The ACBN Bar Band Cover Song Draft
It's a lovely day in the village, and you are a mediocre bar band.
After a long, quiet period, life is returning to the streets. Restaurants and bars are throwing their doors open again, sports venues are filling to capacity, and cultural institutions are brushing off the cobwebs and rolling out new programming.
There’s a buzz about town, wherever your town might be.
Perhaps most exciting of all, live music is returning.
Of course, “live music” covers a wide range of things. Sure, there’s massive touring operations like the Rolling Stones and big concert festivals like Lollapalooza, but the cautious-but-steady reopening of society also offers a window for artists of a much smaller scale to hit the stage again. Their venues might be less impressive, their stages more modest, but many of them are extremely talented musicians with something to say and a bright future in the industry.
They are not who I want you to embody today.
No, today I want to put you in the shoes of an extremely mediocre bar band.
This isn’t a criticism, mind you; it’s simply setting the parameters of the challenge. Some bar bands are exceptionally good at what they do, and can play your face off as well as any stadium rocker. That is good for them, and not for you. No, it’s a lovely day in the village, and you are a mediocre bar band. You’re all generally competent musicians, but no one in the band is a standout talent, whether it be in vocals, guitar, whatever. You’re all right around replacement-level. You are not going to land a record deal, and you’ve long ago made peace with that.
Despite this lack of talent—or perhaps in reflection of it—you’ve landed a gig playing on a local bar and grille’s patio on a warm, pleasant fall evening. The bar is not a renowned music venue by any means; people are not coming here to see you. They are coming for pizza, burgers and pitchers of beer on a Friday night, and they did not necessarily even know there was live music until they sat down and saw your drum kit.
(They’re not all thrilled to see it, either, to be honest.)
You have been given the time to play six songs. The bar’s manager has instructed you, vaguely but seriously, to “play stuff, y’know, that people like”. You’d like to be invited back, because this manager—unlike others around town—will actually pay you, and they’re even letting you put a tip jar out.
What six songs do you choose?
It’s not as straightforward a challenge as it might seem, because this isn’t just about picking the six songs you like best, or the six you’d most want to hear played at a bar. I mean, look at this crowd. There’s some families, a clutch of after-work gatherings, some friends grabbing a bite before they go somewhere better later in the evening. There’s a guy in an Ohio State polo shirt trying to hit on a table of seven women, none of whom appear to be the least bit interested. It’s not the most sophisticated crowd, is what I’m saying, and they probably don’t want to hear your deep cuts.
But—in spite of your obvious limitations—you’ve also got a degree of self-respect as artists. You’re not going to take requests, and you’re not going to play that damned Applebee’s song. You’re still going to play stuff you at least like.
[Dennis Hopper in Speed voice] What do you do, hot shot?
I’ll offer up my six-song setlist, but frankly, I’m far more interested to hear yours.
1) Fleetwood Mac, “Go Your Own Way”
You’ve got to build trust early on, is my theory, and Fleetwood Mac builds trust. They’ve got cross-generational appeal thanks to TikTok; everyone from Boomers to Zoomers is at least moderately warm on them.
That said, you do not have the vocal range for “Dreams”, and “Landslide” is too much for a 7pm gig. The sun’s still up, for crying out loud. But you can pull this off, and now you’ve at least got a few heads bobbing along.
2) The Wallflowers “One Headlight”
Listen, it’s been 25 years. Can we finally accept that “Bringing Down The Horse” was one of the best albums of the 1990s? I don’t know about you, but I listened to it a whole hell of a lot more than I did “Nevermind”1, but it doesn’t get the loving anniversary retrospectives that Nirvana does. Frankly, it’s the most listenable album ever made by a member of the Dylan family. I don’t even feel like anything I’m saying here is controversial; it’s just been left unsaid for a quarter-century.
I feel like I would lose my shit as soon as I heard the opening chords if a bar band played this, and I would be singing along by the time the chorus hit.
3) Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “I Won’t Back Down”
The great thing about Tom Petty—and I say this as someone who considers the late rock legend one of his all-time favorite artists—is that his songs are easy to sing along to even if you’re bad at singing, because frankly, so was he. Feature, not a bug.
It’s Friday night, and people are still unwinding from the work week. That drunk guy in the OSU polo is feeling this one.
Let it be known the band considered selecting “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” for this one, but Brett left his harmonica at home. Goddamnit, Brett.
4) Gordon Lightfoot, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”
You have built capital with the crowd at this point. It’s time to spend it.
My wife disagrees vehemently with me on this selection, but I am standing firm. It is a seven minute long song about a shipwreck. Literally what is not to love about this.
“No one knows that song, and even if they do, no one wants to hear it at a bar.”
This is the kind of creative tension that eventually broke up Fleetwood Mac, but it’s also what made them great. The shipwreck song stays in the setlist.
5) Garth Brooks, “Friends In Low Places”
Okay, so it turns out my wife was right, and most of the crowd tuned out during the shipwreck song. That one dorky guy over the in the corner really seemed to enjoy it, but overall, we’re losing the crowd, and we’ve got to get them back before we leave.
This is the “break glass in case of emergency” of bar band cover song, and we’re smashing that glass. Even people who don’t like country music will enjoy this one in spite of themselves. It’s impossible not to. You have two ears and a heart, don’t you?
6) Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Simple Man”
The crowd is back in it. It’s time to exit strong and get invited back. No funny business here; we’ve got a narrow lead and we’re running the damn ball.
Please do not challenge me on this assertion, but I believe that everyone secretly loves Lynyrd Skynyrd. whether ironically, earnestly, or some unsure combination of the two. We’re back to the same song-selection challenges we saw at the beginning of the set with Fleetwood Mac, though. You do not have the guitar chops to pull off “Freebird”, and “Sweet Home Alabama” is overplayed on jukeboxes. You can hit an emotional crescendo to the night on “Simple Man”, though, even if it means you’re going to strain your voice a little bit doing so.
It’s not like you’re getting an encore here; leave it all on the field.
Won’t you do this for me, if you can?
Now, c’mon. This is obvious a discussion-prompt post. Lemme hear your six-song setlist, with whatever justification or lack thereof you’d like to supply for your choices. Your bar’s vibe might be entirely different than mine!
This is also true for Hootie and the Blowfish’s “Cracked Rear View”. I’m sorry. It was good, and it’s still good.