Playing an unplugged gig outdoors presents challenges if you need amplification – but there are ways to meet the challenges and put on a great show.
Around this time last year, the Disc Makers Blog posted “Gigging without electricity – how we made it through the show in the park” about playing with my band Aurical at the annual Make Music New York festival and the strategies we had to adopt in order to make an outdoors — and completely unplugged — gig work.
This year, we were back at MMNY, performing at Richard Tucker Square at Lincoln Center. Again, the performance was outdoors and completely unplugged. Here are a few new tips that we picked up from navigating the experience that might help make your own such performances smooth and successful.
Get creative with power sources
Last year for MMNY, I had on loan a battery powered Yamaha NP-31 keyboard with built in speakers, an easy solution that made amplification and power non-issues (at least as far my keyboard playing went). This year, I no longer had access to that instrument, so a different solution was needed.
For amplification, I used my Yamaha THR10 battery-powered amp, which we had used for bass amplification the previous year. It’s about the size of a lunchbox, runs on AA batteries, and delivers a good punch, so being heard wasn’t something I had to worry about. There was still the matter of powering my Nord Electro 3 keyboard, my go-to gigging instrument, which runs off of regular AC power and doesn’t have a battery pack option.
Not wanting to deal with the cost and hassle of a full-blown generator, we did some research on portable, rechargeable battery packs that could deliver the same current as a wall socket and were surprised to find a number of reasonable options. What we ended up with was an Xcellon 12,000mAh Power Bank, a small device that weighs around one pound, charges totally in three hours, and can power devices up to 65W. In execution, the Xcellon did a perfect job of keeping my Nord powered through the entire set with no drama or interruptions.
If you’re thinking about getting a similar device to power your own keyboard, amp, computer, etc. at your next unplugged gig, check the wattage required to run your instrument or device and make sure that the battery pack you’re using is rated to handle such a load.
Also, remember that higher-draw instruments will drain your battery pack more quickly; since my Nord only draws 15W to run, the battery pack was still three-quarters full even after an hour long set. If you’re running an amp or other device that requires more power, make sure to test it ahead of time to see how many minutes of juice you can count on; the last thing you want is for your equipment to conk out mid-set due to a drained battery.
To that point, if you can afford to, get two identical battery packs and have both fully charged and at the ready, before downbeat. Worst case scenario? You pause for ten seconds mid-set to plug your gear into a fresh battery pack and get right back to making music.
Put the audience where you want them
Richard Tucker Square is a noisy triangular park, with major avenues on two sides and a busy street on the third. Since we didn’t have electricity and a sound system to help us be heard, we had to make sure that our performance wasn’t completely lost in the wind and bustle of the city.
To remedy this, we made a point of setting up some of the metal chairs that were already in the park in a semi-circle, just a few feet away from our performance area. That way, we knew that at least the people sitting in those chairs would hear us loud and clear, regardless of what sirens or honking taxis might drive by.
This strategy turned out to be a success. Before we even started, passers-by were approaching us, asking if there was going to be a performance. Some sat down, in turn causing other people to pay attention, come over, and engage with us.
When you’re setting up for your own unplugged outdoor gig, think strategically and territorially. Where do you want your band to be, and where do you want your audience placed, in order to make the best experience for all involved? Setting up chairs ahead of time, like we did, can help. Placing your own performance spot near major pedestrian thoroughfares or away from noisy streets or businesses can help you define the performance environment. Even asking a few of your more loyal fans to show up early and stand just where you want them to, in order to attract more people to your performance, can also help.
Regardless of the specific strategy, the more you can do to control the placements of performers and audience members, the less the chaos inherent in an outdoor, unplugged situation will control you.
Adapt to the environment
Just as I was getting ready to sing the quiet final verse of our last song, I heard a particularly loud, grinding sixteen-wheeler lumbering down Columbus Avenue towards us. It would soon pass just behind where we were performing. There was already a good amount of street noise, and the truck would make it impossible for us to hear ourselves. The audience would have missed any nuance of the performance as well.
Given all of that, I made a split-second decision. Instead of launching into the quiet verse and letting myself get drowned out, I grooved on the keyboard, repeating the opening chords of the verse and making eye contact with my bandmates so they knew that something different would be happening. We kept the beat, groove, and energy going until the truck passed. As the noise faded, I sang the final verse, in the volume that I wanted to, and took us to the end of the set.
The lesson learned here is simple: Noise and disruptions happen, so do your best to adapt and keep your performance as intact and natural as possible. Whether that means looping a section of a song like we did, waiting to start a tune until some distraction has abated, or tweaking your performance in unexpected ways, pay attention to your surroundings and don’t hesitate to improvise in order to deliver the smoothest performance you can.
Disc Makers’ regular contributor Michael Gallant’s debut trio album Completely received a four-star review from DownBeat magazine and a five-star review from Critical Jazz, which stated: “This, my friends, is the future of jazz. Fresh, invigorating, progressive – there are simply not enough positive adjectives to list here.” Learn more, download through iTunes, jam along with the new JamBandit app, or purchase through CD Baby. Follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant or on Facebook.
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