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Local musicians sing the ballad of the opening band

by Jay Gabler

March 01, 2017

Today, P.O.S can sell out a show at First Avenue’s Mainroom. In 2004, though, when he’d just signed to Rhymesayers, he toured as an opener for St. Paul hip-hop group Heiruspecs.

“We were playing a really poorly attended show in Cleveland on the first night of the tour,” remembers Heiruspecs bassist Sean McPherson. “Stef [P.O.S] started his beat on his iPod, and then he got up on the mic and said, ‘There’s like nine people here, and I think we’re going to have a good time. I’m going to leave this beat playing, and if anyone wants to join me for a cigarette outside, let’s hang out and then let’s do this show.’

“Of those nine people,” remembers McPherson, “like eight of them went outside and caught this vibe, and then came back and were in the front row. It was the breaking of a wall; it just created this intimacy.”

P.O.S says he’s relished the opportunity to be an opening act. “I cut my teeth being an opener,” he says. “You’ve got to play your guts out. It’s your job to win that crowd over.”

It’s not always an easy spot, though: playing to an audience who doesn’t know your music, and who might be impatient to hear the headliners they bought tickets for. You have to know your audience — even if they’re not strictly your audience.

“We curate our set to the type of music we’re paired with,” says Claire de Lune of tiny deaths. “When we opened for Sleigh Bells, for example, it wouldn’t have made sense for us to play all our ballads. Keep in mind who you’re playing for, but beyond that, just be yourself. Play your set well, be appreciative.”

What are opening bands up there for, anyway? Why not just get straight to the main event? There are a couple of reasons for adding opening bands to a bill, says McPherson.

“It’s partially informed by economics,” he says. “If a band is going to play 90 minutes, most people are not going to buy even one drink. So having a longer period of time gives people more time to drink, to eat, to buy merchandise from the band.”

Additionally, says P.O.S, headliners prefer to play to a crowd that’s been hanging out for a little while. “If you’re a band and you want to have a warm, loose crowd, you’re going to want to get a band in the same vein to get the crowd warm. Let them have some drinks, let them be there for a while.”

“There’s something karmic about having opening acts,” adds McPherson. “It’s how a lot of people got started. Then when they become headliners, they want to bring out opening acts. Depending on what you’re trying to say with your show, an opening act can also be part of your thesis statement.” For example, notes McPherson, Drake brought Kendrick Lamar on his 2011–2012 tour to show he was committed to hip-hop as a genre.

In many cases, national bands on tour bring their own opening acts — or “support” — along with them. Eli Flasher, a booker with First Avenue, estimates that nine out of 10 bands who play the Mainroom come with their own support. Acts playing smaller venues like the 7th Street Entry are more commonly looking for local openers, while bands playing larger venues are even less likely to need support.

When Flasher and his colleagues are looking for a local band to open a show, he says, they’re looking for bands that will be a good fit musically and will also help promote the show.

“Bands will say, ‘Hey, we’ll play this show as openers,’” Flasher says, “and then I find out they’re playing the week before at Hexagon for free, [and] the week after they’re playing one of the breweries in town for free. On our end, we want bands to focus their energies on these national support-act shows, which may not be as much money as other gigs in town, but have an exposure factor that could be a big break down the line.”

When bands land that opening slot, it’s not only important for them to knock it out of the park onstage — it behooves them to be polite backstage as well. “If there’s no chair for the headliner to sit in,” says McPherson, “and you’re the opener sitting in a chair, get up!”

“If you’re an opener, don’t steal stuff out of the backstage,” says P.O.S. “Be super respectful of the fact that it’s not your show.”

“I’ve seen some opening bands on the Entry stage smoking cigarettes or spitting,” says Flasher. “That’s going to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the staff and the fans.”

Of course, headliners have responsibilities as well. P.O.S says his most frustrating experience as an opener involved a band that were just beginning to blow up.

“I have no problem with them,” he says, “but their tour manager wasn’t quite prepared for how big they had gotten. There were little issues, like all three of the tour openers’ riders [food and drink] would end up on the headliners’ bus. Somebody had to go and be like, ‘Hey, aren’t you guys curious as to why you have all this extra stuff?’”

In the best-case scenario, bands can click not only as musical compatriots but as personal friends. “That Sleigh Bells show was the best-case scenario in every way imaginable,” says Claire de Lune. “Their fans really liked us, and then Derek [Miller] and Alexis [Krauss] just turned out to be really sweet and wonderful people. We’re still friends.”

Years after Heiruspecs opened for Lyrics Born, says McPherson, they’re still in touch. “Whenever he plays in town, he puts me on the list and I go see him, and if I’m in the Bay Area musically, I always [write to] invite him. I always get like three paragraphs back from him, like, ‘Oh, cool, man. Loving what you’re doing.’”

“I’d rather play third of four on an amazing bill than almost anything,” says P.O.S. “It’s slightly less pressure than being a headliner, but you still have this big crowd that you get to try to win over. Winning over a crowd is almost more fun for me, personally, than just going out and starting a song and having my fans sing it back in my face. That’s special and amazing, but there’s no challenge there.”

This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between 89.3 The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the March edition of The Growler.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.