From The Side of the Road…some more stage MC basics

Last week I tried to break on-stage MC work down to basics to make the mission seem less daunting for anyone who may find speaking to an audience intimidating. 

To sum up and review: you’re just trying to make the audience feel welcome and feel that you care about them. You also need to get some information conveyed to them: band introductions, song introductions, a plug of your CDs if you have any.

If you get all that covered in a basic way, don’t offend anyone, avoid burping into a microphone, and don’t take up too much time, you’ll be in pretty good shape. Still, within that simple set of requirements lies a lot of leeway, and that includes some healthy room for error.

I’ll attempt to answer some questions that naturally arise:

Who should do the talking in a band situation?

The easy answer is that whoever is best at it should take on the bulk of the MC chores. Sadly, it isn’t usually that simple. The leader and/or star is usually the designated MC, whether or not he or she is any good at it at all. If you’re not sure who the leader of your band is, pay attention next time to who pays you after a gig. The leader will also be the one who uses the words “I” and “me” most often in a sentence.

Having the leader/star do the majority of the talking makes some sense, though, especially if that person’s name is at the front of the band name. When people see a name like Doug Mahoney and Lonesome Pancake, they kind of expect Doug Mahoney to speak to them.

You and I know, however, that the leader doesn’t necessarily do the talking, especially if he or she isn’t the lead singer. J.D. Crowe and the New South is a perfect example. It’s just another one of those MCing rules that are meant to be broken.

It does seem awkward, though, when someone who is both the star and lead singer doesn’t speak to the audience. People wonder why he/she is outgoing enough to sing but can’t go that extra step and speak (is that an extra step?). These same people begin to concoct theories about this, which inevitably lead to rumors (“He can sing in English, but he doesn’t know how to speak it. I think he’s Hungarian . . . or Australian.” Or: “I think he has a phobia about that. Apparently he’s getting treatment and maybe surgery to fix it.”)

Yes, even if another band member is good at stage patter, and is doing most of it, the lead singer/star should jump in once in a while with a comment about something or other. This system served Alison Krauss and Union Station well when Adam Steffey was the primary MC.

What if you’re in a completely democratic band, with no clear front person or star? Should everyone talk?

It’s usually a bad idea to let everyone talk, because it can cause the audience to lose focus. Unless, of course, you have it cleverly worked out where every band member takes turns saying one word at a time (this is a very entertaining way to recite the Gettysburg Address at parties). The MC work should be narrowed down to a couple of band members, with some of the others chiming in now and then when they have something important to say  (like, “Hey! You’re stepping on my my microphone cable!”). 

Often this is easily worked out, because there are usually one or two people who actually want to do it, and that tends to correspond (if you’re lucky) with the people who have some ability in that area.

What if the person designated as the primary MC talks too much and never lets anyone else get a word in?

This would be the down side of people in the band who have that natural public speaking ability. They may also like hearing themselves talk (you know, DJ types). In this situation, a conversation may have to take place with this chatterbox, that is, as soon as you can find the end of a sentence, accompanied by a long enough pause to get the conversation started.

More important than how much is being said on stage, though, is the quality of what’s being said. If this MC is getting laughs and the audience is hanging on every word, a little extra talk might be a good thing. On the other hand, if it’s just a bunch of stream of consciousness rambling, peppered with insincere comments about how wonderful the audience is and how delicious the breakfast you had in the local restaurant was, you have a problem.

What if you just have an off day as an MC?

This happens all the time, I’m afraid. Not every MC is going to be “on” every night, and not every audience is going to appreciate every MC. I recall an uncomfortable afternoon show in which I was dying a slow and painful death on stage with everything I said. I finally just resolved that it wasn’t my day and that I would just focus on making the banjo player laugh. He did.

Pity the poor professional comedians. At least we can just launch into the song we were about to play. The comedian is stuck there, wishing it was all a bad dream. We have an escape route when things aren’t going well, and we should feel free to use it.

It’s worth noting that you shouldn’t blame your audience for your communication failure and start saying caustic things to them (even if they are a bunch of humorless tree stumps posing as human beings). I did, however, get a kick out of a performer playing on the same bill as us in Europe who said to the audience, “We’re just going to play another song now, because talking to you people is really creeping me out.” They were kind of a dead crowd, and it’s what many of us would like to have said, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.

I still hear the “Tu Ning” joke getting a laugh sometimes. Does that mean it’s still okay to use it?

For the uninitiated (and I would very much like to be you right now), the “Tu Ning” joke is a joke told when the band is tuning on stage, and someone says: “We’re playing an old Chinese folk song: Tu Ning.”

No, it’s not still okay to use it. It wasn’t even funny the first time it was ever said, which historians pinpoint around March of 1948. Just tune faster.

That’s a good lead-in to next week when I’ll cover a list of MC work do’s and don’ts.

You all have been a wonderful audience. I wish I could take you all home with me.