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Set Lists: How Short Is Too Short?

Go outside to smoke during a Perfect Pussy set and you'll miss the whole thing.

Go outside to smoke during a Perfect Pussy set and you'll miss the whole thing.

The Door Guy is a veteran of countless clubs around town. People say they've seen it all, but he's seen more. Write to him for everything from live advice to life advice. Dear Door Guy,

What the hell was up with Billy Idol's super-short set last week? I paid a lot of money to go see this show, and he played six songs. It was 30 goddamned minutes! Shouldn't there be a rule saying that all headlining acts have to do at least an hour? Or maybe they can get paid by the minute?

—More Like Billy IDLE

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Ha ha ha, I see what you did there. Kudos, hilarious punster! You have made my night/early morning.

There's been a lot of talk about how short Billy Idol's set was the other night and I can see how it must have been frustrating. I mean, I'm not even a Bill Idol superfan but clearly the set missed some pretty key nostalgia points. (No "Dancing With Myself?" Are you fucking kidding me?) It seems like people who went to the show are divided into two camps: the complainers, and the apologists. I don't have a dog in this fight but even if you allow for acoustic shows being less formal and shorter, you and your fellow complainers have every right to question the length of this one.

That said, your suggestion that a headlining act (I'm guessing you mean a national touring act) be required to play a certain (long-ish) amount of time sounds like the WORST IDEA EVER. Seriously.

Eddie Vedder finishes several bottles of wine during a typical three-hour Pearl Jam set.

Eddie Vedder finishes several bottles of wine during a typical three-hour Pearl Jam set.

A properly paced set is an art form in and of itself. Having seen about 5,000 bands live in my lifetime, I can say with some expertise that it's a profoundly neglected area of study for most bands. Yes, some bands can pull off 90, maybe 120 minutes. But those bands are few and far between. When I say pull off, I don't mean "play for that long." I mean, play for that long without losing the intensity of the performance, the give and take with the audience, the pacing, the idea of a set as a show (rather than cycling through every song you know in no particular order).

Really great live acts don't do filler in their sets. They don't "lull." They don't pad. They know the depth of their best material, and they plan out a set that's going to grab the audience and keep them engaged the entire time.

(Think about it like this: The Godfather is a great movie that's three hours long. There's not a moment wasted in that movie. That doesn't mean all movies should be three hours, right? Same thing.)

In this area, not all musicians are created equally. In fact, most bands can't even nail 45 minutes without people starting to shift uncomfortably, wonder if it might be time to go grab a drink, see if you know anyone at the show, go to the back and chat for a while, go outside to smoke. You know one of the biggest hazards in being a door guy at a music venue? Almost getting knocked down by a crowd of smokers who are so bored after 15 minutes of the band they shelled out good money to see, all rushing back in at once when they realize that they're missing a song they really like.

Well-paced sets don't have this. Well-paced sets have friends arguing over who's grabbing the next round because you don't want to miss a thing, the sidewalk/smoking area is empty because nobody wants to miss a bit of the show for a dumb old cigarette, and only the most jaded of hipsters would dare stick to the back gabbing about whatever it is they blather about when they're standing too close to me.

But, Door Guy, you might protest, that's just small venues! No, the same rules apply to any show, whether it's a 100 capacity, 2,000 capacity, or 40,000 capacity venue. A band is either going to have a truly great show that knocks you dead or they're going to have spots where you're bored and want to sit down and take a break.

They might not be long spots. They might not be significant enough to qualify as what rock writers like to call "uneven" when they're reviewing concerts. But for the vast majority of bands, they're there. The truth of the average rock show: you pay money to see and hear something awesome and spend at least part of the time wondering when things are going to get awesome again.

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On some level, rock 'n' roll — and I include a lot of music under that heading — remains an art form to some degree. And art isn't meant to be scheduled. It's meant to be capricious, and weird, and a little fucked up. You can't put those things on a timeline. Sometimes people are going to bring their A game. On the other hand, sometimes the singer for your favorite indie band might nod off from heroin on stage after 20 minutes. It's the risk you take.

I'm not arguing for some ridiculous, YOLO "Tonight I think I'll just make armpit fart noises for five minutes and leave" bullshit. Musicians have a high capacity to act like spoiled children, and often some set-length expectations are built into contracts or handled by their management, a.k.a. the people paid to pay attention to the commodity side of this whole rock 'n' roll thing.

But do you want to see 35 minutes of your favorite hip-hop artist plowing through their best material, or 60 minutes of uninspired turntable hackery and guest verses from somebody's little sister's boyfriend's cousin whose latest mixtape is kinda okay? Do you want to watch your favorite punk band throw a bunch of barely rehearsed covers in at the end of their show because they got too drunk to remember how to play anything off their first three 7-inches? Do you really want to hear Cyndi Lauper's new material? Would you be happy if Billy Idol had turned "Eyes Without a Face" into a 45-minute acoustic reggae jam?

I'm not saying you didn't get a little bit screwed. It sounds like Billy and Steve Stevens put on a mostly solid show, skipped some of the best hits, played some weak stuff, and collected their paycheck while laughing at American radio DJs saying "shagged." (Note: Please stop using British words when talking about British people. It's awful.) You have every right to be disappointed.

But be honest, IDLE: Did you wake up Tuesday morning with "Rebel Yell" stuck in your head? Yes you did. Would it be better if you'd gotten the full acoustic treatment of Billy's 1993 album Cyberpunk, or the extended version of "Rock the Cradle (Of Love)"? I sure as hell hope not.

If you want music safe, scheduled, and composed based on marketing metrics, there's plenty of Pomplamoose videos you can watch on YouTube. Live music is a little riskier, and what makes a good show can't strictly be defined by how long it was or how many songs you heard. Don't forget the first rule of showmanship: Leave 'em wanting more.

Got a question for The Door Guy? E-mail [email protected]

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