Rock On: Grammys tonight, covers tomorrow? Local bands decide what makes a good cover tune

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Some Nights” I wonder why Nate Ruess ditched his old band The Format for his new band fun. … Other than the fact he makes real money playing music now.

With the 55th annual Grammy Awards set for tonight, it makes one wonder how the chosen ones got selected to take that stroll down the red carpet.

Is it money? Is it connections? Is it the music? Well, in reality, it’s a combination of those things — and so much more — that separates fun. from your once-upon-a-time basement band.

But not all Grammy winners are guaranteed a life of fame and fortune, nor are non-Grammy winners doomed to a life of white T-shirts and Ramen noodles. Also, don’t forget that songs sometimes take on a life of their own causing them to, in some backwards way, get even more popular than the artists themselves (who sings that “Hey Mickey”song again?). Perhaps those songs are the real winners in the music game. And they wouldn’t be able to fully live on without the power of live music.

That’s where cover bands — Fox Valley and beyond — take the driver’s seat and start dictating, to an extent, what songs will live on in the live music scene. Of course these bands aren’t solely responsible for maintaining a song’s popularity, but having 1,000 bands covering “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey keeps that song fresher than a 1,000 bands not covering a Sinead O’Connor tune (she won a Grammy, by the way).

So what goes into creating a cover band’s set list? Fox Valley musicians Amy Doty of Road Trip and Eric Peters of Boogie and the Yo-Yo’z sound off on that very topic.

Pick a quality set list

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Amy Doty of Road Trip

Being in a serious cover band isn’t just a willy-nilly, “that one sounds good” operation. Though all bands have their own formulas for making a great set list, Amy Doty explains her band’s song-picking process.

“We have a monthly ritual,” Doty said. “I sit in the office while (band members) shout out song ideas. I look them up on YouTube and we all listen to a short section of it and then talk about it. … Each song goes through the tests.

“One, how many of us like it is usually the first thing we look for, even though that is not our No. 1 priority. Most of the time when we learn a song we end up liking it even if we did not to begin with.

“Two, if it’s a current song, how many hits on YouTube did it get? If it’s an old song, how popular was it in its day and would people still know it?

“Three, the next test is what will the audience do to it? We want them to dance to it, sing to it or just rock out to it because it’s heavy like Tool. If they can’t do any of those things, it’s out. … A song like ‘The One I Love’ by R.E.M. would not fly in our band. No one knows the words anymore, you can’t dance to it and you can’t rock out because it’s slow and it’s kind of a downer, plus pretty much all of us don’t like it.

“But ‘So What’ from Pink, you can rock out, dance and sing to it and it makes you feel like a rock star.”

Eric Peters, another longstanding musician in the Fox Valley, has his own set of steps for when Boogie and the Yo-Yo’z chooses cover material.

“Music is so incredibly personal and subjective that selecting songs for us to play has become a bit of an art form in and of itself,” Peters said.

“As a group, we have to collectively feel that it would be considered a ‘Boogie song,’ which is by definition something our friends and fans would expect and like us to play. Fortunately for us we chose to be a band that performs a very broad range of genres so we have a pretty large list to pick from. …

“After some discussion, we ask ourselves, ‘Can we cover all of the parts and do the song justice? And if not, is there a way to rearrange the song and make it our own?’…

“We really have to be careful sometimes that our own personal favorites don’t get in the way of the collective. For example, I love the Beatles. Although I would love playing more Beatles, the crowd as a whole would not. This is probably the most difficult part; setting aside your love and passion for your favorite artist or song and (putting) yourself in the position of the audience.”

Now that’s a hit. … but why?

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Eric Peters of Boogie & the Yo-Yo’z

Many songs throughout history have received radio play, hit No. 1 on some kind of chart or been the theme song for a TV show. But it’s obvious that not all songs are created equal. So why is “Don’t Stop Believin’” a hotter cover tune than Paul Davis’ “’65 Love Affair?” The world may never know, but Eric Peters tries to provide some insight on what makes a long-lasting live hit.

“(A hit) song needs to musically appeal to a broad range of people,” Peters said. “Two, the lyrics need to speak to a wide range of people that can find some sort of connection. Three, the artist performing this song must do it with a level of conviction that can be seen and understood by their audience and beyond. Four, the stars must align in the music business world in that there is an adequate amount of promotion so (the song) reaches audiences that will have the biggest impact. Five, magic, fate, karma, luck and divine intervention.

“These are the intangibles that also make music such a mystery and something that cannot be 100 percent predicted. This is also why music executives, record companies, agents, etc., will never be able to completely control music. No one has a specific formula that is guaranteed to work.”

Some new songs

Over time, many tried and true cover band hits have emerged, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for current songs. Though most of their sets consist of past audience-friendly hits, Road Trip and Boogie and the Yo-Yo’z try out a newbie every now and then. Recent adds include “So What” by Pink for Road Trip and “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson for Boogie. Both Road Trip and Boogie also cover the “Some Nights”from the Grammy-nominated album of the same name by fun.

“It’s like you are singing the National Anthem or something,” Doty said of “Some Nights.” “The audience goes nuts and sings so loud. It’s insane. … The harmonies are a pain in the butt. It took us two months to learn. Of course all of the Pink songs we do are also huge hits and Adele’s “Rollin’ in the Deep” is a huge sing-along song. We are actually learning Bruno Mars’ ‘Locked Out of Heaven’ right now and I have the feeling it’s going to be a giant hit. It’s danceable, singable and has such a positive vibe to it. But we have been known to be wrong many times.”

Peters is also keeping his eye out for new cover-worthy tunes, some of which haven’t been released yet.

“I think that the group fun. has a few more hits up their sleeve,” Peters noted. “And don’t discount some of the established artists. Folks like Rob Thomas from Matchbox Twenty, Zac Brown Band, Mumford and Sons. Heck, Metallica could come out tomorrow with another genre crossing hit.”

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