Cover Band Lovin’ in the Land of the Dollar Bill
The Midwest is famous for street festivals. Three months of block parties, pig roasts, and town fairs are inextricably linked by traveling bands of rogue Carneys, setting up and tearing down their rickety mush of rusting amusement rides, kewpie dolls, and Iron Maiden bar mirrors. And while one city or other may feature a better loose meat sandwich than the next, each Ribfest or Taste of Downtown is pretty much indistinguishable from the next when the lights go down and the Jell-O shots seem like a better idea. Whodini said it best: The freaks come out at night. And when they do, they drink Bud Light and listen to cover bands.
I stood inside the portajohn, breathing through my mouth as the bassline to Fine Young Cannibals’ “Good Thing” reverberated through the plastic. No, it wasn’t a house party in 1989, though the amount of Members Onlys in the crowd might make you think otherwise. And it wasn’t even David Steele playing the bass. It was the Calcutta Rugs, and they made it through two verses before the drummer fucked up. After a quick, embarrassed “How you doin’?” from the frontman, The Rugs launched right back into FYC as if nothing had happened. And it still sucked. The singer with the Bobby Flay style issues just didn’t have the presence or the range to fire up his band’s waterlogged takes on Gin Blossoms, Foo Fighters, or Roland Gift, et al. But at least one woman in the beer tent was taking their name to heart, whirling and spinning in Sufi-istic splendor to the backbeat of a bland “Black Magic Woman.” That’s the thing about cover bands and street fairs. The target market is looking for cheap drinks, greasy food, and maybe some tail. In the Summertime, in the Midwest, spending a Saturday night watching a local group murder familiar pop songs while eating ribs without a fork and washing them down with lukewarm domestic swag in a plastic cup is high art.
The cover band experience does not end when you go inside. Street fairs are tolerated by proprietors because they know everyone has to cool off eventually. And when they do, The Office’ll have the AC cranked while Skinny Mulligan revs their engines in the back room. Because their constituency has come into The Office by choice, and is not passing by on the way to the petting zoo, Skinny Mulligan knows it can play it’s “harder set.” This will undoubtedly feature AC/DC and Three Doors Down, and as long as their versions are close (and the beer tub girls keep that Busch Light flowin’), Skinny Mulligan will be better than the jukebox. For the cover band only has to offer the illusion of its muse. It’s not necessary to learn every note. Playing a flawless version of SRV’s solo in “Crossfire” only proves that the guitar man has a lot of time on his hands. Everyone in The Office is keeping their eyes and ears on each others’ midriff shirts and sunburns. Unless you are Skinny Mulligan’s manager, or the drummer’s girlfriend, your relationship with Skinny Mulligan extends only as far as your second beer. After that and a few cigarettes, it’s time to head back out to the street fest, talk to an old friend from high school, and maybe buy an elephant ear.
Of course, cover bands exist year-round, in every city all over the world. Years ago I walked into a bar in Paris, looking for a little local flavor. I was greeted by a 5-piece group of Moroccans lurching through a surprisingly soulful version of “Hard to Handle.” But Summertime street fairs are ground zero for the genre. The volume of banality that exists within one street fair is matched only by another lineup of cut-rate musicians in another town, on another stage, milking the same AOR favorites and trying (badly) to harmonize like Mark and Tom from Blink-182. And if they decide to “slow it down a bit,” or trot out some of their originals, it’s time to check out the comedy tent. Because any band that spends its time crapping out old Petty riffs probably has a chip on its shoulder concerning its own music. When a cover band makes the mistake of playing its own number (ranging in influence from Pantera to Dream Theater), it is deaf to the incongruity their decision creates for the crowd. Suddenly, your relationship with The Barflyz has gone from mildly irritating line-waiting music to head scratching and anger. Sure, their attempt at “All the Small Things” was a real laugher; but at least you can hum along. Suddenly, your street fair experience is the aural equivalent of eating bad cole slaw. And when the lead singer ends the torture by announcing The Barflyz’ upcoming opening gig for Slaughter, you can only shake your head in amazement.
At a recent outdoor affair, The No Brand Band launched into a strong set, anchored by Boston, Clapton, and the strong pipes of their burly lead singer. They were older fellows who reminded me of the blues-loving family men in Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” saving it up for a Friday night. While their set featured the same tired old radio hits, The No Brand Band was able to bring something to their set that carried “Wonderful Tonight” beyond the annoying sappiness of the original. It’s a difficult trait to pin down, and one that only the fewest of cover bands possess. But occasionally, out there at a street fair somewhere in the Midwest, a band will hit it, and suddenly that pulled pork sandwich from Rosty’s House of Meat tastes a whole lot better than it probably should.