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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written April 1998



Performing Outdoors

Ah summer! What a difference a season makes for the working folk performer! The cozy coffeehouses, college unions, nature centers, and church basements give way to sunny plazas, barn-wood stages, flatbed trucks, and those ubiquitous folding sheet metal municipal band-shells-on-wheels.

Performing outdoors is a whole different game. Whether a folk festival or an art-in-the-park performance, things are very different for the performer. Your set that killed 'em indoors last winter might flop out there in the sunshine. Why? Good question.

Focus is one thing. When you are on a defined stage in a dark room with all lights on you, it follows that all eyes are on you too. Outdoors in the sun, it's just as easy for an attendee to be watching clouds, their kids playing, the fetching young person in the tank top across the way -- any one of a thousand distractions. (After dark, with stage lights on, focus returns to the stage. It's the time you want to be there.) 

Some performers deal with this problem in a number of ways. They might dress flashier. Or become more animated. Twirl batons. Break into clog dancing. Scream. Anything to draw attention to the stage. Sometimes this can be an artistic statement. Sometimes it can be a desperate ploy to pander to the audience. Sometimes both.

Audience apathy is another problem. This is especially so at those events where admission is free. You find you are no longer playing to a group of folk fans or even music lovers. Your audience is a group of casual sun-seekers out for a day of cheap recreation. And you are a mere diversion in their afternoon. Many of them haven't seen live music in years. Expect to be under appreciated, unless you perform something much like what they might see on TV.

At bona fide Folk Festivals on the other hand you will be playing to "your" people. But after a day or so of euphoria, you might find yourself playing to emotionally exhausted folkies on a Sunday afternoon. Remember, too, that a festival is like a family reunion for most attendees, so a lot of chitchatting and elbow rubbing is competing with you for the audience's attention.

And why does the sound always suck?!? Well, it doesn't always. Some sound crews at festivals do a great job. But it is many times harder to achieve great sound outdoors. And when the acts change every 25 minutes, it's hard to get a good mix -- even if you did do a sound check five hours earlier. Often a band shell creates a weird overtone, or a speaker was blown during the last act up, or the monitor amp blew up. You name it -- it could happen. Don't expect wonderful. Appreciate adequate.

If you travel with your own sound crew, outdoor surprises can be kept to a minimum. But when you are left to the devices of strangers running your sound, it can be helpful to have a short, pleasant conversation with the person who will be in charge of the knobs while you are onstage. If they are professional, it's best to tell them how you want to sound, rather than telling them exactly what to do. They know their equipment better than you do, and will appreciate your input as to the total sound you are after. If, on the other hand, you sense that someone who has no clue has been handed the keys to the municipal sound system, you might take a more hands-on approach to running the sound.

Then there are those practical matters. Sunscreen. Don't leave home without it. 40 minutes on a sunny stage can mean a painful week if not properly coated. Don't rely on the promoter providing a shady spot for the stage. Biting insects are another hazard. Find a repellent you can tolerate. Or dress in long sleeves. Rain is another problem. You will rarely be asked to perform in a downpour, though that has happened to me. But you might be forced to sing in a light mist. Be ready for it! Don't kiss the mike! Or ZAP!

And, as you make your festival plans, you might want to reconsider the option of camping at the festival. Hob-nobbing with the hoi polloi is a joy, but remember that showing up clean, refreshed and rested to your gig is part of your job, too. Can you do that sleeping in a tent? A middle-ground approach I have used is to set up a tent on the grounds to use as my own personal "green room." I can hang there, entertain friends, etc. But I arrange housing somewhere else, so that at night I can sleep in a real bed, awaken to a real shower, and show up at the festival site ready to make music at my best.

So pack up the shades, slickers, sandals, rubber boots, extra strings, and water bottles and hit the road this summer. And don't forget to pack a few promo kits and extra business cards, too. You never know who you will meet in the good old summertime!

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