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A Spirited Defense of the Cover Band

During last year’s Mile of Music, one of my favorite performers during the whole festival -- and

one returning this year, so check your local listings -- was Ryan Hommel. During his set at

Cleo’s, one heroically drunk female showgoer grabbed a pen and napkin, scribbled “Johnny

Cash Ring of Fire” in blue ink, and presented it to the musician mid-strum.


Hommel peered at the napkin and chuckled, “Good song,” causing her to whelp with delight.

“I’m not going to play it, of course,” he continued, “but it’s certainly an okay song.” He then

continued with his set of original songs, and off she shuffled, presumably in search of the

nearest jukebox or karaoke contest.


Hommel’s point was succinct, and certainly kinder than it could have been: there’s a place for

cover songs, even for one that literally every dad of average coolness can play to the humiliated

shudders of his kids. But Mile of Music, by its definition and overall mantra, obviously isn’t it.



So whither the cover band? In an industry and music scene that fetishizes originality, the cover

band, if not necessarily mocked, is generally received with bemused acceptance. It’s the

equivalent of a flame decal on a classic car, or a tenderloin ordered well done. Put simply,

mastering an instrument only to then play the songs of someone else seems like a reckless

waste of a skill. At least, that is, until you realize that it really isn’t a waste in the slightest.


As noted philosopher Alice Cooper once stated, “Every good band in the world was a cover

band first.” There’s not a musician alive (or dead) who didn’t start out covering something, even

if this happens subconsciously. Nirvana famously covered The Pixies and Led Zeppelin in its

early stages, and the Beatles worshipped at the altar of Buddy Holly. At some point, both bands

realized that their own songs could stand up just fine, and now they are each covered more than

just about any band on earth.


Of course, the cover band discussion isn’t really about those who pad out a three-hour bar gig

by playing “Ring of Fire” for the tubetop in the front row. It’s about the rare collection of

musicians who self-define as a cover band, and who are exclusively known for their faithful,

note-perfect renditions of songs that others have made famous.


Longtime Fox Valley staple Boogie & the YoYoz is one such rare collection, and I spoke with

drummer Kevin Baker about what a cover band like his sees in the mirror.


“More than anything, we want our band to be fun. I think that’s kind of the mission of all cover

bands, really.” And what if that means playing songs you don’t necessarily like? “Well, this

happens all the time, at every show and to every cover band. But if people like what we’re

playing, we’ll always do it. It isn’t really about us, I guess.”


And that there would be the rub, ladies and gents. If there’s a fundamental difference between a

cover band and an original one, it’s that the cover band provides the soundtrack to the party,


while a band playing all originals is physically the totality of the party. You’ll see signs at Mile of

Music venues imploring visitors to be quiet during songs, out of respect to the artist; seeing a

similar sign at a cover band’s show would oppose their entire reason for existing in the first

place.


A cynic would say that the cover band has removed self-expression from the musical equation,

and that this cheapens the product. A fair point, perhaps. But if playing something familiar that

everyone enjoys raises your cynical ire, well, the band doing the playing might be only half the

problem.


August 2016

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