Don Brewer Explains How Grand Funk Railroad Pick Perfect Setlist
(SRO) Don Brewer took the time recently amid Grand Funk Railroad's current Some Kind Of Wonderful Tour to speak with SRO about how the band builds the perfect setlist, as well as discussed some of the highlight tracks from the list. Check out the Q&A below.
Building the perfect setlist
Is there a secret sauce to creating the perfect set list?:We have been working on our show for over 40 years. You learn what works and what doesn't work by trial and error. Spreading out the hits during the show keeps the audience involved beginning to end. Always try to leave them wanting more!
How do you determine a set list that satisfies both the audience and the musician?: Everybody in the band loves the music we play. I guess you could say we're all Grand Funk fans. We don't do a lot of new material because we know the audience wants to hear the classics. We have a spot in the show that we have experimented with new songs over the years and the songs keep changing. Helps keep it interesting for us.
Can you talk about figuring out which song to open with? This has to be a challenge as a band wants to come on strong but some of the audience is still finding their seats and the sound may not be at its best near the beginning of a set.: We have tried several different songs as openers over the years, even doing an unknown original of ours. The two openers we do now, "Rock & Roll Soul" and "Footstompin' Music," are classic GFR hits and always get the audience going even if they don't know Grand Funk.
In coming up with the list, do you think about the various tempos of songs and which keys they're played in?: Don't really worry too much about what key a song is in, but yes, tempos need to blend between songs. Our goal is to have the show flow from high to low and back to high again with a few sparkles in between. Entertainment needs to be entertaining.
Finally, what goes into choosing which song will be the last one and which song will be the encore?:The last song and the encore can be interchangeable. In other words, you can switch them and it won't really make a huge difference. In our case we could close with "We're An American Band" and come back with "Closer To Home," Depends on how you want to leave the audience.
Don on song highlights from their setlist
"Rock & Roll Soul": The phrase "rock and roll soul" is an apt description of the band's music + mission. Why does this song light you up when you perform it?:
"Rock & Roll Soul" was our first single after leaving our crooked manager Terry Knight who had stolen all our money and was taking us to court over the name Grand Funk Railroad. Having a top 40 hit with Rock & Roll Soul was our first step to freedom. The song is truly descriptive of GFR's Rock/R&B blend. The opening line "We're havin' a party, everybody's invited" is a perfect opening statement.
"Footstompin' Music": This song has a ferocious rhythmic groove and it's another one that pumps up the listener/concert-goer. What inspired you to include it here?:
After doing the song live as a three-piece band, in 1971 we tried recording this song in the studio a few times until we captured the final version on our album E Pluribus Funk. The drums, bass and organ track is a blast to play and the vocal lines are awesome: "Come on everybody, we're gonna have a good time." The song works well as an opener or as we do it now as our second song of the show. Gets the audience going every time.
"Shinin' On": This is another song that underlines how Grand Funk Railroad wrote and performed positive anthems that galvanized people. Why does the song continue to resonate for you?:
"Shinin' On" was fashioned after Freddy King's great blues song "Goin' Down." After having Freddy open for us on our "Phoenix Tour," we were so impressed with his music and style that the influence was clear. The song has a great R&B feel and switching up with me on lead vocal adds to the flavor for the show.
"The Loco-Motion": This song's an important one for the band, hitting #1 in 1974 on the pop charts. It's the definition of a feel-good tune, a pop song that you guys really Grand Funk-ized, making it heavy. Can you talk about the joy in performing this one?:
GFR doing "The Loco-Motion" came about as a funny episode. We were in our studio in Michigan with Todd Rundgren producing and working on the album Shinin' On. We felt we needed another "hit" type song for the album and started throwing around ideas. Grand Funk doing "The Loco-Motion" was such a silly idea we thought we would try it. The result was a # 1 hit. I love watching the audience get up on their feet and start dancing as soon as we sing the opening lines. They even do a "Loco-Motion" line dance through the crowd. Fun to watch!
"Walk Like A Man": This song is another instant anthem, highlighting the band's rhythmic rock, with some progressive rock touches. What's it like to perform this one?:
This is a nice follow up to "The Loco-Motion" in that it stays in the same tempo and pop style as "The Locomotion." Switching lead vocals again with me on lead gives it a little more texture in the show. Just a great GFR/Todd Rundgren-produced rock record.
Drum Solo/"Lightning and Thunder": Can you talk about what goes into your classic drum solo? Lots of skill + athleticism...how do you pull this off so successfully?:
I've been working on my solo for over 50 years. It is a true reflection of how I play drums and my "Rock" personality. It really is who I am when onstage with Grand Funk. I must say that at 73 it takes some added work in my lifestyle, and I do try to exercise and eat right. During the pandemic I continued to practice drumming as well as walk four miles and work out in the gym daily. Love It!
"Inside Lookin' Out": You guys put your own spin on this song The Animals originated...doubling down on its urgency with a monster groove courtesy of you and Mel. It's a real working-class song that underlined the band's relationship with its fans. So many years later, can you talk about how it fits into the Grand Funk Railroad set?:
"Inside Lookin' Out" has been a staple in Grand Funk's show since our beginning in 1969. We originally did a cover of the Animals song in our previous band The Pack. When we changed to a three-piece as Grand Funk Railroad, we adapted the song to our new power trio style, slowed it down, and stretched out the guitar solo over the simple bass and drum groove. With Bruce Kulick on guitar, the song becomes a great show piece.
"Some Kind Of Wonderful": This is another fine example of how the band merged rock with R&B and you took it all the way to #3 on the pop chart. It's a real crowd-pleaser live. Why is it one of the set highlights for you?:
We used to sing this a capella in the limo from the hotel to the venue as a warm-up on our way for a show. Our manager liked it so much that he suggested we record the song and we did for our All The Girls In The World Beware!!! album in 1975. It became a huge hit and is probably the most played song at wedding receptions around the world. I love to watch the faces in the audience light up when Mel starts that chugging bass line. We can usually see four generations of people in the audience singing along to the song. Amazing feeling!
"I'm Your Captain/Closer To Home": How do you feel this song works in the set list? It was a song that resonated with many people including American troops in Vietnam. Musically, it has such an epic feel to it. Can you talk about why the song is key to have in the set?:
"Closer to Home" is a true Rock Anthem. It seems to have a different meaning to everyone and it is definitely spiritual. I have seen men in the audience brought to tears when we play it. We use it as our closing song because it deserves a prestigious place in our show and it is easily recognized and sung along with by every audience.
"We're An American Band": This song you wrote, another #1 pop hit, really defines the freewheeling rock star lifestyle...it still makes everyone want to be a rock star, and your vocals on it capture it all perfectly. And of course, the cowbell is part of its charm. This is the song you close with. What's going through your head when you perform it night after night?:
"We're An American Band" came to me when we were flying from town to town on our "Phoenix Tour" in 1972. We were being sued by our former manager Terry Knight and he was trying to stop us from performing. The line "We're comin' to your town, we'll help you party it down" came to me first and I wrote the song around that line. Taking snippets of things going on during the tour at that time, like staying up all night with Freddy King playing poker, four young chiquitas in Omaha, sweet sweet Connie in Little Rock, and finally the declaration, "We're An American Band," because it sounds great and sings well. I feel lucky and blessed every time we play it live.
See the upcoming dates for the Some Kind Of Wonderful Tour here.