Volume and Cover Tunes

Volume and Cover Tunes

Andrew Olson

Reader Weekly

Is live music dying or have some bands just digressed to the point where they don’t really care if anyone likes their music?

A few bands have told me over the years that they don’t really care about the audience and that they just playing to share their art with others. Anyone can respect this opinion, but being a “reviewer” makes you spend most weekends out and about listening to many live bands perform. What I really love to see is a band that is aware of their audience, but has good enough art to transcend their genre.

My hope by writing articles these past five years is that others will go out and experience the nightlife we have here, eventually making it an even better environment. I’m not paid and I give up a lot of time to get the word out to others. I try not to be pretentious and I think of myself more as a reporter than a critic.

A few years ago I quit writing about local bands for awhile when the scene kind of died down. I also couldn’t think of another way to describe The Alrights, TBT, Cloud Cult, Number One Common, and the remaining handful of great Northern Minnesotabands.

Sometimes it is easy to find something in a band that the majority of readers will identify with, but other times it is more of a stretch. Like national bands though, most locals can at least write one hit song on their CDs. Others simply cannot, and yet they are booked again and again at local establishments.

So why don’t small time bands realize that they are only one step above a garage band?

Some bands will talk to you at length about “genre” and name obscure bands that they discovered and based their sound upon. Kind of like the movie Juno, or lots of music writers who are frankly, music snobs.

The problem is that bands that go on and on about genre usually just stink and use the “genre” argument to justify their awful music. Just because they copied some obscure band that only a few people liked years ago they like to think that they are making the crappy sound work now. If it didn’t sell then, it probably won’t sell now.

The best example of this is when you sit through a really famous band from the past like The Lovin’ Spoonful or Journey. They play some very crappy B-side songs that never worked back then and the crowd feels obligated to cheer or keep dancing. If it didn’t work in 1965 when their genre gave them reasons to “Don’t Stop Believin,” it ain’t gonna work now.

Not that I am saying that everyone should write sugar-coated pop ditties that grandma would even dance to, but at the very least some bands could open their eyes and notice when a crowd is unimpressed. Or maybe notice when they are playing a venue built for bands and other venues that are built for people to talk to each other and eat.

Let me begin with last week when I watched Stel and Lefty play another great set of excellently interpreted original and cover tunes at Thirsty Pagan Brewing. They are unassuming and they even set up their equipment fairly quietly as to not disturb the patrons who are eating, drinking, and talking. When they play they keep their amps low and put out a pitcher for tips. By the end of the show the pitcher usually has quite a bit of cash in there and then they pack up to leave. At their last show I talked with Lefty about their upcoming CD release and how they are recording an album this winter. Our conversation soon moved to politics and he voiced his disappointment with people not seeming to care these days.

What was great about Stel & Lefty that night, and every time I have seen them, is that they earn the crowd’s respect. They never play too loud and this is appreciated by the crowd that always embraces their music. It reminded me of the scene from Jailhouse Rock when Elvis climbs up on the stage to play and gets upset when the crowd talks over his music. After Elvis yells at a man in the audience, his manager scolds him about how it is his responsibility to engage the audience.

Today a lot of bands will just turn their amps up (to 11) so you are a prisoner to their “art,” hoping you will eventually succumb to Stockholm syndrome.

While talking to Lefty after their show another band set up and began to play their slot. Unlike Lefty’s band though, our conversation was cut short by the volume of the visiting headliner. This incidentally thinned the place out within about 30 minutes.

Let me jump ahead to this past weekend while I was talking with a band that is just beginning to book shows. The Food Stamps, as they are calling themselves, were eager for information. Like most other bands they were reluctant to take my advice that they should add a few covers to their set-list. My reasoning was the same as always, if a crowd doesn’t know your music you can always break them in with a cover that they know. Even if they choose covers that compliment their songs (within their “genre”) as opposed to pop ditties, they have a much better chance of a bar calling them back for another gig.

The biggest thing that most bar owners care about when they book a band is to fill the place to sell more liquor. If a band chooses to play a cover tune or two they have a much better chance of being offered a return visit if they don’t bring in the crowd. The other aspect of this is that a band might play Duluth once a year and most audience members will be hearing them for the first time. There are a few clubs and promoters around town that book many bands of a similar genre for big shows, then you have a conditioned audience, but most local venues have abandoned that format.

All of these things came to a head at a bar made for music recently with the out-of-town opening band. The band played until well after midnight and it was really a decent sounding group. The problem was that the crowd slowly thinned and not a single soul ever rose up to dance. Song after song they kept playing with maybe two people clapping afterward. All original songs, all great art, but no connection.

The Beatles, The Stones, and every other band that has ever made it in the business started with covers. Just sayin.’