Editor’s Note: After reading this article, take a look at Setlist.FM to test the accuracy of this information. I browsed around a bit and must admit I was surprised to see some of my favorite bands following this formula. Who knew? Not me. – CC
Some of this may go back over thirty years, so some of what’s below might be outdated but still applies as an ingrained reality. Where it applies, this is where it came from. I say this because most of what my guest was speaking of happened by 1987, and rock has splintered into unpredictable areas since then, most notably in hip hop, and I wanted to know how current those ideas were, so I asked someone who would know: my friend has for years toured with one of the biggest country stars in the world. His shows sell out in minutes, he hosts major televised awards shows and performed at the Super Bowl. So my pal should know. As my questions were about the art of performance, I was lucky to have him for a reference. I’ll let him react to Hewlett’s comments at the end. Here we go:
In researching FAT CHANCE, my book about KFAT, I met Hewlett Crist, a Texas musician and record producer. Among KFAT jocks, Hewlett was unique at a station that considered itself professional when a jock showed up on time for his or her gig. Typical of free-form radio, the jocks got there and improvised what they played, the next cut often being inspired by the previous song. Then there was Hewlett Crist, who showed up an hour early for his four-hour shift, and selected every song for four one-hour sets. By air time, he had four piles of records for four hours’ worth of programming. He was unique there for other reasons, but what stayed with me since our talk why he selected his sets in advance, and that was because of a guy in Las Vegas.
He told me that when a casino wanted to hire a band for a lounge, they would send them to this guy, who would review their sets and make recommendations. This guy’s recommendations were thought of as holy writ in those Vegas casinos, and no band would be hired if they ignored his advice. He’d watch their act and then teach them two things: how to look when performing, and what sequence to play their songs in. He was so successful that if you ignored his advice, you didn’t get the gig. Also, he never charged for the consultation, but when you started the gig, you paid him your first $1,500. And you don’t renege on debts in Vegas. I remembered that story, so I called Hewlett to ask him about it.
Hewlett is one of those curious types: bright, intellectually curious, musically gifted, country-oriented and likes his independence. Born in San Antonio and raised in Laredo, he found his way to the Bay Area playing in Doug Sahm’s band. Sahm was a Texas musician at the time of the British Invasion whose record company was more interested in English acts than cowboy bands. Sahm accommodated them by calling his band The Sir Douglas Quintet, and they had a hit with “She’s About A Mover.” Sahm toured behind it, then went back to his roots as soon as he could. Sahm used several musicians, and one of them was Hewlett Crist.
Crist followed Doug Sahm out west, played in and produced a bunch of bands and recordings, and for a while, he had a successful school in the Bay Area for training musicians in recording techniques and music law. Needing to learn more about entertainment law for his school, he took a job as a paralegal in an entertainment law firm. He learned a lot about entertainment law, but he always kept his hands in the production and arranging end, until he abandoned the business in 1982 after producing his third album by Zydeco star and KFAT fave, Queen Ida. That album was Queen Ida in San Francisco, and it won a Grammy. In 1987, Ida had an important gig for the popular PBS music showcase, “Austin City Limits,” and she wanted Hewlett back. She’d booked two shows for just before taping the show, and she called Hewlett to come tune the set up. Ida remembered her discussions with Hewlett about sequencing the set for the album that had won the Grammy. That was why I asked Hewlett what he’d learned from the guy in Vegas.
He said that he’d watched and listened to Ida’s first night and made notes, then rearranged the set, neither adding nor eliminating any songs, and when they played the second night, Ida was blown away by the response. She came off stage and told Hewlett, “My God! What a difference!” Queen Ida’s sets always got a strong response, but that second night…! She’d been performing that set for years, and she swore she’d never had a better reaction. She then used that sequence for the taping, and the reaction was the same. Hewlett had changed the order of the songs and added some tricks, like a “specialty number.” I asked what he meant by a specialty number, and he said it was an audience participation song or some other way of breaking up the rhythm of the show. Turns out, it was simple.
In the set sequence he knew, songs get broken down into fast, medium fast, slow, and specialty numbers, which get inserted in the middle of the set. When I asked for an example, he said he’d added “Zydeco Taco” to the set- a song he’d co-written with Ida for this purpose. In this song, she doesn’t sing, she chants through the recipe and the audiences paid attention. They’d written the song specifically to be a change-of-pace number- one the audience would follow along with the recipe. And they did, happily, cheering lustily.
Hewlett hadn’t worked with the guy in Las Vegas, but he learned the sequence from his first hire for his music business academy, a man who’d worked with Wayne Newton for many years in Las Vegas. Newton had been trained by the guy I keep calling the guy, and his shows were so successful that Newton was known in Vegas as “Mr. Entertainment.” Hewlett’s new hire taught it to him. I asked if the formula was applicable to any musical entertainment form and he said, “Yes, except for maybe grunge, rap and all non-successful artists.”
Gilbert Klein : Do bands know about this sequence, this order?
Hewlett Crist: “No, not at all. The ones that get the training are the ones that sign with the big agencies like William Morris, CAA, ICM, some of who use outside trainers.”
GK: What’s the formula?
HC: “Fast, medium fast, fast, slow song or ballad.” He said, “If you don’t get ‘em with the first four songs, they’re un-gettable… Fast, medium fast, fast, then a specialty song. Then you go back to fast, medium fast and then another ballad… The sequence can vary a little bit, but that’s the basis of it. When you get to the last song of the set, you do an audience participation. They get audience participation because everybody in the audience knows that song, and it builds up almost like a neo-political-type patriotism feeling and you go out with that.”
GK: Is that your last song? Because you’ve just stirred up the audience, so what do you do for the encore?
HC: “If you do that properly, it will guarantee you an encore, because within that, you get people to participate with clapping… standing and clapping and the song’s over and while they’re standing and clapping, the lights go down and the band runs off the stage. People are still standing and clapping. For what? Oh, well, they want another one. Y’see, there’s people who have studied this so minutely and all of your successful acts have been doing this for years, since the old Vegas days.”
“And I don’t want to use the term ‘brainwashed,’ but they’ve (audiences) been taught by the success of the format to react in certain ways to certain functions that are produced by the stage act. And if you don’t use the sequence that they’re familiar with, they don’t really relate to it.”
Then Hewlett talked about the timing of the shows and said that the successful acts all know exactly how long each song is as well as each set, and it never varies. He said that the bands need to stick to the timing as well as the sequence, and they are playing for themselves as much as the audience.
I asked if he’d been to a show recently that used that sequence and he said, “Absolutely. I went to see Air Supply a few days ago, and they’re more of a slower song group, but they used what was for them a fast song, then a medium fast song, and followed the sequence. At the midway point of the show, the band left the stage and the lead singer was hit with a double spotlight and that was all you could see. He talked about being in that local area, then said he only had four minutes left and wanted to read a poem he wrote. He recited the poem and the lights came back up and the band was back in place for the next song.” It was the timing that Hewlett noticed. Sets are planned and rehearsed for consistency, and timing is key. On the stage at 8:00 sharp, and off the stage at 9:15! And he added that they used three specialty songs to fill out their set, because people would only know the hits.”
“For their last song, Air Supply did one of their biggest hits, a song everyone was waiting for, and of course the audience was standing and cheering when the band left the stage and they were still standing and cheering, waiting for the encore when they came back. It had gone as planned and it worked- again.”
GK: Is there a difference in sequencing a set for a lounge act versus a headliner?
HC: “No. Same exact thing. The sequence was created back during the lounge act phenomenon in Vegas, and became so successful that the big talent agencies recognized it when those shows suddenly became massively popular.”
GK: Is there a difference in the sequencing of a show versus an album?
HC: “No. There’s fewer songs on an album… but it’s because people that have been seeing these major acts since they were teenagers, they’ve been (I’m looking for a nicer word than brainwashed…) subjected to the sequences used in albums because the effect is the same, and the audiences… may not understand it, but expect it without knowing it.”
GK: In your experience, do up-and-coming bands pay attention to the sequence of successful acts and use it?
HC: “Very few do.”
GK: I’ve heard stories of massive fights over stage and album sequencing between bands and labels. True?
HC: “That’s true. The bands never really know. The labels know that they’ve got to be trained in the set sequence and in stage performance. The producers and the labels know about it and use it, but the artists never know it, so they’re the ones that argue the most.”
GK: What do they teach about stage performance?
HC: “There was this good old country boy, had good songs and got signed. They sent him to LA because he would stand on stage with his legs apart like he had a big ol’ pecker, and stay there. And the bass player was just standing there with one leg crossed over the other and he looked like a wimp. I trained three groups and in all three, the band members were slouchy and had no idea how to project themselves to an audience. You don’t stand there, you don’t stare at your hands. The first night of training I used a video camera and shot them only from the waist down. When they saw the video, they got it.”
In another case, “A band had a female violin player, and I noticed her hunching over her violin hiding her chest and most of her face. After watching her, I thought she was embarrassed to be flat-chested on the stage, and was hiding her torso, so I got her a blouse with a bare shoulder, and told her to ‘stick that bare shoulder up so people can see it.’ And after a while she started playing that way, and all of a sudden she became a performer.”
“Bands get signed by the way they sound, and the minute they get signed the agencies look at their recordings and realize they may play well enough, but they have to be trained to do well on the concert circuit to make them look as good as they sound. They work on visual development.”
Going back to timing, Hewlett said that when the bands see the difference the sequence makes, they work hard to time their sets to perfection. He reminded me of the Air Supply set, that they’d worked and worked so hard trying to time and perform the perfect set that every time they perform, between them all, they’re trying to play the perfect set without screwing up. And what happens is the audience becomes secondary. It doesn’t make any difference if people are out there or not. To paraphrase: the set must go on. And the big acts do it so well it looks like they’re gushing all over the audience. The audience thinks, ’they love us!’ The group don’t care about them, they have to watch videos of their rehearsals, of their performances, and the timing is so important that they have to time it down to the minute.” He reminded me about the importance of timing. Again, he said, “Timing is key.”
I’m of the belief that Hewlett meant that the bands’ primary thoughts are to the performance rather than the crowd. He said that timing is so important for the lighting director, the sound people, the back line, not to mention whatever special effects might be used. It was obvious to Hewlett that Air Supply carried their own sound and lighting people, so everyone on and off the stage knew their cues and when to hit their marks, and the show went off without a hitch. “Because they’d been doing it for years.”
Also important is that in the major venues, if a band goes over their time, they get their pay docked. In union houses the rules are set and everyone pays overtime for extra time on stage. Lighting and sound crews, everyone gets time and a half. And the pay doesn’t come from the house, not the producer or management or the label- it comes from the band’s paycheck.
GK: Ever been to a show with a major act where they did not use the sequence and were still successful?
My friend who tours with a country star thought:
“Most acts will end with the song that every audience members wants to hear. The encore formula is fairly logical, finish with a big hit or song that they are waiting for, but hold that other HUGE song they just HAVE to hear, stage goes dark, the audience starts creaming their jeans for it, then BOOM! The lights pop back on and that mega huge song starts, the crowd loses it. It’s fun to watch every night. As many shows as I’ve done and seen, it’s almost the same deal every time. The formula can be different for MEGA HUGE acts. Take for instance U2 who I just saw a few nights ago. They played for about an hour and a half, left the stage, audience cheers and claps etc. for about 5 to 10 minutes, lights stay dark, and then here they come. Crowd goes nuts, and they play all kinds of songs for 45 more minutes. So they can differ, yet, they do end with the crowd pleaser where everyone sings along. Pretty cool.”
“Cool info in this article. I’d say Hewlett is spot on, but not necessarily in all genres or all cases. Over time, most bands or acts (including lounge acts) will work out a pattern for themselves that does mimic what Hewlett said. It’s kind of, common sense. There are bands/artists that can diverge from this due to their material and type of audience. But, yes, for the most part, successful sets end up being somewhat along the lines of the formula Hewlett mentioned.”
“Most acts will end with the song that every audience members wants to hear.”
“I’ve never heard of one guy who is the “go to” guy for info on set sequencing, but it makes total sense, especially for Vegas. I’d say Hewlett knows what he’s talking about.”
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.