I’ve often wondered how a band chooses an opening act for tour dates. An opening act can be complimentary, complementary, comparable, or even detracting, to the main act. Here are but a few examples I’ve seen, in no particular order.
A few weeks back we saw the band Elbow. If you’re not familiar with the band, they’ve been together twenty three years and have put out five albums. Not mainstream, but solid. The vocalist has a beautiful voice, and moves from edgy blues to ballads with ease. The arrangements are those which you would rarely hear from a band which has not been together for twenty three years, and the lyrics carry such stunning structure as “There’s a hole in my neighborhood down which of late I cannot help but fall.” Opening for Elbow was John Grant. John has a deep baritone, in this performance he was accompanied by a young man on electric guitar while John switched from guitar to keyboard to just vocals. His melodies were striking, and his lyrics were Raw. Capital “R”, with titles I will not repeat in polite company. The two acts were complementary (and complimentary, I never saw a lead act acknowledge and promote the opening act so much before).
Considering complementary, a number of years ago Tommy Shaw opened for RUSH. Tommy’s drummer was incredible, and on any other night of the week would have been the star of the show. Then Neil Pert came on stage and made everyone forget they had ever seen another drummer before. Tommy’s band was complementary, in the sense that they were more than proficient, and still could not be called comparable.
Courtney Love’s opening act was more of the comparable type. “Starred” is a nice, edgy band fronted by Lisa Thorn. Lisa has been called “The muse of St. Vincent,” St Vincent being another female vocalist I saw perform with David Byrne. Those two are nothing alike, but as an opening act for Courtney, Starred worked well. Note to parents: DO NOT take your pre-teen children to a Courtney Love show, if you don’t know why you don’t belong there either.
We saw Junip, Jose Gonzales’ band, and opening was a little girl playing “strummy’ (her words) guitar. She was Sharon Van Etten. Junip had a number of issues that night, over modulation just one of them, and Sharon stole the show for me. The two styles, her pointed lyrics and soft arrangements versus his trance like jam made me (and her) wonder why he had chosen her to open, but I’ll thank him when I see him. I’ve made it a point to see Sharon every time she’s returned to Philadelphia.
Broken Bells was the concert that started this article stirring in my mind. Broken Bells owned the stage, using every element, even the LED arrays in the spotlights, in their performance. The opening act, “Au Revoir Simone” (ARS) was memorable only because they lacked everything Broken Bells possessed. Broken Bells (James Mercer of the Shins and Brian Burton AKA Danger Mouse) are talented on several instruments, playing well textured arrangements. ARS played preprogrammed synthesizers, going so far as to hold a drumstick to strike the drum machine. One girl picked up a prop guitar at one point, dropping it on the floor when she finished dancing with it. ARS’s lighting consisted of a couple of spotlights mounted on the back of the stage aimed at the girl’s backs. The contrast between the two bands was astounding. My initial impression was ARS is a detraction to the show, but without ARS I might not have noticed how detailed Broken Bells’ stage presentation was.
It still makes me wonder. I’m not entirely certain of the purpose of opening acts, not every band uses one. Sometimes they seem mismatched, sometimes it seems as if the design was to showcase an up and coming act, once in a while it appears the two groups just like hanging out together. It certainly complicates cancellations, recently we were to see Missing Persons, with two other bands. Dale Bozzio cancelled, and the venue wanted to reschedule. Getting the three bands to be in the same town on the same date appears to be impossible, but Ticketmaster keeps insisting the show is only postponed.
To those of you who are touring or have in the past, either as a headliner or supporting act, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.