Cover to Cover
Feeling nostalgic? Just pick a decade. There's a tribute band out there for you
By Jim Hanas
SEPTEMBER 15, 1997: Maligned, mocked, and scoffed at by purists who insist that music can only be a matter of spontaneous creation and artistic originality, cover bands -- in an age of ever-thickening, media-induced nostalgia -- are as popular as ever. And while those who roll their eyes at bands that troll the country playing popular favorites might have a point about the enterprise being devoid of "true" creative merit, those people are forgetting one important thing: Most people don't give a shit about art, but they've still got to dance to something.
What they want to dance to is something they've heard before, something that taps directly into their brain stems and transports them to a time when they were tuning in FM radio, cueing up the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, or watching MTV. If you're not really a music fanatic -- and, let's face it, most people aren't -- the next big thing is just some other stuff you haven't heard before; unfamiliar, maybe a little boring, difficult to dance to. In other words, you don't want art; you want entertainment. That's the truth behind the ubiquitous gripe that only cover bands make money in Memphis.
And they do make money.
"I would venture to say that we're making more money than any band in town, unless you're B.B. King or somebody like that," says Cecelia Wingate of the '60s girl-group tribute band the Bouffants. The nine-piece group plays around 50 gigs a year -- a full three-quarters of which are private engagements -- at roughly $3,000 a pop. Their lavishly theatrical productions trace the '60s from bubblegum beginnings to the psychedelic era, with costume changes and elaborate choreography to boot.
While the group's eight-year history makes them perhaps the longest-running tribute band in town, the material they cover also makes them something of an exception. The '60s are long enough gone that nostalgia bleeds into classicism, and the Bouffants' following -- one that extends from Ole Miss youngsters to revelers at Federal Express corporate parties -- demonstrates the difference. Classics are evergreen favorites, adopted by each new generation. You can only really be nostalgic, however, for things you remember, and presumably, the Ole Miss kids don't remember the '60s too well.
On the other hand, the Bouffants point to a trend in tribute bands: The genre-fication of entire decades. Perhaps because of TV specials all over the cable dial that treat decades as bona fide musical eras, more and more bands pay homage not to particular artists or styles of music but to entire decades.
"We do some '80s material," says Steve Coleman, bassist of Dr. Zarr's Amazing Funk Monster, "but we want to be identified as a '70s band."
Dr. Zarr's has been doing funk and disco covers from the '70s for the last four years, and they just completed a year-and-a-half run as the house band at The Mine inside Denim & Diamonds, all the while decked out in poofy wigs and outrageous glam-wear.
"It's all about entertainment, bottom-line," says Coleman, who is not moved by handwringing about the band's lack of original material. "We run the band like a business. And that's why I hate it when these young guys come up to me and start talking to me about crap like artistic integrity. That's so far down my priority list of reasons why I do this. We're here to make a living, end of story. They'll say, `It's more important to create something' and `I'm a true musician.' I hear this all the time, and I'm like, `No, you truly flip burgers.'"
All six members of the band kicked their day jobs long ago, as they pull in a couple of thousand dollars a night on the so-called "SEC circuit" of southeastern college towns and at a variety of private engagements around the South.
Although the band is still making a living, Coleman says the novelty of '70s covers has already begun to wear off, explaining that demand is low.
The new kid on the block is -- you guessed it -- the '80s. "This time last year, there were no '80s bands," says Coleman. "Now there's a half a dozen of them just in our area."
The first on that nostalgia bandwagon were the 5 That Framed O.J., who do all '80s material but forgo dressing up in new-wave togs. They were followed closely by Wolly World -- a band founded by former Six Million Dollar Band guitarist Justin Short -- and Mr. Belvedere & the Solid Gold Dancers, both of which don get-ups to go with the music; Devo-wear for Wolly World, skinny ties for Mr. Belvedere.
"The girls love the '80s cover bands," says Mike Zellner of the Highland strip hangout The Library, explaining the success of the latest tribute trend. "And when the girls come, the guys follow."
All of which means a full house, which means money, which means the opportunity to make a living playing music, often as a means to support original work.
"Cover bands are more for the short term," says Mr. Belvedere frontman Paul Scott. "You can make a big rise quickly if you're a good cover band, whereas an original band has to work harder at it, and they have to develop a really strong fan base."
Something which, from the looks of it, is easier for a cover band to do, trading on fans' already seeded memories of days gone by. Granted, this is about as fair as life itself.
"It is very easy to be humble," says the Bouffants' Wingate. "Especially in the city of Memphis, because there is such a tremendous talent pool here of people who are doing their own thing and are not, unfortunately, having the success that even we're having."
Still, it's not surprising that -- as cable networks save money by tapping the vaults for the entire history of televised music and radio formats go more and more "classic" -- memory-jarring acts have such a wide appeal, comfortably satisfying fans' thirst for the familiar.
Or as Dr. Zarr's Coleman says, "The public chose what we were going to do. We chose to put the wigs on."
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