- The Washington Times - Friday, September 28, 2007

Young musicians just starting out often have a dream gig in mind, be it top billing at the 9:30 Club or headlining Madison Square Garden — but seldom do they utter the words, “Gee, when I grow up, I want to be an opening act.” They should, because the reality is that unless they’re an Internet-made phenomenon like Lily Allen, they’re not going straight from MySpace to main stage. The majority of artists breaking into the business these days still have to do more than a little warm-up duty in order to build the skills, following and credibility they’ll need to (maybe, possibly, someday) land them that fantasy booking.

Anyone can see why newbies wouldn’t aspire to be someone’s warm-up act, though.

First, some concertgoers will knock ‘em down before they’re even standing at the mike — audience members like the Zombie Fights Shark! blogger, who stated in a 2006 post, “No one expects opening acts to be any good … Whatever. It’s part of the concert-going experience I’ve learned to live with.”

Another blog crowns one lucky winner “worst opening act of the year,” and several established artists’ message boards include a thread where fans discuss which opener tainted their cherished act’s performance the most. (Ouch.)

It gets worse; regardless of how opening and headlining acts team up (usually requested by an artist, manager, record label or — less and less — the local promoter), the tour route is seeded with land mines for the guy whose name is lower on the marquee.

Perhaps, unexpectedly, two personalities or lifestyles don’t match. Take, for example, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Alison Sudol, who goes by the name A Fine Frenzy and is currently opening for Brandi Carlile. (They’ll be at the 9:30 Club tonight.)

Miss Sudol isn’t into partying and doesn’t drink — at all. As you might imagine, this could create some epic “Days of Our Lives”-style drama if her agent was clueless enough to hook her up with … oh, most rock stars.

Fortunately, the artist says her rep knows her well enough to refuse opening slots with the Pete Dohertys of the world and accept ones with the Rufus Wainwrights.

More common than clashing characters is clashing musical styles. Anyone who saw Corinne Bailey Rae perform at the Birchmere last August would’ve experienced such a disaster.

Before the upbeat R&B;/pop crooner took the stage, the audience patiently put up with not one but two brooding singer-songwriters (we’ll be nice and protect their names, poor fellas), whose tunes could’ve been lovely … before a Damien Rice show.

“Did you like the openers?” Miss Rae asked.

“No,” one gentleman barked, speaking for the room.

Miss Rae’s eyes widened. It clearly wasn’t the response she’d expected.

There are, of course, more famous mismatches. You may recall Jimi Hendrix as the warm-up act for the Monkees’ 1967 tour; or better yet, Prince’s unfortunate two-day stint opening for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles in 1981.

Audiences are a bit flexible, but did anyone really think a sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll-loving crowd would embrace a man sporting briefs, high-heeled boots, a trench coat and one serious falsetto? A bag of chicken parts hurled onstage says no.

As many of us frequent show-goers know, even a seemingly perfect artistic matchup doesn’t guarantee a wowee one-two punch.

Occasionally, warm-up acts aren’t quite ready forprime time, or their music falls on ears that are deaf to everything except the headliner who convinced them to buy the ticket in the first place.

Retro R&B; singer Ryan Shaw stumbled into both of these pitfalls this summer, when he took over the opening spot on Joss Stone’s tour after socially conscious rapper Common mysteriously dropped off the bill at the last minute.

At Wolf Trap on June 13, Mr. Shaw’s shrill vocals showed he’s still got some kinks to iron out in his act, but the audience members might not have even noticed: The ones that weren’t disappointed enough by the artistic swap to scalp their tickets outside the gates were chatting loudly inside, counting the minutes until Miss Stone’s powerful pipes chimed in.

At one point, Mr. Shaw had to “shush” the crowd, which may have struck some concertgoers as slightly sad or maybe just desperate.

Even big dogs like Pink aren’t immune to crowd favoritism. She opened for Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveShow this winter, and if the Verizon Center stop on Feb. 2 was any indication, her bodacious belt and empowered female lyrics were about as interesting to young women hoping to have “JT’s” baby as already-chewed gum. Too bad, because they missed a fantastic vocal performance.

On the flip side, opening acts can once in a while be a little too engaging, too energetic, and overshadow the headliner — not so good for that old interact relationship we discussed earlier.

Michael Allenby, a manager at Red Light Entertainment (home of the Dave Matthews Band), explains that this isn’t all that unusual. “There’s an excitement when you’re just starting out and people are starting to get what you’re doing,” he says. New bands “just give that extra sometimes; they try harder.”

Creative dissonance, performing poorly or too well — the potential calamities that could befall an opening act paint a pretty grim picture. If working the warm-up circuit didn’t have payoffs, however, no one would do it.

Feisty young country star Miranda Lambert, who has opened for Keith Urban and Toby Keith, says, “You can’t learn the things you can learn on tour [with an experienced artist] unless you actually go and do it.”

From Miss Sudol’s perspective, the biggest benefit to warming up someone else’s crowds is the obvious exposure.

“It would be hard to tell [the audiences] just to come and listen to this music,” she says, knowing that now, she doesn’t have to do this; the tickets to Miss Carlile’s current shows do the inviting for her.

D.C.’s own Rachael Yamagata actually prefers not to headline sometimes. “People may know you or they may not,” she says. “There’s something liberating about that.”

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