Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What’s Wrong With Cover Bands

     You’ll notice I didn’t add a  question mark to that title. If you play in a band with at least 75% of your own material, then this article will not apply to you. But- if you play in any band with more than 25% of your material begged, borrowed, or stolen, then consider that it does. 

     It’s become a trend apparently (although certainly not limited to), amongst Baby Boomers of the Beatle generation, to form “tribute bands” dedicated to playing the songs of some favorite band. In many cases, these groups rely on a lookalike (or two) vocalist (or guitarist) soundalikes (ditto) or equipment copycatism to draw their audience- usually from the fanbase of the original band. (You must have an Alembic bass if you wish to emulate Phil Lesh, for instance!) Not only that, but of necessity, for the most part, these groups must play the music of the original band just as closely as possible to the record.
     There are some few exceptions to that, of course. Some bands like sticking to the original arrangements, but take chances as to chosen material. Others (like the DSO) like to play a set list from some particular concert. They may play it their own way, yet, they’re still not playing their own music. Groups like The Sun Kings, Grapefruit Ed, Highway 61 Revisited, like to play on the lookalike penny-whistle with the soundalike vocals, others (like Jerry’s Kids) rely on the copycat instruments with copycat tone format. None of them, it seems to me, particularly, have anything of their own to say.

     Whatever they are saying, someone’s said it better, before, best. When I hear these people I usually don’t hear more than the original band’s inspiration. I would much rather hear music inspired by the Grateful Dead's style and approach than listen to attempts to recapture their geist. It can't be done.
     I once sat in with a bunch of kids who wanted to form their own “Dead cover” band. These were kids who’d never even seen Garcia perform during his lifetime, and their ineptness of approach to certain songs really showed it, too.  I left scratching my head, as I’m sure they did as well. “Why don’t we play something fun, like Casey Jones, or something?” I asked, thinking I’d get some commonality. Nope. Oh well, being fifteen or more years older has its own virtues…
     But for myself, I could have had I wanted to, taken that road myself. However I know I have my own light to guide me. I do play a large percentage of cover songs, but only sprinkled through a set which is a majority of my own (or arrangements of folk idioms in the public domain). Sure, I grew up listening to a lot of Grateful Dead. I absorbed a lot through osmosis. I know that obviously Jerry Garcia was an influence on my own guitar style, however, he was never the only influence on it, and while I probably can’t help sounding something  like Jerry, I will always be doing my damnedest to sound more like myself. And expressing my voice through my style in my own way. The harder you work at sounding like yourself, the more chances you have of being something unique. Damned if I would ever make “sounding like Jerry” be a priority over sounding like, or being like me.
     Nor would I ever consider playing in a band playing nothing but other people’s songs.  Unless you're Bob Dylan, don't bother me with it.
     It’s a nice place to start, but it sure ain’t the ball of wax, baby. I’d rather be a choice than an echo. My feeling is that, cover bands do get into it just for the money. But as Garcia himself once said, “if you get into music to make money, money is all you’ll make.” There was a man who understood the difference between music as life and making a living at music. If cover bands had anything of their own to say, then, they’d be saying it. The fact they aren’t leads me to feel that they just can’t.
     If you are following someone elses' star, then you probably haven’t even got one of your own. You who are reading this, who disagree with me because that’s where you’re at (you know who you are!) -and your band hasn't yet even written enough for a full set of its own– stop standing on the shoulders of giants, and show some backbone. Otherwise, you’ll always get grief from people like me, who’ll just do as we’ve always done- ignore you.

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