1) Playing solo, you can’t rely on killer beats or sheer gut-thumping volume to convince the unconverted. Alone and exposed on an emotional tightrope (with no safety net) you have to win people over with guile, great tunes and sheer force of personality. We need all the help we can get. Watch other performers - steal their techniques or learn from their mistakes. And visuals, presentation, lighting - even the seating plan - all drastically affect the way your performance is perceived by an audience: much more so than with bands. Put in enough thought, preparation and commitment, and you’ll wipe the floor with the opposition every time.
2) Create your space. Choose an area on the stage where you can see - and be seen by - the whole room. If there’s no stage, mark out your performing area on the floor with a line of black gaffa tape. And always carry your own black gaffa tape. Move all unnecessary guitar cases, beer crates, mike stands etc. out of the way to give you a clear working area of floor space. Also, move any chairs and tables in the venue closer together and nearer to the stage. You always get the best audience response when people are a) comfortable b) close to you and c) close to each other.
3) Getting the setting. Buy ten metres of thin lightweight black fabric for at your local department store - it’ll cost about 30 quid. Cut it into four and hang it along the back wall of your stage, covering all the usual scuzzy, gaffa-flecked wallpaper. A black backdrop absorbs stray light and looks instantly professional: watching the stage, an audience sees you and nothing else.
4) It may sound obvious, but point the stage lights at where you’re standing. Remove all the dusty mauve and crinkly green filters, and either use white light or (better still) carry crisp new filters of your own. Lighting gel is absurdly cheap and makes a huge difference to the way your show looks. Try Lee 103 (straw) for warm front lighting, or Lee 181 (congo blue) with 1kw lamps for deep atmosphere. For a stockist, call Lee Filters on 01-264-366-245.
5) Carry your own Shure Beta 58 mike and use it always. I can’t recommend these highly enough - clear, crisp and loud with unbeatable feedback rejection. However crap the PA is, a decent mike gives you a fighting chance. You’d spend half a grand on a decent guitar or keyboard, why not a couple of hundred on your voice ? And no, I don’t have an endorsement deal with Shure.
6) Even small PAs can be drastically improved by “tuning” them to the room. Most systems feed the front-of-house desk output through a 31 band graphic equalizer for this purpose. If possible, get to the gig early, take your mike out into the middle of the room and send it through through a flat (no EQ) channel on the desk. If the PA sounds reasonably hi-fi, you’re home and dry. But if (more likely) it sounds muffled and boomy, you’ll need all your tact and diplomacy to get your hands on the house graphics. Boost each frequency in turn - talking down the mike - until you find all those nasty ringing overtones (160 hz is a common culprit). Work by subtly subtracting ugly frequencies, rather than boosting the sweet ones. A well tuned PA is more important than any amount of flashy reverb, delays or compression.
7) Shoot the monitor engineer. Seriously, there are far more foldback systems in the world than good engineers (and most of those end up behind front of house desks). Result: with cheap PAs at small gigs, your monitors are almost guaranteed to sound like shite. If they’re unbearable at soundcheck, they won’t improve by showtime. Don’t be afraid to turn them off, move the PA speakers back and inwards - and listen to the front of house sound instead. The monitor dickhead will tell you this “causes feedback”. It won’t.
8) Mixing it. If you’re serious about your front of house sound but can’t afford your own engineer, consider doing it yourself. What’s there to mix - your voice, your instrument & maybe a bit of reverb ? Carry a little Mackie or Spirit Folio and do it all yourself from on stage. If it sounds good to you, chances are it’ll sound good to the audience. Ultimately, though, there’s no substitute for a great sound engineer of your own. When you finally find one you like and get on with, hang on to her (or him) for dear life.
9) Even if the venue’s half empty or stuffed with drunks at showtime, don’t write off your audience in advance. Perform with style and dignity for anybody out there who’s interested and listening, even if you can’t see them. Acknowledge it when someone claps, joins in, or laughs at one of your jokes - a little flicker of applause needs nurturing, fanning, feeding. Look over to where it came from and grin, wink, bow ironically. In years to come, people will come up and say they first saw you at the Turd & Bogbrush in 1999. Even gigs that feel like a complete disaster can win you lifelong fans.
10) Anything you do, do big. Don’t be feeble or apologetic. Take possession of your performing area, own it, fill the space. Who the hell wants to watch something half-hearted ? The world is not waiting for another sensitive songwriter to perch on a stool, pick lifelessly at an acoustic guitar and warble inaudible platitudes about man’s inhumanity to man. The essence of great performance is energy, passion and total commitment, whether you’re Suzanne Vega or Henry Rollins. You don’t have to be note perfect, or even massively talented, to pull it off. But whatever you do, it does need to be very, very real.