Chris McShane & myself (aka McShane and Shaw) have recently introduced some old British music-hall songs into our act. These are great fun and often involve lots of movement and audience participation. We wander about the stage whilst singing, playing with props and doing impromptu dance moves (finely honed with the help of Dad Dancing). These songs were originally performed unamplified in the Music Halls before the age of microphones and therein lies our dilemma.

 

We are sensitive to the notion that modern audiences expect to hear amplified sound. We worry that the people who book us will feel cheated if we arrive with anything less than a car load of PA gear. Arriving at a gig with just performance clothes and a couple of instruments could feel equivalent to walking in naked (eek).

 

What did we do? Read on to find out.

 

I’ve written before about amplification as it relates to sound and how modern people listen. But I am discovering more about how the removal of technological barriers helps performers connect to their audience. Every good music show contains some aspects of theatricality. I like to see an audience going home feeling thrilled and inspired by something that has been created and then delivered with naturalness and heart. It allows them the opportunity to connect on different levels other than just via the sounds they have heard. It’s an alchemy that I love. Being honest, I find that electronic “gear” gets in the way.

 

Have you noticed the physical change that takes place when a person stands at a microphone? We accept this peculiar constriction of movement as being the way music looks when performed. The singer turns into a type of human we might call Homo Microphonus. The chief characteristics of this species are as follows:

 

1) While able to stand on one spot for long periods, even lifting a foot from the ground from time to time, Homo Microphonus is unable to walk. But if the creature stops talking and singing it suddenly discovers it can move away from the spot where it stands. Can it walk and chew gum? Probably not.

 

2) When standing in place the head of Homo Microphonus never moves. The body and arms gesture, gyrate and gesticulate but the head always remains stationary. However, the head may turn from side to side slightly, but only so long as the mouth is kept at a consistent distance from the microphone.

 

An obvious solution for those of us who want to move around while we sing could be to use wireless headset microphones. A development pioneered in the 1970s by Kate Bush who wanted a solution to the problem of performing choreography while singing when on tour. But for those of us without a paid team of assistants the idea of solving the problem with yet more technology leads us down another rabbit hole of things to go wrong. Do the headsets stay in place? Do they look weird? Do they work consistently and without feedback: without cutting out due to interference or battery failure, without the teeny wires getting broken and without the clip-on belt transmitter getting dislodged and dangling down my left trouser leg?

 

Our first show of the New Year was at a village hall booking in Lincolnshire and we wanted to include some Music Hall numbers. I came up with a cunning plan. We agreed to do an amplified show for the first half then, during intermission, we cleared away the microphones and speakers to follow up with a completely acoustic set.

 

It was our first show for a few weeks and my early show nerves kicked in. I found myself on the edge of forgetting lyrics and chords that I’d never forgotten before. I flubbed the middle part of our piece called Galileo. In the middle of another song a string of my tenor guitar got knocked so far out of tune I had to stop, remove the capo, retune and then restart the song from where I left off (Chris valiantly kept his bass playing throughout.)

After the final chord I said, “It’s not often you hear a song with an intermission.”

 

It’s pretty normal to feel nerves at the start of a show but performers usually settle in and relax after a few songs. Ideally you will cross the magic line when you suddenly find yourself “in the zone” and able to do no wrong. But I can’t say that happened at all during our first fifty-minute set.

 

At the end of the first half, we announced our intention to put away the PA while everyone took a break for tea and homemade cakes. One or two people nodded their heads approvingly and said “Oh good” (at least I think that’s what they said. Or was it, “Oh God!”?)

 

After the break we came out in suits and bowler hats (derby hats for Americans) and immediately sensed the energy lift. The performance style of this set could not have been more different than the first half. We moved around the stage any way we wanted and were “in the zone” throughout. There is a joy in having the freedom of movement to express yourself physically. I lost all sense of the nervousness that had distracted me in the first set. I was in command of my little world.

 

And it showed on the faces of the audience who were now witnessing a completely different type of show to the one they saw earlier. At the end of the final encore the applause went on so long we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.

 

Performers aspire to be seen on big stages in big venues but a great small gig is a joy and a very underrated thing. And, as an added bonus at the end of the gig, it did not escape our notice that, having already done most of the chore of packing up, we could now leave earlier than expected. Maybe next time we’ll be brave enough to arrive technologically “naked”. We’ll just walk in, do the show and walk out again. Wouldn’t that be nice!

 

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