bruises on the back of your noggin.
Once you’re in and on time, you’ve got a lot to carry but you have to have your ending in mind from the second you start the song. If you have to turn around and make eye contact with the horn section, do so. If you have to yell across stage to the keyboard player who is grooving with her face turned to the floor, do so. End together. End in time. End together. If the 12 piece string band ends 4 or 5 pieces at a time, so will the audience’s interest.
Vocals are important. You don’t have to have a great trained singing voice to sing in a folk or roots band. But if you have a timid lead singer on one number or one with a slight voice, don’t assign harmony to the two loudest singers unless they’ve been to Dynamics R Us and done the graduate program. Harmonies are great, but bad harmony is actually worse than no harmony at all. Unison is not harmony, although many of us may fall into unison for a note or two. Or you may have one of those band members who insist they are singing harmony when in fact they are singing unison. Maybe they’re an octave higher, and that can be confusing. Or perhaps your baritone harmony singer is simply singing the tenor part. Sit down with one guitar, no mikes, and work on your harmonies. Listen to each other. If there is enough serious dispute, bring in someone to arbitrate. By that, I mean bring in a harmony consultant. This could be your church choir leader, or one of those band members from your competition band that you have gotten to be friends with. Let them listen and make recommendations, and perhaps even help in some training. Perfect harmony is difficult to achieve, but if you want vocal harmonies, work on them. "Catch as you can" harmony usually sounds just like that. Sure, Emmy Lou can run onstage and sing harmony with Willie on some song she’s never heard, but Emmy Lou is not in your band, I bet.
And dynamics are important for your instruments, too. If the five string banjo player is damping his strings and making a nice, abrupt ripping sound as his contribution to the rhythm during a guitar solo, chances are the guitar won’t be heard. Quieting down during a solo isn’t just a jazz technique, it makes sense. It allows the soloist to lead the volume, and perhaps start quietly and build. And in an old time group where several instruments are playing the melody, the hammered dulcimer shouldn’t be drowning out the rest of the band. Dynamics. Try it, you’ll like it.
Okay, you’re starting together, in time. You’re ending together, as a band. You’re quieting down when the quieter instruments are taking a lead. Some band members lay out for parts of songs. Some band members do to the canteen for a pint during a few songs. Some members play a different instrument for a song or two, and some different folks sing lead or harmony. Harmony may be simple, but it’s pleasing.
Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He’s released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard’s and Paul Simon’s revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.