Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Playing Cover Music - A Defense

My band plays covers. Every band should learn covers, and there are a lot of reasons why. 

First of all, there are less and less bars that are hiring live bands, at least around these parts.  More and more places I call where we used to get gigs are now hiring DJs and karaoke for their entertainment.  And why not?  So many bands, particularly the ones with the most talented musicians, are writing their own stuff and playing "original" gigs.  The bands left over, the average players, don't do justice to the cover music.  They are loud, or just don't play music that well.  Or they are too slick and therefore too expensive - like a wedding band or a band that plays at the big beach bars.  For bar owners it is simple economics.  People who patronize their bars want to hear what they like.  If they do, they stay and buy drinks.  In the current paradigm (the depression we're living in since 2008), the economics, sadly, are clear - DJs are cheaper than bands and there seems to be no financial benefit for many bar owners to choose a live band over a DJ. 

The enemy of all bands - the DJ

Second, be honest - for the average over-21 bar-goer who listens to his iPod, most original music sucks.  Songwriting is difficult, like trying to write a book.  Not everyone who can sing and perform can write a song.  In the movies, do actors write?  Rarely.  Actors act, writers write.  Why isn't this concept more prevalent in music?  It is in Nashville, but that's about it.  Most bands who play their own stuff have built up the Miles Davis defense.  "It's so good, you just don't understand it.  You're not cool enough."  News flash - it's pop music.  It's a popularity contest.  My contention is that if more really good musicians in original bands played cover gigs, they could learn a ton about how to entertain people, and about how to get a feel for how a crowd reacts to music.  How to pump them up; how to let them down. This work will actually improve composition of original material.  In addition, it would ensure that a larger group of bars would allow bands in their places, which is better for the community at large, and it expands the reach of live music - good for all of us struggling to play music out there! 

Third, these original bands are confined to original-focused bars & clubs where you are lucky to get 20 people there.  Usually there is no built-in crowd.  Most of the 20 people are friends from your dorm room or people you hang out with.  It's really hard to build on gigs like that.  The performers close their eyes, turn inward; they don't learn to interact with their audience like crowds in the larger establishments demand from you. At a big club, if you play well they stay.  If you don't they turn and leave (I know - it's happened to me many times).  And - let's not forget - in an original gig, you are lucky if you get free drinks.  NO MONEY!!!  If you are playing at cover bars with large crowds, the economics are such that you are bound to make at least $400-$500 for a gig.  It is a lot easier to keep a band together when you are making some money once in a while to offset the large cost to band members in time and in equipment purchased.  Getting paid for playing makes you feel like a professional.  That is important. 

The Beatles in Hamburg

Fourth, some of the best bands started out as cover bands.  The Beatles learned their craft by playing covers for years.  People in Hamburg used to yell at them, "Mach schau!  Mach schau!!!"  Make a show!  Entertain me!  Show me your stuff.   Why should I be here listening to you?  They played for 3-5 hours some days. Almost all covers.  Their first big hit was "Twist and Shout" which is an Isley Brothers song.  If you listen to their "Live at the BBC" recordings, the two CDs are full of cover material, which was recorded live in a BBC studio, and you can hear that they became who they were by studying and playing well the best material of their heroes. 

Tom Petty - an underrated songwriter

You learn how to write good songs by playing other good songs.  Why is it that crowds always love "Sweet Home Alabama"?  It's only three chords, over & over.  What secrets lurk behind Tom Petty's "American Girl"?  Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" is two chords.  There is something mysterious about "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye that I'm only beginning to understand.  People always go nuts for those when we play them.  I've learned from these songs.  They are simple, and they have a heart to them.  They touch upon thoughts and feelings that many people share.  They bring people together.  That's what music is all about for me. 

In the past when I wrote songs, I hid within complexity - lots of chord changes, really difficult-to-sing melodies.  There are no classic songs like that.  Almost all great songs have one thing in common - they are simple, direct, to the point, and clear.  There is one single strong idea that ties it all together. 

It is really tough to write a good song with only 2 or 3 chords.  There is nowhere to hide.  Every word is important.  Think about Elvis - most of his songs were in E with simple blues progressions (I, III, IV), particularly the early stuff.  The same chords, over & over.  Each song a different kind of masterpiece, but the tools were the same.  Fats Domino, same thing. 

During this particular song cycle I've been studying Irish pub music.  The kind they sing in the public houses on the Emerald Isle, and over here in Irish pubs. Some of the songs have been sung for 100 years or more.  I have a great CD with sing-along versions of "Wild Rover" and "Paddy Works on the Railway" and "Finnegan's Wake" on there.  These songs have simple structures, only a few chords.  This makes the songs easy to learn fast.  And the players - violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, banjo, acoustic bass - all jam around the simple structure.  The stories behind the words and the joy of singing them - in other words, the human voice - is the focus of the song.  The instruments support the voice, not the other way around.  The words are deep and touch your heart in a warm and friendly way.  Travel to distant lands, long lost lovers, death and life, children & marriage... I think modern music has gotten away from reflecting back to us the simple rhythms of family life.  Too often the loudness of guitars and keys and drums and bass fight against the singer.  I've tried too long to make things complicated.  Now I'm going with simple. 

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