Making setlists is one of those hidden tasks when you’re in a band. People don't really notice when you do it right, but they probably will if you do it wrong. We don’t improvise our sets on stage; it’s easier to make crisp transitions between songs and minimize the time spent milling about making the audience wait.
And it’s not quite as easy as it seems at first. Took a bit of fumbling around at first until I got the hang of it.
One one level it’s like making a good mix tape. You need internal variation to keep the listener’s attention and also provide ebbs and flows so as not to either exhaust them with relentless high energy songs, or bore them with relentless low energy ones.
I also try to keep songs that are in the exact same key, have similar structural elements, or nearly identical pacing apart in the set. Since we play mostly originals, this helps keep our material differentiated for listeners who aren’t completely familiar with our songs.
We have some extra complications in that I play both guitar and mandolin and Sean plays both guitar and dobro. Also, we use capos on several songs at different frets and after a capo is put on or moved it can cause you to have to retune your instrument. (A capo is a clamp that goes across the guitar frets. Certain chord shapes are easier to play than others on the guitar and using a capo can make a song that would be difficult with no capo easier to play)
So to make sure the audience isn't constantly watching us switch instruments or retuning after every song, I try to group songs with similar instrumentation and capo position together if I can. This is really important for short sets, like the 30 minute ones at Florida Music Festival. In a short set, every second we spend re-configuring is a second we’re not playing and 30 minutes isn’t a very long time to get as much of our best material out as possible.
(Less altruistically, I also try to avoid songs that we haven’t practiced lately or that have been... “adventures” during recent rehearsals. Though few things match the adrenaline of riding an impending train wreck on stage, it’s probably better for my nerves and the audiences ears to minimize that sort of thing.)
We never play the same show twice in a row. It keeps us from getting bored and makes repeat attendance more likely and, hopefully, enjoyable.
I keep track of all the setlist with a, let’s say “pedantic,” attention to details. For some of the more spreadsheet inclined here’s some numbers, as of this writing:
We’ve played 155 shows and 311 sets in 59 venues
We’ve done 3179 total song performances in public
81% of the songs we’ve played live are originals
Original songs we’ve played the most, by total number and by percentage since song debut. Unsurprisingly, Back Again is at the top of the list:
1. Back Again - 208
2. Fold Out Couch - 145
3. Back Seat Down - 140
4. Bustin' Out - 136
5. Just Wait - 130
1. Back Again - 67.5%
2. Hey Ya Wanna - 52.8%
3. Jennie - 48.4%
4. Fold Out Couch - 47.7%
5. Back Seat Down - 45.5%
Original songs still in our rotation with the least plays (that we’ve played more than 3 times). February Morning and Clay Pigeons debuted in January of this year, which explains their low totals. On the Way Back Home is a jazzy instrumental that debuted at our third show:
1. February Morning - 6
2. Clay Pigeons - 8
3. On the Way Back Home - 9
1. On the Way Back Home - 2.6%
2. Take Me Home - 13.2%
3. Light - 17.7%%
And the top three covers:
1. Take On Me (a-Ha)- 78
2. Where the Streets Have No Name (U2) - 63
3. Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash) - 52
1. I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles) (The Proclaimers) - 33.1%
2. Take On Me (a-Ha) - 26.4%
3. Porch (Pearl Jam) - 23.9%
For single set shows of 30 minutes or less (with a 30 minute set being about 8 songs):
1. Back Again - 76.9%
2. Hey Ya Wanna - 76.9%
3. Back Seat Down - 57.7%
4. Bustin' Out - 51.9%
5. Just Wait - 46.2%
In these shorter sets, Back Again and Hey Ya Wanna are pretty much assured and everything else basically a coin flip at best. (I was a little surprised that Just Wait is so high on this list.)
For single set shows longer than 45 minutes (with a 45 minute set being about 12 or 13 songs)::
1. Back Again - 100%
2. Hey Ya Wanna - 100%
3. The Long Sleep - 90.9%
4. Jennie - 86.3%
5. Fold Out Couch - 83.3%
If you’re still reading this, take comfort in the fact that this is a only a fraction of the rabbit hole I could have dragged you down on this topic. I’ll leave it here though. We have a show at Fiddler’s Green in two weeks that I have to start thinking about the setlist for....