No matter how many hours you practice or how many songs you master, being in a cover band is sure to make you the Rodney Dangerfield of any music scene.
San Diego's sizeable indie-rock collective garners most of the respect and "cred." The city's also got blues, electronica, country, rock en español, hip-hop, jazz and reggae that are well revered. San Diego's classical music also commands respect (despite, in reality, being the original "cover band" art form).
Musicians in cover bands, however-playing "Respect" and "The Twist" to dancing throngs-are the ones who sacrifice respect in order to headline festival events, corporate parties and countless bars in the Gaslamp. And no matter who looks down their noses as these groups rattle off all-hits-all-the-time, they often play to packed houses at places like The Cannibal Bar or area casinos.
The ironic fact is that playing someone else's songs can be lucrative work. Cover bands often make more dough than original bands. On the low end, the meager club pay is no different. But at the high end, some corporate events pay up to five figures for an evening of cover songs, and provide backline (drums) and air transport around the country. Perhaps that's why cover bands are often filled with musicians who rose through the ranks of local original groups and still intend to perform their own stuff.
"People don't realize how much hard work goes into a band like this," says Stellita Lindgren of the Corvelles, a new, nine-piece R&B and Motown girl-group. "When you're doing a cover, especially in a group like this, it's much more than just the music. There's choreography, sometimes there's costumes, horn charts, etc. I'm a perfectionist, so it takes a lot of time."
Like most of the others interviewed for this story, Lindgren dabbles in original music; she released a soul album in 2001 called Finally.
"It's very difficult, because you have to continually learn new cover songs, and that takes up a lot of time. But we want to get back to originals... because you start to lose focus and, eventually, no matter how great the songs we perform might be, we get tired of playing other peoples tunes."
Janet Pena of The Rhythmmakers, for example, plays jazz in her time away from covers. "All I do is music," she says. "Some jazz musicians consider what I do-corporate bands-to be a sell out. They don't realize how hard it is to keep this level of expertise. It's a real catch-22."
WHIP 'EM INTO A FRENZY...
Mark DeCerbo, vocalist-guitarist for the area's premier cover band, Rockola, echoes this sentiment. During the '80s, DeCerbo was a member of popular local power-pop band, Four Eyes, and later landed a solo deal with Bizarre Records. With Rockola, he's best known for classic-rock sets and events like last year's live recreation of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band (which drew 1,200 people, an incredible feat for a cover band).
"It is a lot of work, but then again, we get to play music we truly love," says DeCerbo, who's currently working on a new solo album. "Plus, it's a great way for me to keep my chops up in between opportunities for my original songs. For a struggling musician, it's a fantastic opportunity to play songs you like in front of a generally appreciative audience."
Rockola's lead vocalist, Bob Tedde (who also fronts The Steely Damned), points out that even though they play classic rock covers, the band doesn't pander.
"We like to think of ourselves as a real band in a world where corporate bands are really contrived," he says. "We will always suffer for the fact that we've refused to take on the attitude of "whatever it takes' to make it in a corporate world. I don't know how many times I've heard, "If you'd only do disco, or 1920s... you'd get more work.'"
Tedde says he prefers the corporate gigs, noting past shows for the likes of IBM, Phizer and The Superbowl NFL Players' Party.
"Our job is to whip the room into a frenzy," he says. "And at some of the larger gigs the budgets allow us to play with a larger group of musicians. In particular, anytime we can play with a huge horn section-especially doing rock tunes-is great. A lot of bands do the soul stuff like that, but to do stuff like the Stones or Beatles with a horn section is fantastic."
He's equally clear on the shows he doesn't like:
"Any gig where the band and production are an afterthought-where you're made a part of the décor-those are always uphill battles. Some of the larger events can be like that, and it can get a bit scary. The audience doesn't end up thinking the band is in a bad spot. They end up thinking the band isn't good."
BRUSHES WITH GREATNESS...
Cover bands get the choice gigs in a number of ways. Janet Pena says The Rhythmmakers get shows both through word-of-mouth and corporate agencies. One such agency is TBA Entertainment Corporation, a business communications company that also books corporate entertainment events-from million-dollar, major-name acts to the occasional smaller soirée with cover bands.
"A lot of who we book might have to do with budget constraints," says TBA's Andi Brown. "Basically, a client will tell us, "This is our audience, they're this age, they're software engineers' or whatever, and we come up with someone with that vibe for their crowd. They want a party band kind of vibe.
"We tend to use bands that we have a history with, that are professional and not cheesy," she quickly adds. As with the rest of the music industry, the aftermath of 9/11 and the economic downturn has negatively affected the cover band business, Brown notes.
Pena confirms this: "It's feast or famine right now. Since 9/11 a lot of companies have been hit hard financially. They don't have the big budgets they used to. It's starting to pick up a little bit, but it's definitely not what it used to be."
For Larry Grano, lead vocalist with the Soul Persuaders, the downturn may mean fewer opportunities for exposure, such as the time his band performed at the Republican National Convention.
"That was the year Dole was running, so... I didn't agree with the politics," he says. "But we did the gig, and next thing we know we're on CNN."
And though Winona Ryder sightings may suggest that celebs only dig The Strokes or John Mayer, cover bands get their share of stars. Lindgren has performed for Nancy Sinatra; and Pena recalls Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston shaking their groove things at a Rhythmmakers gig.
Members of Boz Scaggs' band and Tower of Power sat in with Grano and the Soul Persuaders. At a gig in New York, The Steely Damned was joined by members of the real Steely Dan for a few sets.
Rockola have had some truly major names jump up on stage and join them for a hit song or two.
"At Humphrey's a year or so back, we were joined by Jack Bruce of Cream for a version of "Sunshine Of Your Love' and Alan Parsons got in on the act and did a couple of Beatles songs with us," DeCerbo explains.
"One particular night I was in the process of pushing this guy off the stage when I realized it was Don Johnson. He ended up sitting in for a couple of songs. But the one that really impressed me was Cheech Marin. He jumped up and wanted to do a song, and we thought it would be a goof, but he did an excellent version of "My Girl.'"
Rockola has also served as the backing band for the likes of The Moody Blues' Denny Laine, Tony Sheridan and Badfinger's Joey Molland.
More so than original bands, cover projects often perform at charity events or fundraisers, often foregoing cash for their services. "[The Soul Persuaders have] done a lot of free gigs," Grano explains. "We've played for the Annual Military Stand Down for Vietnam vets, and we've done shows for cancer patients. Those poor kids are in pain, but if we can bring a smile to their faces, it's worth it. It's heartbreaking and rewarding at the same time."
"[There may have been] some missed opportunities, but that's life," Grano concludes about life in a cover band. "It's being able to play music for a living. My grandfather was a coal miner and my father was a mailman, so I'm pretty lucky. Actually, I'm very lucky."