Two years ago, Johnstown cover band Skyler's Dream Team was in a tight spot.
The band had three gigs booked over three days for Fourth of July week: a fair gig in Utica on Wednesday, a slot on a bill with '80s rocker Pat Benatar at Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona on Thursday, and a set at Sport Island Pub in Northville on Friday. Playing multiple gigs in a week in different cities and towns isn't out of the ordinary for the band, but on this occasion the band had to be in Northville by 6 a.m. for an 8 a.m. start time, as part of the venue's Fourth of July weekend Breakfast Club event.
"That was rough; it was rough," vocalist, guitarist and keyboardist Phil Schuyler said recently, laughing. "But I think your adrenaline takes over. It's just being smart about it. Everybody thinks, if you're in a band you're doing a lot of drugs and you're drunk all the time. Unless you don't sing, I guess, but if you're a singer, you can't do all that stuff and make a sound that's any good; you can't do it."
Phil Schuyler, left, and Bob Buckley of local cover band Skyler’s Dream Team jam together onstage at the first “The Eddie” Scholarship Musical Festival at Pine Lake Park on Aug. 17. The festival is an annual fundraiser in memory of Skyler’s Dream Team co-founder Edward Lakata, who died in an accident in June.
Photo by Bill Trojan/The Leader-Herald
Local cover band Cleen Street performs onstage at the first “The Eddie” Scholarship Musical Festival.
Photo by Bill Trojan/The Leader_Herald
Schuyler co-founded Skyler's Dream Team with guitarist and vocalist Ed ward Lakata, who was killed in a motor vehicle accident in June of 2013, in 1995. Before that, he toured as part of British pop singer Samantha Fox's backing band in 1989 and 1990, and as part of the band that toured behind country pop singer Shania Twain's self-titled 1993 debut.
Over the years, Skyler's Dream Team has performed throughout New England and New York, although in recent years it mostly has stuck to the Johnstown, Gloversville and Saratoga Springs areas. It's not unusual for the band to play four-plus hour gigs with multiple sets, or sometimes even multiple gigs on a single night, Schuyler said.
"You do it for a while, you learn some little tricks, especially if you're a singer," Schuyler said. "The bands I've been in have always tried to pride ourselves in really good singing, and that's kind of the first thing to go when you're doing these gigs. You have to take care of yourself, so you have a lot of water and try to save some gas in the tank."
Writing the set lists
John Readdean, founding guitarist for Mayfield quintet Cleen Street, which formed in 1988, said the band will break up long gigs into three 50-minute or hour-long sets with breaks in between. The band, which performs material ranging from '50s-era funk and R&B to modern country by artists such as Darius Rucker, will base the songs performed during each set on the audience, which often changes throughout the night.
"If there's like 10 or 12 couples that are in their 30s or 40s, they might want us to play a few songs they can get up and enjoy themselves with, as far as slow dancing, versus playing all of the fast songs in the set," Readdean said. "Because they're there to listen, watch and enjoy themselves, you want to make them a part of it."
Some local cover bands have a formula for making set lists that flow from one set to the next. Local trio Third Rael covers classic rock and country material ranging from Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Bad Moon Rising" to Stevie Ray Vaughn's "Pride and Joy," but will try to ease the audience into the higher-energy numbers.
"It's a lot of work, actually, to set up a set list," guitarist and vocalist Aaron Mittler said. "Usually a first set is a little bit slower set; you gotta ease people into a good time and manipulate people into having a good time all night. What's nice is the set list can be altered, too; we have a list of extras that we always throw in."
Mittler, who joined Third Rael a year after it formed in 2008, also plays solo acoustic shows in the area. At these gigs, he will sometimes throw in original songs with covers.
"In my heart I would love to do an original band," Mittler said. "People want to hear what they know. Once in a while I will pull some original music out in between."
Gloversville quintet Saving Atlantis, which features Ed Lakata's son Austin Lakata on vocals, has played cover gigs almost exclusively since 2010. Drummer Michael Porter said the key to playing good cover shows is to have a large backlog of songs. To that end, Saving Atlantis has a master list of almost 300 songs to choose from, including songs by Elvis Presley and Lady Gaga.
"[Cover bands should] just learn as much material as [they] can, and be willing to keep learning," Porter said. "Don't get stuck in a rut."
Gloversville singer and guitarist Padraic "Pat" Decker has been playing music full-time for over a decade, starting out when he was 17 years old. Now 27, he has amassed somewhere between 800 to 1,000 songs that he performs solo, in addition to playing with his band Permagrin. He uses a looping device to play back bass lines, rhythm guitar parts and percussion that he records on the fly, which allows him to play material from jam bands such as The Grateful Dead and Phish.
Unlike many cover bands and artists, Decker will often play a four-hour gig straight through with no breaks.
"I've gone straight through four hours, because if the energy of the people is there I don't want to take a break and then have to get that energy back," Decker said. "I'll play at least an hour-and-a-half to two hours before I get a break."
Skyler's Dream Team used to travel more often to make money, as the paying gigs were usually in the New England area. Schuyler said he's noticed that pay rates for cover bands have remained stagnant.
"The money is exactly the same today as it was 20 years ago," he said. "We made six, $700 a night 20 years ago. If you can make that these days you're doing damn good, and meanwhile [the cost of] your guitars and equipment and gas and everything has gone up, while band pay has not. Even though you've got to do it for the love of it, we were doing it to make money too, and it's crazy that hasn't changed, it really hasn't."
Saving Atlantis formed in 2008 as an original rock band, but moved into playing the longer cover gigs to make more money while staying closer to home. Recently the band branched out into playing weddings.
"As far as financially, I think it's give or take; it depends on the type of event you're doing," Porter said. "A corporate event or a wedding is usually a little more lucrative than just doing a bar-type gig, and original bands that tour have merchandise - T-shirts, CDs and things they can sell. So there's always ways to make money, it's just what you're willing to do."
"A lot of people, when they think of cover bands, they associate it with a negative context because you're not writing your own material," Porter said. "I always say, look back to the early days of rock 'n' roll, the heyday of the golden age of radio. Pretty much every performer back then was a cover artist, because the idea of a performer writing their own material was kind of unheard of. ... Even artists like Elvis Presley usually were recording other people's material."