What Makes A Great Performer?

What makes a great performer? It’s something that every aspiring musician hopes to figure out. It’s the magic formula that grabs your audiences attention. It means the difference between playing to yourself in your bedroom or a having fans sing your words back to you in a stadium.

As a photographer, I’ve observed countless bands big and small, great, not so great, and just plain bad. I’ve captured performers who seemed more comfortable in front of ten thousand people than I am in front of ten. I’ve seen small bands nobody knew going in and everyone was talking about going out. And I’ve seen big famous national acts whose performances nobody remembered the next day. But performers who make it big and stay there are able to connect with an audience. Just playing your songs well is never enough. Whether there are ten people watching or ten thousand, you have to be able to capture their attention. My advise to aspiring performers: work on your stage presence. If you’re timid on stage an audience will chew you up if they don’t just ignore you completely. Learn to dance with that partner. Some of that ability comes from experience and practice, but sometimes you just have to take the big risks. In my experience here are a few examples of artists who could do just that.

1. Green Day

A Green Day performance is like a group of adolescent pranksters crashing their friends house party when the parents are away and destroying the place. With guitars. Through the course of a night, singer Billie Joe Armstrong will ask numerous audience members to join the band on stage. Sometimes to dive off the stage into the crowd.

At other points in the show they may bring people up to sing along or dance. When I photographed the band at Lollapalooza in 2010, Billie liked a fan’s ability to sing their song Longview so much he gave the man his guitar. That’s one way to make a fan for life. They even brought out hoses to spray down the sweaty crowd and set off huge fireworks both on and off stage. It was a spectacle that set the bar for performances at the historic festival.

2. Metallica

Metallica were one of the inventors of thrash metal in the early 80′s. Thrash was a response to the glam rock/hair metal bands that dominated the Los Angeles music scene at the time. Instead of the glitter and hair spray that L.A. bands relied on for theatrics, Metallica went for a more primal reaction from audiences. They played faster and louder than anyone and the headbanging throngs have followed them ever since. Thirty years later they’re still getting fans to throw up the metal salute and whip their hair.

I took photos of a show on the Death Magnetic tour and they definitely still had the same ability to get the crowd pumped with adrenaline. They had a huge stage that sat right in the middle of the arena so even the cheap seats didn’t need binoculars to see them. They also put lights on the audience so the band could see the fans raising their fists and screaming along. You could immediately see the effect this had as the band could play to every part of the arena and no matter where you were, one of the band members was playing right in front of you and seemingly to you.

3. Of Montreal

In complete contrast with the blue-jeans-and-t-shirts blue collar sledgehammer of Metallica, Of Montreal brings the theatricality in buckets. Their shows are like musical theater where the musicians share the stage with the actors. Throughout the show, actors will come out and silently act out skits that correspond to the songs, complete with outrageous outfits and props.

The band is also made up as flamboyantly as a parade through the Castro with feather boas, face paint, and outfits that Elvis would have died (again) for. The band doesn’t seem to ask “Why?” or “Why not?”, but instead “Why not go even further?” Of Montreal are like Rocky Horror Picture Show on tour with mimes. Most times, you don’t know what’s going on, but you can’t take your eyes off of it.

4. Paramore

If anyone was born to be on stage, it’s Paramore singer Hayley Williams. She was only 16 when the band put out their first album, All We Know Is Falling. Her small stature might fool you into thinking she’s still 16. From watching her bounce around the stage with seemingly endless energy and the way she belts out every song with a barely controlled fury, I can’t help but think of a kid in her bedroom singing into a hairbrush in front of a mirror. Except that she doesn’t care if everyone’s watching.

The theme with all of these acts is they are far from timid. Performers have to be fearless. Hayley personifies this fearlessness. In a male dominated industry, Williams isn’t just showing a generation of young girls that being in a rock band isn’t just for boys, she’s setting the bar for all rock singers in the new millennium.