From The Side of the Road… MC work – third time’s the charm

This is the third in a series on stage-show MC work. In the previous installment, I tried to answer a few frequently asked questions (or FAQ, for those in a hurry), covering issues like who should do most of the talking in a band situation, excessive talking on stage, and the “Tu Ning” joke. At one point I got sidetracked and discussed the Cincinnati Red’s bullpen and passed along my Aunt Mary’s apple crisp recipe. I no longer recall what I wrote in the first one. In short, if you missed the first two columns, I wouldn’t sweat it. As with the third episode of Real Housewives of New Jersey, you can jump in right here and consider yourself pretty much up to speed.

I did promise that this week I’d present a list of MC work “dos” and “don’ts.” For those who find the whole concept of “dos” and “don’ts” to be too absolute or inflexible, feel free to re-label them “If I were you, I would probably avoid . . .” and “In most situations, you might consider . . .” I don’t like coming off as bossy.


1. Say something to your audience sometime before your seventh song, unless you have seven instantly recognizable monster hits you can start a show with. If you wait too long, the crowd may start to think you’re either stuck up, or you’re afraid to talk to them.

2. Take a moment to learn something about where you are, and try to incorporate that into your stage patter. Start with the basics, like where the heck you you are in the first place. Audiences generally aren’t impressed when you say, “Great to be here in . . . where are we, anyway?” Or worse: “It’s great to be back in Texas again!” when in fact you’re in Oklahoma. Learning elaborate historical details about the region aren’t necessary: “It’s wonderful to be here in Millersville. I can just imagine what this place looked like when English settlers purchased this land from the Oneida tribe in 1798 in a ceremony held less than three miles from here at the site of what is now the First Citizen’s Bank.” Most audiences might consider that a little much.

3. Acknowledge the sound people, the promoter, and other people who made it possible for you to be there. Remember, though, if your list of those people gets too long, you run the risk of forgetting someone who will then feel left out. Also, by the time you get down to the 4th parking volunteer, and the assistant treasurer of the association that hired you, it will start to get a little dull for the crowd.

4. Tell jokes, if you’re funny. If you’re not, at least make them short. Do I even need to say that you should steer clear of ethnic jokes? The exception is if the joke is about the ethnic group that represents 99% of your crowd, and they’re all large bikers. That just shows guts on your part.

5. Introduce your band (see cautions below). People in the crowd like to get to know the people who are playing the music. If you have a lot of personnel changes in your band (not unusual), just make sure to remember everyone’s names before you launch into the introductions.

6. Plug stuff, like your CDs, upcoming shows, etc. Bear in the mind that this falls into the category of things you talk about for your benefit, not the audience’s, and for that reason, it’s good to keep this part of your rap as brief as possible (see another caution below).

Don’t . . .

1. . . . talk too much. On the other hand, don’t feel pressured to shorten up everything you say to the point where you sound hurried and unnatural. This can make a crowd feel uneasy. As I said at the start of this discussion, keep it like a conversation. People would just like to feel that they’re getting to know you a little better, even if the person they’re getting to know is a bit of a windbag.

2. . . . say anything that gives the impression that you’re making fun of where they live, or have a negative view of it. For bluegrass bands, there is a temptation to do this in large, northern urban centers, because it just feels like you’re playing up the country image: “Wow! This New York City is one crazy place. There’s just plumb too many people in one place here. Y’all can keep it, as far as I’m concerned. Ain’t that right, Terry?” (Terry is the mandolin player who is looking back at you right now, as if to say, “You’re on your own, buddy. I just work here!”) This goes over with your New York audience just about as well as talking down to an audience in West Virginia, making them feel like hillbillies. 

3. . . . verbally abuse the sound people, even if you do it in an amusing way, and even if they richly deserve it. In fact, the less communicating you do with the sound people during the show, the better. This is something that most people in the audience don’t understand, and if you talk about the sound too much, they will eventually blame you. Asking subtly for some minor changes is fine, but then, if that doesn’t seem to work, or the sound gets worse, you have to accept the fact that it isn’t your day (or your sound company) and just concentrate on entertaining. It gives a particularly bad impression when the first thing the audience hears you say in a show is an instruction to the sound engineer. “Hello folks! We’re so glad to be here today!” is just so much warmer sounding than “The banjo sounds a little tubby in the monitor.” As Charles Dickens once said: “Never let them see you sweat.” It may have been Steven Segal who said it, but you get the point.

4. . . . overplug stuff. This gets more tiresome to your audience than you might think. I really think a lot of bands do it not so much because they’re mercenary, but simply because they can’t think of anything better to say in between songs. Worst of all is giving the CD sales rap right after another member of the band has done it. As I said earlier, this is a part of your show strictly designed to benefit you and make you money, so keep it brief and work some humor in if you can. As with the bad sound situation, you have to learn to accept defeat if you’re playing in a place where sales are slow. Giving your CDs a bigger plug in your second set isn’t going to help the situation, and will only serve to make you seem greedy and/or desperate. We all know there are regions of the country where the last band merchandise purchased was in the summer of 1988 (one cassette, sold by a band who did a double-time version of The Star Spangled Banner and a rendition of Rocky Top in Pig Latin). You’re not going to change that sales environment with one heartfelt and painfully long sales pitch.

5. . . . tell in-jokes. In addition, it’s a good idea to avoid conversations with each other on stage, unless that conversation is actually taking place for the audience’s benefit, i.e., a staged conversation. This kind of exchange just does nothing for an audience: 

“Well Bill, nice hotel we have, don’t you think?”

“Hah! Three toothpicks and a light bulb.”

“That’s what she said.”

“Slim Whitman’s socks. Heh heh.” (band dissolves into laughter)

6. . . . .overdo band introductions. People want to know something about the members of the band, but if you weigh the introductions down with statements like “I think he is the finest . . . on the planet!” or “She is the greatest . . . in the history of this galaxy or any other galaxy!” it could be interpreted as bragging, even if you’re not talking about your own individual accomplishments. Also, avoid discussion of band members’ skin condition or sex life. Jimmy Martin could get away with that, but you probably can’t. In fact, Jimmy could get away with just about anything on this “don’t” list. Just another reason we miss him.

Next week: Discussion of religion and/or politics on stage. I’m planning to farm that one out to another writer, preferably one with no fixed address and an assumed name.