Hippo Manchester
November 3, 2005

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Nite: Relax, they’ve got you covered

Playing other people’s music pays the bills

By Richie Victorino    rvictorino@hippopress.com

Cover bands have a hold on this area.  Mama Kicks is widely regarded as the best band in town and on any given night you can hear “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Jesse’s Girl” at any watering hole.

But what makes a musician decide to devote his time to playing someone else’s songs, rather than originals? Does anyone pick up a guitar at the age of 10 and say, ‘One day I’ll be in the coolest cover band in the area?”

Cover bands exist and flourish. The question is, why?

I first heard of the cover band Barr None at the Sky Bar on Elm Street in September. A week earlier I was at the Harp in Boston, and was surprised at how much I really enjoyed listening to a cover band that played that night. So when Barr None hit the stage a week later, I didn’t judge them, I just listened.

And truth be told, I again enjoyed myself.

Randy Barr, of Barr None, is no stranger to cover bands. He performed in a cover band for years under the tutelage of Curtis Knight. It was there he learned the science of the cover band.

What is the science?

“Keep them dancing, keep them drinking, and keep the bars happy,” Barr said.

Barr is an accomplished guitarist who does write original music. But leading a full-time original band does not pay the bills. With a cover band he can book three shows a week easily and, in the end, “That’s what musicians want to do, is play,” he said. He’s made a full-time gig out of the deal.

Barr gives his band a new song to learn each week. The band members do their homework, learn their parts and by show time they’re all on the same page. Part of the success of a cover band is doing your homework on the type of venue you’re playing at.

For example, he doesn’t expect songs by Pink and Eddie Money would go over too well at Hogs Trough Saloon, which traditionally brings in a heavier crowd. But songs by Rush could work.

The songs Barr gets bored with are the “standards” of the cover band world, like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Mustang Sally.” But the crowds love these songs and Barr None is there to keep the patrons happy.

“We don’t want to play to a room where everyone is just wallflowers,” Barr said. “We want people to be right up with us, and get into it with us.”

Putting on a show

Cover bands don’t just perform popular songs. They’ve got to have energy and charisma or else they’ll flop like a dying fish.

“A lot of it isn’t the material we play but the fact that we have such a good time doing it,” said Gardner Berry of Mama Kicks.

If the band is into the music, it shows, Barr said. For example, Barr None once covered Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” “but it didn’t work. It didn’t fit our scheme,” Barr said. “If we don’t play it with conviction, it’s going to show.”

Paying tribute

When it comes to putting on a show, tribute bands take the cake. Take Red Hot for example. Red Hot doesn’t just perform songs; the band puts on a true Motley Crue show.

“Tribute bands are actually doing the show. They’re being the band,” said Dave Ostrer, a.k.a. Mick Mars.

“For me, personally, [Red Hot] gives me the excuse to actually do a performance,” he said. “Today’s music, show-wise, doesn’t have that kind of show anymore.”

The band studies the mannerisms of Motley Crue. Ostrer becomes Mick Mars, though he admits he moves around on stage more than Mars does.

Red Hot usually starts a second set with “Kick Start My Heart,” because that’s what Motley Crue would do.

Old vs. new

For cover bands and tribute bands, the older music tends to be the most popular music.

Berry admitted that a lot of new music on the radio today doesn’t go off as well on stage. Firstly, the crowd hears those songs way too much already on a daily basis. But secondly, a lot of contemporary music is over-produced, thus making it harder to recreate on stage.

But the older songs, “I Love Rock and Roll,” “Pour Some Sugar on Me,” and “Blister in the Sun,” are gems that never get old on stage.

These are the songs people sing along to.

“People like to hear the songs they’ve heard a million times,” Berry said. “It’s not a putdown. It’s just a fact. “