On singing songs live for the first time

I didn’t realise until six last night that there would be a folk club that evening at eight. That gave me an hour and a half to lick a couple of new songs into shape (since it takes half an hour to drive there, nab a slot in the programme, and get a beer).

lou_reedAs a tribute to Lou Reed, who died last week, I wanted to do his song Perfect Day. And I also had a hankering to try out Leonhard Cohen’s much-covered impressionistic masterpiece Hallelujah.

But when it came to it, my performances weren’t up to much, for two reasons.

First, I didn’t have time to properly memorise the songs, so I went for the safety net of playing from chord charts — something I generally try hard to avoid. It turned out that doing that broke the connection I usually have with an audience — I wasn’t able to feel the space properly, and read the audience response. I’d not realised until last night how much of that goes on automatically, and how important it is.

cohen2Second, when I was singing these songs at home, I liked the low register I was singing them in (Perfect Day capoed up one to B♭, Hallelujah capoed up three to E♭). But when I came to sing them on stage, I just couldn’t generate the volume I needed at those low pitches. Next time I do these songs I’ll probably have amplification, so I’ll be able to sing up close to the mic and get the effect I want; but when I do them acoustically again I’ll find different keys that let me lean into the songs more. (For Hallelujah, I did verses 2-4 up an octave, which is possible because it’s got such a narrow range. But it would probably suit my voice better to leave the capo off and do the whole song an octave up in C.)

All this just goes to show that however much you practice, you can’t tell how a song is going to work out until you do it live. Happily, this sometimes works the other way round, too. Recently I did A Day in the Life, which really needs guitar, bass, drums, a symphony orchestra, four grand pianos and some studio trickery. It was an act of pure hubris to even attempt it with just a guitar, but to my surprise it seemed to sit well under my voice, and went across really well with a live audience.

christy-mooreI’m not sure what lesson to draw from all this, unless it’s just to try lots of different songs and find out by trial and error which ones work. Then the trick is whether to abandon the ones that don’t, or whether to persist with them, trying different approaches. (I’ve tried Ride On twice in different ways, but haven’t got it to work yet.)


One response to “On singing songs live for the first time

  1. Pingback: I’m leaving on a jet plane | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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