The Wonders of Dialogue
Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Richard Thompson perform. He played a solo acoustic show — just him and a well-worn guitar. No fancy nothings to fall back on but his amazing artistry and the beauty of his songs.
And his talent for communicating with his audience.
He’s got a fan base that goes back almost 40 years now, and there were a lot of people there who looked like they’d been listening to him for that long. A woman behind me sang along to every old song he did. People up front cheered when he mentioned a town several hours away, indicating that was where they’d driven from to be at this show.
So many performers do the shows they planned at the outset to do. They’ve got their set list, same set list as the night before. Thompson, in contrast, came out with set list, but every single time the audience yelled for a song he stopped, thought about it, and then either played it or explained why it wouldn’t work and then, usually, played it anyway. When he said he was going to do a Fairport Convention song he asked the audience which one they wanted then held a poll amongst the top 4 choices. When they called out for obscure songs, he laughed at their choices, said they were fringe, and then played them.
It struck me watching this that his flexibility offers a powerful lesson for everyone who has fans. He is not about control. He does what he does. He’s brilliant at it. And he’s totally comfortable with letting his shows be a dialogue with the audience. This means that sometimes he’s going to end up doing weird stuff that doesn’t quite work out (like when he yelled for a third of the audience to sing the saxophone part but they only giggled), that he’s going to occasionally forget the words or which riff comes next. It means he has to think on his feet.
But it also means that his audience leaves feeling like he was there for THEM.
Though this has nothing to do with the internet, it speaks to me of the power of the internet to allow that kind of individualized engagement with your audience even when they aren’t in the same room, but also of how so many artists try to make their online presence a monologue in which they set the terms of engagement.
On his website he has both a “Tourspeak” section in which he posts fan comments on his performances and a “Viewpoint” section in which he offers his own takes. The link to the former is before the link to the latter. That kind of says it all. Dialogue beats monologue every time.