February 02, 2022
Making a live act work with multiple players can be tricky, as is evidenced by every band documentary ever made. As a solo act, you only have to worry about getting yourself to the gig. If you happen to not show, you’ll never know the gig didn’t go well!
But with four or five members, the chances of an uncomfortable situation quadruple, so it’s a good idea to have a plan in case somebody doesn’t show up.
Rule number one for dealing with any on-stage issue is stay calm. The key to that is to have a plan for every contingency – or at least the ones you can think of. That’s easy enough when it comes to people. Just come up with a plan for the absence of each member.
You can’t plan for every emergency, but you can definitely work on various arrangements for different situations. Run through a song a few times and then pick someone to sit out for a run. Notice what happens to the tune. If the bassist sits out, are you now completely thin? Maybe the piano player can move their left hand down an octave. If the drummer sits out, how might the rhythm guitar fill in to compensate. Doing this regularly has an added benefit: it gives you flexibility to accept alternate gigs or slots when you know someone’s not available.
It may ruffle some feathers to suggest that anyone is expendable, and they certainly aren’t, but in a less-than-ideal situation, it helps to know what is central to the act. Is it all about the unique voice of the singer? Or does everyone sing with no single lead? Is the focus on the songs or the sound? Does the act revolve around drum solos, or can songs be pared down for an intimate unplugged set? Knowing what’s essential to the act and what the audience expects helps in determining how to adjust the show or when you need to outright cancel.
Sometimes you may need to communicate with the audience to pull off a successful adjustment. Others, it’s better to let them stay none the wiser. For example, if your drummer doesn’t show up and he/she also has all the amps, you’ll have to pivot to an intimate acoustic set. You may want to let the audience know that’s what’s happening. There’s no need to let them know the drummer flaked, though – that could make them look bad. But an audience that’s expecting a full rock band may appreciate a little heads up that hey, we’re doing something different tonight.
But if one of four horn players doesn’t show – no one needs to hear about that. Just pull out your three-horn arrangement and rock.
Sometimes we get attached to the way things are. A trumpet player plays that soulful solo or a guitarist wails and moans. Can you create that same vibe with a different instrument or a vocal? It’s tempting to think everything needs to be exactly as it is on the record, but it’s actually a pretty cool experience for an audience to hear an alternate version. Lean it, pretend it’s on purpose, and go with the flow.
It can be unnerving when someone doesn’t show up to a gig and you weren’t expecting it. But it’s not really the end of the world. With a little pre-planning, flexibility, and creativity, the nightmare of a missing member can turn into a dream opportunity. Or, you can cancel the gig and have a beer with your fans. Either way, you’ll be ok.
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5