3) THE SHOW: Have the right songs at the right time, avoid indulging in personal favorites that drive people off the dance floor, don’t take too long between songs, and know when NOT to take a set break
THIS is going to be the topic I think most people will have some of the biggest objections to. Or maybe it’ll just be that bit about avoiding indulging in the wrong songs just because they’re your personal favorites. I’ve seen many bands; many of them many times. I’ve seen what works, and I’ve seen what doesn’t work. And not every band is going to have the same demographic (OBVIOUSLY) so you can’t simply copy someone else’s set list because they draw bigger crowds. And even the venues and events you play will require some fine tuning of your set list to suit. I think we all have had some kind of interaction with a DJ, requesting a song only to be told that it’s being saved for later, during the night’s peak. Bands and DJs are different in fundamental ways and bring different experiences to the table. But DJs know what they’re about when it comes to mixing in the right songs and affecting the ebb and the flow of the night. And as a band, you need to know when to unleash the danceable/popular songs to tap into that.
But first, let me get into one aspect that I’m not sure bands understand or realize: whatever you do…DO NOT TAKE A SET BREAK BETWEEN ELEVEN AND MIDNIGHT. Don’t do it. Play through. Time your set breaks on either side of that hour. That’s the magic hour of a weekend night, when the energy is at its peak and everyone is having a good time. Keep them there. Keep them dancing. All the big hits on your set list that get people out of their seats, bring ‘em on. No obscure songs. No ballads. Nothing but hit after hit. For that entire hour. No long delays in between songs. In my opinion, the ideal approach for a band would be to start at 9:30 or ten, play till about 10:30 and take a fifteen minute break (yes, that’ll be a short first set), and then go full throttle into the Magic Hour. And just because I said midnight doesn’t necessarily mean you should stop then; if people are dancing and partying and having a good time, play a few more songs. Take your next break at around 12:15, then come back on at 12:30 for the home stretch. If you take nothing else I’ve said to heart, heed that. The biggest cover bands in town understand this fundamental fact and prosper from it.
Because here’s what happens when you take a set break between eleven and midnight: People start thinking about going some place else, and then they realize that it’s still early enough for them to make it to that some place else. You take an early set break during the ten o’clock hour because people are still gearing up for the night’s festivities, then you take that second set break after midnight when the energy begins to wind down. I’ve actually seen a band plow through the entire night and not take a set break at all because they could sense they’d lose everyone if they stopped. And another time I saw the bar empty out when that same band took a set break at 11:20. Eleven to midnight is the make or break point of a good night for a bar. You need to keep them engaged and dancing. There’s just something about a bar where nobody is dancing that makes it feel lame, and people don’t want to be hanging out where it’s lame. They want to be where the action is, and having people shaking their ass on the dance floor is what makes a club the place to be. So make sure that you are on that stage rocking out songs that people want to dance to during Magic Hour. Everyone deciding to take their bathroom/smoke break because you just had to indulge your Led Zeppelin fix is a no-go.
And this is where things get Real. One of the cool things about the cover band scene is the variety. You generally know what you’re going to get with a given band. That’s both good and bad, depending on your tastes. But with every single one of those bands, the song selection (and the song order) is vital. Among every genre there are the surefire hits that get people off their asses. And then there are the surefire duds that have people checking their text messages and wandering off. This is not a criticism of the songs in question. A song can be legendary and be one of the most important musical pieces ever composed (see my Zeppelin reference above). But that doesn’t mean people want to dance to it. I’m not even saying you can’t play your indulgences at all; just don’t play them during Magic Hour. Play it early in the first set, or towards the end of the night during the third set when things are winding down (UNLESS you still have a crowd partying it up as it closes in on 1:30am; remember, as a cover band it’s your job to keep them engaged, partying, and buying drinks for as long as possible).
Listen, I know that as musicians you all have your personal heroes whose songs you love jamming out to. I get it. I respect it. But you know that twenty minute Rush medley you trailed off into? Yeah, you enjoyed that, huh? You get it out of your system? Yeah? Cool. Your three musician friends who stopped in to check you guys out also got off on it, too, huh? Yeah. That’s just wonderful. Now take a look around: those three are the only people left in the bar now.
(I know I’m picking on Rush and the cover band who likes to indulge in playing their songs, but they know I say this out of the utmost love and respect [big smile].)
And a final note: keep the pace of the show going. Try to limit the dead space between songs to a few seconds (I alluded to this earlier). Enough to catch your breath and have a quick drink. I’ve seen bands just kinda take their sweet ass time between one song and the next, and it just KILLS the momentum. Sometimes the singer likes to ramble on interminably. And with each precious second the dance floor becomes more and more empty. I hope you have a kick ass song lined up that people will want to come back out and dance to. Because a decent song they would have stayed out for if you shifted right into it immediately probably won’t bring them back out if they’ve already settled back into their seats.
And one last final, final note: I’m on the fence about the clothes and the look a band has. It’s important depending on your genre, especially if your period specific (i.e., 80s, or hip hop, or country). As far as your garden variety cover band…dressing up won’t hurt. And in my opinion adds its own energy. But I’d focus more on the other aspects I’ve been talking about, although you don’t want to look like you just finished cleaning the house or something.