The cover song can be a loaded weapon for a live band.
Used correctly, it can incite a crowd, perk up their ears and get them moving. Used poorly, a bad cover song can raise questions of your chops, your taste and your overall role as a musician. Are you a weekend warrior? Do you have an artistic bone in your body?
Let’s talk about some good and bad with local bands’ use of the cover song bomb.
In the past month or so, I’ve been a part of some interesting cover music experiences. to the Ramones timed around lead singer Joey Ramone’s birthday. Seventy five percent of the original Ramones died from forms of cancer so proceeds go to Purdue Oncological Science Center programming. The night is full of Ramones covers as well as originals. This year, I opened it up to Motorhead and David Bowie cover tunes, as Lemmy Kilmister and Bowie recently passed from the disease. All six bands at the Bash nailed it and the night was capped off by local garage rockers Popular Ego taking on Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” album in its entirety. I batted leadoff in my band, The Fantasies, and we covered a handful of Ramones classics and one Motorhead tune.
A week later, Popular Ego played the record again with a local Bowie cover band, The Band That Fell to Earth, at The Spot Tavern. It was a night of tremendous music from two bands that worked hard to do The Thin White Duke justice.
The flipside of the cover song coin can be seen more regularly around here. Bad covers played by lazy musicians are everywhere. Recalling a recent visit to a downtown bar, I heard the most obvious Tom Petty track for Indiana bars – “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” – and I immediately wrote this band off. If it was a deeper cut – “Don’t Come Around Here No More” or even “I Won’t Back Down” – I would have been much more lenient.
My staunch stance on covers first came to me a few years ago when I visited my old college town, Springfield, Mo., a city of about 160,000. Bigger than Greater Lafayette but not by too much, I checked out a show every night during my six-day stay and I knew I wasn’t going to get Wilco or Slayer or Kendrick LaMar every night. Usually it was pick-up bands doing their favorite songs. But their choice in material was superb. I recall Bo Diddley. I recall Chuck Berry – and not the obvious “Johnny B. Goode.” It was “Memphis.” It was “Jaguar and Thunderbird.”
I came back to Lafayette and I saw a ‘90s rock cover band at a downtown bar where I guessed seven of their songs in a row after they – for some reason – announced what band they were about to cover. Weezer’s “Undone — Sweater Song.” “Glycerine,” from Bush. And Pearl Jam’s Alive. Duh. Snore. You’re boring. The one that broke my streak was when they announced Alice in Chains and they did “Rooster” instead of “Man in the Box.”
The most recent, positive cover experience I had occurred last month at the Lafayette Theater. The Moonshine Mason and the Rot Gut Gang reunion was a marvelous event. It doubled as a tribute to the band’s fallen hero – the legendary Merle Haggard, who passed away on April 6 — and as a benefit for a friend of the band’s healthcare costs.
Moonshine Mason did some of The Hag’s most popular tunes – “Mama Tried” and “Okie from Muskogee” – as well as deep cuts. They hit up some other country legends as well, including the great George Jones, another recently departed Hall of Famer.
Opening this show was The Old Golds, a new Bakersfield-style country band featuring former members of Woodstove Flapjacks and many other local bands of recent years. It was the band’s first show and the tremendous set was bolstered by a tasty take on Gram Parsons’ classic “Streets of Baltimore” — a great tune that is known to those with good taste and beats the heck out of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.”