From Power Trio to Big Band: Size Does Matter

Freshly back from the highly entertaining Buddy Guy concert at the Progress Energy Center, I started pondering how the size of a rock band determines how the band has to perform in order to sound good. I specifically mention rock here since other mainstream genres such as jazz and country seem to have the group dynamics down pretty well—probably by necessity. I’ve been to some great rock/blues concerts lately and some pretty awful ones, and this issue perplexed me a bit. So I thought about it. How does a band get a great sound from either a handful or a stageful of performers?

It isn’t just by accident that a symphony orchestra pulls over a hundred instruments together into an intricate mixture that can move an audience deeply. It is due to the ability of the conductor to make sure each piece fits together perfectly. And the fact is some classical music just won’t work with a gigantimongus orchestra—thus the chamber orchestra, the string quartet, and the solo accompaniments. So if a classical symphony orchestra has a leader who arranges the musical compositions and then conducts the performance, why don’t all bands follow this successful formula?

The obvious answer is that they can’t afford it—aesthetically as much as financially. I can’t imagine seeing a rock band with someone in front of them waving a baton about. But on the other hand, they do have someone acting in that role for every song. Sometimes the member differs from song to song, and sometimes there is one prominent leader on the stage. But I don’t see a baton in anyone’s hand, you say? But you do. In fact you see two in the drummer’s hands. At key points in the song (especially for the ending) you probably notice the drummer making a flourish or rolls on the toms and cymbals. The he lifts his hands in the air in one final dramatic gesture and brings the sticks down in a final percussive explosion. Take a look at the other musicians at the end of a song—see how they look at the drummer’s hands. The drummer has just guided the band through various sections and brought the song to a rousing climax. Welcome to small-band conducting 101.

And it’s not just the drummer who can do this. In a band with a prominent guitarist, watch as he turns and looks at other band members and nods his head. He isn’t just showing contentment. He is indicating things to the other members: things like “four more bars on this solo”, or “your turn to step out”, and so on. And in place of the drummer raising his sticks, you’ll see the neck of his guitar rise up and then come hurling down for the climactic ending. Lead vocalists can do this too. You’ve seen them swinging a handheld microphone around, lifting it up, and then pulling it quickly down (watch Roger Daltry of the Who in a live performance).

So there is a sort of conducting going on onstage with respect to the timing of the performance. But what about for the relative volume levels of the various instruments? You see the symphony conductor point his non-baton-holding hand toward a section of instruments and then raise his hand palm up or lower it palm down. With this gesture, he informs his instrumentalists to play louder or softer. The result is a well-balanced mix of sounds. How does a small band accomplish this? For the most part, they have to rely on the sound engineer operating the front of house (FOH) mixing console for this. Most successful bands think of the person at the mixing board as another member of the band. They treat him or her with great respect prior to the show when setting up and then running through the sound check. A good FOH engineer knows music, knows the band and its repertoire, and is a master of setting and adjusting the levels of the various voices and instruments to create that perfect mix the symphony conductor accomplishes from his onstage position. If you’ve ever noticed how awful the sound can be in a bar or other small venue where the band tries to mix the sound themselves from the stage, maybe with “assistance” from a drunken buddy in the crowd telling them who to turn up or down—well you can chalk that up to that extra unseen band member not being there doing an exemplary job of riding the faders.

Then of course there is the arrangement itself. At the Buddy Guy concert, each musician had a role to play and knew when to step out with a blazing solo, and when to step back and lay down rhythmic textures as a backdrop for someone else. The prominent sound throughout the whole concert was the headliner himself—Buddy. But even with bands that don’t have a specific member who stands out as the undisputed leader, there are protocols and common sense to be followed. Much of the performance (but not all) has been determined prior to the performance in the arrangement of the piece. Buddy’s Damn Right Blues Band got it right! Keyboardist Marty Sammon, Drummer Tim Austin, Bassist Orlando Wright and guitarist Ric Hall didn’t just play well—they played well together—as if they’d been playing together for a decade or more (they probably have been). A band is most often guided by whoever composed the piece (in the absence of a strong band leader) and they make a mutual agreement as to who plays what parts at what volumes and for how long, and then they rehearses this until it sounds right. If they are smart, they will have someone with good set of ears listen to their rehearsal and let them know what sounds good and what doesn’t. What sounds good and what doesn’t differs by band size (among other things).

With a power trio like ZZTop, the big challenge is getting enough sound out of the band. Each musician has to be capable of soloing as well as laying down rhythmic textures—sometimes at the same time. Watch Billy Gibbons playing power chords while simultaneously playing lead on the higher strings, and maybe even a little bass line with his thumb (Jimi Hendrix was the undisputed master of sounding like three guitarists on stage. He was complemented by bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, rather than competing with them!). Another great power trio was Cream. The bassist in a power trio has to be able to play interesting lead lines as well as chords (Noel Redding and Jack Bruce were, and ZZ’s Dusty Hill is, more than capable of changing roles as needed to play off against the guitarist). And the drummer has to be able to both keep time for the band and deliver killer chops himself. Again, The Experience’s Mitch Mitchell, Cream’s Ginger Baker and ZZTop’s Frank Beard have been able to not only lay down a percussion backdrop, but also to stand out with remarkable chops of their own. The signature of a great power trio is having three amazingly talented musicians who know how to play together instinctively.

At the other end of the spectrum is the “big band”. The prototypical big bands were the swing bands of the post-war era, led by the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey… These were tight, highly sophisticated bands capable of filling a dance hall with some pretty amazingly good sounds. These days, you rarely see a rock band with more than six musicians on stage. Occasionally you’ll see two or three backing vocalists or a couple of horns. These are usually just sweeteners. They add to the cost of touring, so you rarely see them with any but the most successful touring bands capable of drawing big crowds.

My recent attendance at a Dave Mathews Band performance drilled home the fact that too many musicians on stage can be a very negative thing for a performance if not handled well vis-a-vis arrangement and conducting. The arrangements and on stage choreography must be perfect or else the result is a sonic stew. Rock violinist Boyd Tinsley was magnificent: for the ten seconds or so that you could actually hear him playing. The rest of the time, his performance was buried within a jumble of over a dozen instruments and vocals. Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross on horns – well I think I heard a little of them and they seemed pretty good. Tim Reynolds played guitar, and I’m still not sure I heard much more from his feed than one solo. The only instrumentalist that stood out was guest saxophonist Branford Marsalis, but that was an obvious decision. Branford would not likely want to be a guest performer if he couldn’t be heard above the din. And then there’s Dave Mathews himself, one of the better storytelling singer/songwriters who was up front banging away on acoustic guitar and belting out his already blurry style of vocals and he gave a totally unimpressive performance. The end result was one of the most disappointing performances I can recollect in recent times. Nothing about it was memorable in a positive way (save for the performance of the opening act: The Lumineers (more about this wonderful low-key folk/rock band in another review).

In fairness to Dave, some of the problem could have been the room acoustics (though I’ve heard some very good concerts at the PNC Arena). It could have been due to a poor mixing job at the front of house. But then Dave should know about these potential issues and stay on top of them by creating crisp clear arrangements that leave no room for errors of this type. The instrumentals were simply too busy, too muddled, too indistinct. I know that the big band sound is what Dave is going for, but in this performance he struck out.

My concluding thoughts: the challenge for small bands is to have highly talented musicians working together to create enough musical textures to keep the performance from sounding thin. The challenge faced by stage-filling bands is somewhat the opposite: keeping all those instruments and “textures” from competing and ultimately forming a jumbled morass of sound. Musicians in smaller bands need to put their egos aside and either let one member be the band leader or else trade-off as appropriate. Leaders of big bands need to take charge on stage, and they need to create arrangements that let each musician shine in their own time, rather than just generating a high-volume slop.

-BC 2/28/2013


About Boris Chang

Writer, filmmaker, photographer, musician, actor, philosopher, art/food advocate and critic, and incorrigible cynic. I don't hold back on my opinions. Neither should you. Visit me at Follow me on Twitter: @boris_chang Email me at Tune me in to any interesting art/music shows, exhibits, concerts, recitals, poetry/literature readings/contests, film shoots, and so on that the mainstream media may have overlooked.

Posted on February 28, 2013, in Music and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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