At the beginning of this video, Steve Perry introduces Journey’s live performance of “Stone in Love” in Houston in 1981. Watch the first 60 seconds. Doesn’t that feel great? Let’s analyze some of the behaviors we see that we can use as inspiration in our attempts at creating similar emotional effects of our own.
Let’s start by setting aside two variables: Steve Perry’s spectacular voice, and the great song. All other things being equal, the better your singer and the better your song, the better your performance. Ah, but then all other things are never equal, are they? And anyway, this analysis is about the song intro, so the quality of the singing and the song are essentially irrelevant.
First, Neal Schon plays a series of chords on the guitar that evoke the coming song, and if you know the song from the album, you probably can guess what’s coming. The chords he plays dance around the root note of the song, creating the tension of an unresolved chord progression. The slow pitch rise after the tremolo dive creates similar tension. Neal ends on a chord that begs to be resolved into the root note of the forthcoming song.
Steve runs over from the other side of the stage, showing the extra energy of youth. He stands close to Neal, showing that his band is a gang united. He seems happy, earnest, and totally in the moment with the audience and his band mate.
And then the masterwork: Steve tells a 15-second story, and it’s a complete narrative gem. We have a narrator (Steve) giving us a first-person, eye-witness account of a protagonist (Steve), conflict (Neal versus Neal being down in the dumps), plot tension (Neal was down in the dumps, now he’s not, why could that be?), a happy ending (Neal found love), and the final payoff, the reason for the happy ending, Neal is stoned in love, the title of the song!
Like the song to follow, the story is obviously rehearsed, but like a well-rehearsed song, it doesn’t feel stilted or false when delivered so well. Steve seems so excited to tell this story to his audience, I just want to hear it, whether or not it’s true, or rehearsed, or whatever! As an audience member, I’m ready to suspend any and all disbelief for someone who is so excited and earnest.
Steve also deploys some storyteller performance devices. He starts by saying “listen, now listen” and using a pointed finger/come-hither hand motion to let the listener know a story is coming and to pique the listener’s interest. To say “listen, now listen” rather than just “listen” certainly seems to add urgency to the story.
Steve points to Neal when he introduces Neal as the story’s protagonist. He turns his attention from one side of the crowd to the other at a key point of the plot (“what’s your secret?”), which punctuates this important moment in the story. Then he bends forward, outstretches his hand flat and lowers his voice, all of which make us feel like he’s about to make us part of the select group that knows Neal’s secret to happiness. Then Steve lets us in on the secret! (“I found me a lady”).
Then we get the icing on the cake, Steve’s explanation for this happy ending (“I am stoned in love!”) delivered by Steve with a shout within kissing distance of his fellow gang member. Heterosexual men don’t get this close unless they are part of a close-knit group, the kind of gang that will protect you if you’re a woman, and the kind of gang you want to join if you’re a man, because you know adventure and status will definitely be included if you get to join. Austin Powers might say “women want them, and men want to be them.”
Neal then plays the opening chords of the song, throwing his arm up in the air between each chord, increasing his perceived height, and peacocking his youth and confidence with superfluous movements that say important things like “look at me!” and “see all the excess energy I have!” and perhaps most importantly “I am used to being the center of attention, and the attendant pressures are not a problem for me. Haters suck it!”
The broad lesson is that effective live song introductions can be broken down into effective behaviors, and live song introductions can benefit from expert craft in the same way that songs can. The things you say and the narratives and feelings expressed when you speak to an audience between or during songs are key elements in the sacred experience you are trying to create for your audience and your band mates. If this matters to you, you should craft them as seriously as you would the lyrics of your songs or the music itself. You’re breaking the fourth wall of the performance, but it’s still a performance. You may be ad-libbing the specific words, but you almost certainly are not ad-libbing the objectives and structure of that part of the show.
The principles in play in this example are
- chord and pitch changes that create tension, which will be released by the start of the song
- performer earnestness, happiness, and physical activity
- band members who physically express joy in being around each other
- band as a gang
- crafted song introductions with complete narratives including characters, conflict, plot and resolution.
Ape or adapt these principles to your own performance!