On occasion, alt-rock legends the Pixies perform their songs in alphabetical order. Once, they opened with an encore and then returned for the full show, playing the songs in reverse-alphabetical order.
“I just feel that your material is your material and you should be able to win people over with your music, period,” singer Frank Black explained. “The sequence is secondary.”
In the competitive business that is touring, however, the Pixies’ freewheeling philosophy is a rare one. Most artists, with their sights set on achieving the perfect show, meticulously craft their set lists, sometimes putting as much time and thought into the order in which they’ll play the songs as the creation of the songs themselves.
What is the ultimate opening song? How do you follow it? Where do you go from there? When is the best time to slow it down? These are the questions that neurotically haunt many a touring artist.
“There is an absolute science to it and I’ve been studying it for four years — and I still don’t know how it works completely,” said John Mayer, who is touring this summer with his John Mayer Trio. “What a set list should do is keep people satisfied the whole time. And there have been times in a set when, to a certain point, I know people aren’t satisfied. And then you take songs out or put faster songs in. It really is all about keeping somebody feeling like they’re in the first three songs of a show the whole time.”
“If you see a band and the set list isn’t right, it can ruin [the show],” Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins said. “It’s like putting together a movie: There has to be some action in the beginning, then it has to let people breathe a little, then some action in the middle — and it definitely has to have action at the end.”
Along with making or breaking a show, set lists can serve as a sort of souvenir, the kind of thing fanboys pass along on the Internet and analyze for months to come. Concerts reviewers also often list the set, and sometimes set-list action can even generate headlines.
When Audioslave first started touring behind Out of Exile, the band earned just as much attention for adding Rage Against the Machine and Soundgarden tunes into their show (something they hadn’t done in the past) than for releasing a new record. And one would have thought Bono had shed his signature sunglasses for all the press U2 has received for including several songs from their first album, 1980’s Boy, in their latest tour.
“It was great to see [fans anticipating], ‘What are they going to do next?’ ” U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. said.
U2, arguably the biggest touring band of the last 20 years, are constantly thinking about their set list, even when they’re in the studio.
“When we get to performing the songs, we’ve already figured out where it’s going to fit in,” Mullen said. “We knew ‘City of Blinding Lights’ would open the set. ‘Love and Peace’ may open, but would be OK two or three songs in. We’re always thinking about that.”
U2 will often spend entire tours tweaking their set list, discovering what works best and where. And since each of the band members has a say, they sometimes debate for weeks over whether a song should be included.
“We were wondering how you could play ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ after the last tour, where we showed the names of those who died in 9-11,” Bono said, giving an example of the amount of thought put behind a single song. “Our show designer said we shouldn’t do ‘Streets.’ And then we started working on this idea of a suite of songs that joined the dots between what was happening in the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s when Martin Luther King was taking to the streets, and what’s happening now in Africa.”
When determining a set list, the first step is usually choosing the show opener, which is widely considered the most important song of the show. At a multi-stage festival, where music fans have other options, it’s even more crucial.
“We like to come onstage with a dramatic, high-energy entrance, because you want to wake people up and go, ‘Yeah! Here we are!’ ” Franz Ferdinand singer Alexander Kapranos said. “We’d probably never start with a slow ballad.”
Most bands follow a similar rule, although not all.
“Jane’s Addiction, back in the day, opened with the first song on Nothing’s Shocking,” Hawkins said of the slow near-instrumental “Up the Beach.” “It depends who the band is. If you go see Radiohead, you want there to be some sort of pomp and circumstance, but if you see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, you expect those guys to stroll on stage and spend the first minute counting out the song.”
Foo Fighters tend to open with the first track from their most recent album, and this summer is no exception. In fact, Grohl, who writes all of Foo’s set lists, had that in mind when he wrote the opening, title track to In Your Honor.
“He’s really good at sh– like that,” Hawkins said of Grohl. “He’s very organized. He did the set lists for Nirvana too.”
While many bands work out their set lists together, it’s not uncommon for one member to take on the responsibility. Drummers (as Grohl was with Nirvana) like to at least have a say, because they know what they can physically handle. “There might be three particular songs that you couldn’t do in a row, for example, otherwise it would kill Paul [Thomson],” Kapranos said of Franz’s drummer.
“The goal is to sustain that sort of energy, but not exhaust ourselves,” Thomson added.