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Liberation Tourology with ALO #6

Walking out on stage and looking around, I was struck by a couple of things. First, it was a rowdy crowd. They were yelling at me and talking shit and I’m just putting up a tripod. I thought, “Oh yeah, Philly’s always been a rockin’ town for us.” The second thing was, there were WAY more guys in the audience than usual.

WXPN Free Lunch, Theater of Living Arts


Two full shows in one day. The first is at the very top-shelf World Café venue at WXPN. How many public radio stations have an acoustically perfect, full service music venue with a bar and balcony attached to them AND free shows every Friday at noon? Probably just this one. It is a sweet gig. Everyone that comes to the noon shows is excited to be there and tends to love what you do. And, you get to perform for all ages and walks of life — from little kids to little old ladies.

After our nice lunchtime show and a quick interview we headed over to South Street to set up for the night show at the deceptively named Theater of Living Arts. By living arts they mean: mid-level nationally touring rock bands.

For ALO, setlists have never been a matter of course. We probably have over 100 songs from a span of 15 years. The audience at our shows could be expecting anything. A guy who was a fan in college and wants to hear something from a self-released album is standing next to a soccer mom who never heard of us until our most recent release. And then we have this song: Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down. It is, in most respects, a hit. Everyone knows it. If we get programmed into a music service (Muzak) or get a song licensed for something, that’s the one. Jack Johnson has performed it on entire tours. The fact that we have made very little money from the song is a clear reflection of how different the business of music has changed from even 10 years ago. Granted, I think it’s a hard song for radio to commit to. But, radio’s risk aversion to anything outside of their very narrow focus-group box is another sign of the changing times.

ALO Tour Diary #6Nevertheless, if we don’t play Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down at every show 85% of the audience will leave disappointed or maybe even feel cheated.

At least that’s what we believe. We don’t really know, but we really do care. We worry enough about it to feel obligated to play it every show whether we want to play it or not. And so it goes for just about every other song we put into a setlist. It used to be that behind every setlist was at least an hour-long discussion. Sometimes the communal writing of the setlist would be longer than the set itself. At one point we even abandoned setlists all together. Each member had a master list of songs on the ALO repertoire and we would go round robin, picking the next song as we played the set. This led to far too much onstage discussion, so eventually we moved from a purely democratic process to a more representative way of working. Steve, the bass player, usually writes the setlists with Dan, the guitarist, working alongside. Then, Zach (keys) and I look it over and make suggestions for changes, if any.

I don’t know what got into us tonight but we reverted, if not regressed to our old ways. Actually, what happened was that the editing process was more involved than usual. The discussion brought up the question in my mind of what the setlist is designed to do. What is the intention of the way one song flows into another, and who is the setlist for? As much as it is a song order, it’s a selection of songs from a big list of possible songs. It is a reflection of where a band or musician is on a given night.

I wonder if it’s easier for most artists to know the expectations of their audience. I mean, take a band like AC/DC. Maybe they’re too simple of an example and represent the polar opposite of us, but they have been sending a pretty clear and mostly unchanging musical message for the last 30 years. They’ve probably got more Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down’s than they can play in one night. I would imagine the construction of the setlist to be pretty simple. How about Prince? Maybe a little more complex but at least he doesn’t have to clear his set with anyone else. What he says goes and his audience trusts him. Now think of the Grateful Dead in the 90’s, a completely democratic band and, like ALO, one with a long history of various different musical styles and vibes. It must have been tough, but they still had one up on ALO — they didn’t GIVE a shit what anyone thought about them. They were driven by a very anarchistic outlaw artistic spirit that always served them well to which their fans were conditioned and attracted. Their existence before anything like chat rooms and forum boards certainly must have helped them maintain a healthy detachment from the whines of setlist analysis and song selection pundits. They pleased their audience by pleasing themselves.

For ALO the pleasing is not so unidirectional. Or simple. Some of us are of the spirit of the Dead – “play what thou wilt” shall be the whole of the law — and by doing so you will provide your audience with an authentic and inspired performance that will leave them respectfully satisfied. For others it’s all about trying to guess what the crowd wants and giving it to them based on some fairly well tested theories of setlist architecture involving energy arcs, “hits” verses “bust-outs” and songs that the band seems to be comfortable with at the time. Steve had designed two sets this night that adhered to these principles. A solid offering that would likely leave a very large segment of an average ALO crowd on the East Coast (and there is a BIG difference in our audience from the West Coast) pretty well satisfied.

I have been setting up a “drum cam” every night to get video of my drumming that I can put up on YouTube or whatever, and tonight I hadn’t been able to set it up until after Chris Velan’s opening set. Walking out on stage and looking around, I was struck by a couple of things. First, it was a rowdy crowd. They were yelling at me and talking shit and I’m just putting up a tripod. I thought, “Oh yeah, Philly’s always been a rockin’ town for us.” The second thing was, there were WAY more guys in the audience than usual. We usually have a split down the middle. Tonight I’d say it was about 85/15. Okay. Time to revisit this setlist and make sure we’re going to meet their energy. That’s what we like to do. And that would probably work out well for me, too, because out of the four members of the band, I tend to feel the most like an 85/15 rowdy crowd at a Philly venue!

To make this long story a little shorter, we all jumped in on a last minute setlist revision. We only had about 10 minutes to do what usually takes two hours — come to a consensus. Steve was a total champ about it, because nobody likes to have their work totally gutted, fried, chewed up and shit out in front of them, but he took it like a man. With a few alterations we were able to come up with a high-energy show that relied more on lesser-known songs (on the East Coast) from our dance party college days. The sets killed and the show left the TLA stewing in a pool of its own funk juices. That’s how we work for better or for worse. We’re a people-pleasing, consensus-seeking rock band that flies by the seat of our pants. It’s high maintenance but, at times, it can payoff. Tonight was one of the best shows of the tour so far …for us!

Dave Brogan

Keep up with all things Brogan, ALO or otherwise, at his official website.

Throughout 2010, ALO drummer Dave Brogan will regale us with tales from the road as Animal Liberation Orchestra travel around behind their sweet new album Man of the World, both as headliners and as primary support for Jack Johnson’s summer/fall tour.