I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gone to a show to see the opening act. Sometimes I’m aware of who an opener is, but that’s not the norm. Usually I’m going in blind, with minimal knowledge about the artist I’m first going to hear when I get to the venue.
Not knowing an artist’s songs means you judge their live show differently. Suddenly, it’s less about big emotional payoffs and thrilling sing-alongs and more about other factors. How good of a live vocalist is the frontperson? How well can the guitarist shred? Are the songs catchy? Can I make out the lyrics? If so, are the lyrics interesting? Perhaps most of all, is this artist entertaining me, or am I actively restraining myself from yelling, “Get off the stage”?
Great live music experiences are often in the eye of the beholder, which makes choosing the right opener that much trickier for those entrusted with the duty. If everyone has a different definition of what makes a successful opening act, or what the role of an opener even is, how can tour managers or booking agents hope to crack the code with any consistency? Armed with that question and (obviously) plenty of opinions of my own, I set out to find the answer.
I spoke to three different sources: a critic who is a diehard live music fan, a professional promoter and an artist with a career of high-profile opening slots under his belt. I was looking for across-the-board patterns or consistencies, anything I could latch onto to break down the must-have qualities of a crowd-pleasing warm-up band.
As it turns out, choosing the perfect opener is harder than it sounds.
First up is Tony Kuzminski, a journeyman concert enthusiast who catches an average of 45 shows a year, mostly around his native Chicagoland area. He also runs a blog called The Screen Door and writes for the Chicago-based alternative music website Antimusic. When I asked Kuzminski whether he prefers discovering new artists or seeing artists he’s already vaguely familiar with in the opening slot, he dodged the “either/or” nature of the question and cut right to the heart of the matter.
“I always want to see someone who engages the audience,” Kuzminski said. “As an opener, they have to be conscious that the majority of the audience isn’t there to see them. If they make it personal by telling stories, jokes and adding some humor, it will help them go a long way.”
Here, Tony hit upon a crucial point. As an opener, your job is not to act like the headliner. Conceivably, a headlining act can get away with coming out, not saying a word and playing through their greatest hits just as they sound on the record. This kind of show is virtually no one’s definition of an all-timer, but when the audience knows the material, they do half the work for you.
As an opener, you can’t rely on anyone in the crowd knowing any of your songs, let alone all of them. The songs can still be your primary weapon to get people excited, but they can’t be the only one. Stories, banter, calls for crowd participation, jokes, antics and running gags are also needed. These are the kinds of tools an opening act can use to earn new fans or even upstage the headliner. That’s not to say you can’t win the crowd over by being really damn good at your craft. It’s just a lot harder to do.
During our conversation, Kuzminski recalled a time in 2005 when a label got him press passes to review a show for one of their artists. The headliner, he says, was “a very good up-and-coming artist,” but the highlight of the show was the opener, a southern rocker named Will Hoge who would go on to have several brushes with fame in the world of country music.
Stories, banter, calls for crowd participation, jokes, antics and running gags are also needed. These are the kinds of tools an opening act can use to earn new fans or even upstage the headliner.
“I’ve seen over a thousand shows in my life, but this opening set was unlike anything I have seen, before or since,” Kuzminski explained, likening his thoughts on the show to Jon Landau’s famous “I saw the future of rock and roll and its name was Bruce Springsteen” piece from 1974. “The audience was a Saturday night bar crowd. They were probably more interested in drinking than hearing music. But at one point, Hoge stepped away from the microphone and the crowd quieted down because they knew they were watching a supreme talent on the stage.”
I know what he means. I’ve seen Hoge a couple times, headlining rather than supporting, and that energy, conviction and emotion is rare. His early live records, like 2005’s During the Before and After, feel like modern equivalents to James Brown’s Live at the Apollo and Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club. Or at least the closest you can find to a modern equivalent. You can almost hear the sweat and heat in the room, so furiously does Hoge whip the crowd into a frenzy. If an opener can get that kind of response from an audience through nothing but their music, more power to them. They probably won’t be opening much longer.
While pure showmanship is the biggest defining factor for audiences, promoters use different criterion in their selection process. That’s why I next spoke to Doug Marvin, the founder of Trucker’s Atlas, a Brooklyn-based company that specializes in tour management, van transportation and musical equipment rental. Marvin told me that, usually, the choice of an opening act comes down to three factors: 1) who the headliner wants, 2) who is going to move the most tickets, and 3) who is going to help the venue sell the most beer.
In most cases, a booking manager is responsible for submitting a few potential openers, but the final option rests with the headliner. This can also give fans a window into what their favorite artists are listening to at any given time. Naturally, going by the headliner’s preferences can lead to some pretty out-there selections, depending on who is taking lead on the tour. For instance, Marvin recalled a recent tour he managed where Parquet Courts (a rock band with a punk edge) advocated fiercely for their opening act to be Mary Lattimore (a solo harp player). Lattimore ended up getting the gig, playing harp for an audience of rock fans. She didn’t even have a vocal mic, but Marvin told me the unexpected nature of her set won over many crowd members.
Often, though, record business politics or promoter expectations come into play. Marvin said that, when booking a full tour, headliners will typically have three or four options to choose from. In most cases, the potential opening acts share something with the headliner, be it a booking agency, management company or record label. Promoters, meanwhile, will often attach regional acts with strong local followings and modest draws to ensure they can pack enough people into their venues to justify the bookings.
In other words, what goes into choosing an opening act is about mathematics: The math of who will sell the most tickets or put the most money in the coffers of the venue/promoter/label/booking agency/management company. Naturally, genres also end up a factor.
In other words, what goes into choosing an opening act is about mathematics.
“[Genre] is generally the first instinct,” Marvin said. “‘Oh, we have a pop band so we need another pop band.’ But I always like it better when it’s a different vibe for each band. If you have a loud headliner, have a quiet opener. Or vice versa. I like having different moods throughout the night. But that can be tricky, because most bands are only really friends with bands in their niche that kind of sound like them. It’s the same with booking agents. Booking agents tend to get pigeonholed with one type of band. And labels and management as well.
“So it can be sometimes hard to look outside of your musical ghetto and say, ‘Let’s bring in somebody different that’s going to bring in a different type of audience.’ But I think audiences tend to be more open-minded than we give them credit for and receptive to different styles of music when it’s put in front of them.”
(“Especially if they’re drinking beer” is how I responded to this particular line of reasoning.)
For artists, it’s not about math or beer or genre or politics. It’s about putting on the best possible show, no matter the circumstance. Such is the case for Chad Perrone, an independent Boston-based singer/songwriter with an impressive resume of opening slots. Perrone has been a fixture in the Boston scene for the better part of two decades, first as the frontman for Averi and later as a solo artist. Across the phases of his career, Perrone has opened for Matchbox Twenty, Goo Goo Dolls, Sting, Guster, Barenaked Ladies, Hanson, Gavin DeGraw and even Backstreet Boys. Most recently, he opened for Pat Benatar at Indian Ranch in Webster, Massachusetts.
“I think the main job [of the opener] is to go out and not suck,” Perrone said. “Which is different than guaranteeing that you’ll be liked by everyone in the room. That’ll never happen. But honestly, most people don’t want to see the opening act. They are eager to see the band they paid money for. So my goal is to try and surprise the shit out of people and have them leave happy they came out early. Or at the very least, leave not regretting they came out early.”
Despite his experience warming up for big names, Perrone has never been one to style himself as a big shot. On the contrary, his favorite openers are the ones who are the easiest to relate to. He argues that when an audience feels connected to the performer onstage, everything else about the performance—from the musicality of it all to the quality of the songs—immediately is stronger.
“Personally, I want to watch real humans play real music,” Perrone explained. “I don’t need the rock star persona or an asshole whose ego is too big for the room. I want the guy or girl next door who is excited to be doing what they love.”
If there’s one important characteristic consistent across the conversations I had, it’s approachability. As an opener, you should aspire to play as well as the headliner, but be careful not to act like the crowd is there for you. In other words, don’t be afraid to blow the roof off, but also don’t be afraid to crack a joke, tell a story or show vulnerability. Check your ego at the stage door and be willing to be a person first and a performer second. Head out to the merch table after the show or during the break to interact. Take advantage of your opportunity to present audiences with something relatable, down-to-earth and above expectation.
If there’s one important characteristic consistent across the conversations I had, it’s approachability. As an opener, you should aspire to play as well as the headliner, but be careful not to act like the crowd is there for you.
Recently I witnessed a band exemplify all of the above. Back in May, I caught Jimmy Eat World at a tour stop in Grand Rapids. Jimmy Eat World themselves were great. They played a fun set that did a solid job of balancing new material, old stuff, hits and fan favorites. But perhaps the most memorable part wasn’t Jimmy Eat World but Beach Slang, the opening act.
As far as openers go, Beach Slang is fairly high-profile. If you’ve read much rock music criticism over the past few years, chances are you’ve heard of them. Their sound is best approximated with a comparison to the Replacements, or maybe Japandroids. They sing loud, hopeful rock music about youth, even if they aren’t so young anymore themselves (frontman James Alex is 42).
Going into the Jimmy Eat World tour, I knew Beach Slang well enough to have listened to their albums a handful of times each, but not well enough to know any of the songs by heart. Drinking down the street from the venue with my brother and a few friends beforehand, I figured Beach Slang would be nice to catch. But it would be fine if we showed up late and missed some of their set.
It turned out Beach Slang was electric and riotously fun. The songs themselves were decent, but almost secondary to the showmanship Alex brought to the table. Highlights included the best running gag I’ve witnessed at a show—the band repeatedly teasing the opening bars of “Smooth” by Santana—and Alex reading off a list of people he’s been told he looks like (which included Ryan Adams, Bilbo Baggins, and “If Angus Young and Harry Potter had a kid”). Beach Slang’s set was half rock show and half comedy. Four months later, it sticks in my mind in a way Jimmy Eat World’s set (completely worth the price of admission by itself) does not.
I’m not sure if Beach Slang counts as the most perfect opener I’ve ever seen. Certainly, I’ve experienced artists who were more musically rewarding, from Matt Nathanson (for Third Eye Blind) and Augustana (for the Wallflowers) to Suzanne Santo (for Butch Walker). But Beach Slang, and James Alex in particular, recognized an opening act isn’t just there to sound good. They’re also there to warm up the crowd, sell booze for the venue, and ratchet up the atmosphere to the point where, by the time the headliner takes over, the night is bursting to explode. Beach Slang laid the dynamite. All Jimmy Eat World had to do was light the match.