Play Freebird: Why cover bands are so popular in Milwaukee
These days, you can't toss a fried eggplant strip at a street festival without hitting a cover band. Almost every outdoor party books at least one, with some events hiring many more tribute groups than all-original outfits.
Sure, many of us like to tip back beers and groove to the music from our youth, but is there more to it than that? Why are we so in love with cover bands ... or aren't we?
"Feelings, nothing more than feelings ..."
Since music sparks emotional responses, we fuse to the tunes that are in heavy rotation during emotional times in our lives -- like at the beginning or the end of a serious relationship. Inevitably, there's always a song or album that strikes a chord, becomes a personal anthem, and later, takes us on a wicked trip down memory lane whenever we hear it.
"Hearing a certain song brings back memories of when you were young and carefree, whether you are a senior citizen or a senior in high school, it takes a moment in time and makes it eternal," says Jude Kinnear from the acoustic cover band, Fred and Ethel.
"Here comes a regular, call out your name ... "
It doesn't take a gaggle of marketing professionals to realize many Milwaukeeans find their groove and stick with it. For some, the "comfort zone" is the destination of choice, and they just want to go where everybody, while not knowing their name, does know the same songs.
"(Seeing a cover band) is like walking in to a room full of old friends. You know what to expect," says Mark Uselman of The Sweet Tarts, an eclectic cover group that cites Vanilla Ice, The Chipmunks, Spinal Tap, Pat Boone and Marilyn Manson as influences.
The Boogie Men's Dr. Detroit Goldenstone says going to see an all-original band for the first time is like catching your favorite national act and hearing them play songs from their yet-to-be-released record.
"Perhaps you'll learn to love the songs in time, but right now, they're just a bunch of songs that you've never heard before," he says.
"We're in the money, that sky is sunny ... "
Jeff Benske would love to make a living playing original music, but his cover band, 5 Card Studs, pays the bills. Last year, the Studs played 80 gigs, sometimes as many as 16 shows in a two-month period.
"The Studs started out as a kitschy joke, but it quickly spiraled out of control," says Benske, who owns Top Shelf Guitar Shop in Bay View. "In the beginning, we flipped off the idea of doing weddings, but then we thought, 'Why should we turn down the money?'
"Playing weddings is not something we sought out, it happened through word of mouth, and now we do it because we can."
Members of the 5 Card Studs, until very recently, also maintained an all-original band called Hudson. This allowed the musicians to flex their creative muscles, and complemented their money-making project at the same time.
"We have a band for work (5 Card Studs) and a band for pleasure (Hudson)," says Benske, who believes Hudson will reunite in the future.
Cover bands might earn top-dollar for live gigs in Milwaukee, but the dough doesn't roll effortlessly. "U2Zoo plays a straight two-and-a-half hour show like a real U2 concert in clubs," says band member Brian Lang (aka "Wisco Edge").
Benske says his band will sometimes spend 12 hours at a wedding, setting up their own lights and PA, and then tearing down at the end of the evening.
"It's not your usual two, 45-minute sets," says Benske.
"... fiesta, forever ... "
Supporting the local music scene, discovering new talent or checking out seasoned musicians who continue to rip it up isn't the primary goal of many Brew City concert-and-festival goers. It's more about socializing, drinking and having a good time.
It's possible this mentality comes from Milwaukee's "blue-collar" work ethic. Work hard during the week, but when the proverbial whistle blows on Friday afternoon, it's time to party hardy.
"Milwaukee is a town of hard-working, hard-playing people who don't generally have time to seek out some new and interesting all-original band," says Goldenstone. "At the end of the average person's work week, they're usually ready to take a shower, have a good time and be entertained."
Lang moved his U2 cover band from Philadelphia to Milwaukee a few years ago, partially because he thought Brew City's culture would be a good fit for a serious tribute project.
"(For Milwaukeeans) seeing a cover band is like a little sub-culture party after a long work week," he says.
Milwaukee's blue-collar work ethic may also explain why many concert goers refuse to pay a steep cover charge. In Chicago, bands get $15-$25 per fan, but here, many people grumble about a few bucks at the door.
"People in Milwaukee are indifferent to the music scene. It seems like the $5 cover charge still cuts into the beer money for some reason," says Benske.
"... hang the bloody DJ ..."
For years, many Milwaukee music fans have pined for a radio station similar to Chicago's XRT or Madison's Triple M.
It's possible that the lack of free-form (or semi free-form) radio stations in Milwaukee are part of the reason why locals embrace the same old songs for decades. Most commercial stations spoon-feed from a small pool of artists day after day, rarely enticing listeners with someone new.
But relationships between DJs and local bands have changed, too. It used to be that DJs promoted local bands and exposed listeners to new music, but now, commercial radio DJs don't have nearly as much control over the songs they play and therefore can't introduce new or local music to the masses. Sure, some commercial stations do "local music showcases," but they seldom rotate local artists during the day.
"Cover bands are popular in Milwaukee because many of the people don't know much about the original bands, what they do, or where to find them. Corporate programming has taken over, and there's little chance for a band to get an in on commercial radio," says John Hauser of the Love Monkeys. "I believe the people that support cover bands would actually show the same support for the original bands if they actually knew something about them."Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
Why is everything on here dated 2005.....It is 2007....can you say UPDATE?
Laurie said: Nicole - Brooke SJ looks and plays (and unfortunatley, acts) like a rock star because he was one in a New York based band called Tyketto back in the late 80's/early 90's. Creem is excellent, but it would be nice if Brooke dusted off his songwriting abilities and gave us a few originals to chew on too.
I know this song = said: I love this song.
Love Monkeys suck said: most sterile music I've ever heard in my life. they belong at a frat house. the fact that they can play a packed house at the Ale House while charging a $7 cover speaks to just how lame Milwaukee's taste in music can be.
Jason Bateman said: Cover bands are wildly successful in Milwaukee because Milwaukee isn't musically saavy, at all, for the most part. People here want to hear what's already been deemed ok to like. The only DJ's and bands that are able to make money here are those that are playing the lowest common denominator angle, and who can blame em? People here, don't give 2 sh*ts about being introduced to something new and cool until somewhere else decides it's new & cool....ironically enough, the "hipsters" here are many times the worst offenders. There's not enough indivitualism here, it seems Milwaukeeans either has a inferiority complex to NYC or Chicago, or are just incredibly obnoxious, or both.
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