Backstage In South Florida: The Cover Band Controversy

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions and observations about the local scene. This week: A trip to Marathon inspires a marathon debate.

I've never been shy about venting my distaste for cover bands, but I don't think I've actually shared the reasons as to why. However, this past Sunday, I accompanied my wife Alisa, her friend Cathy, and our two pups, Buddy and Pookie, on a friendly retreat in Key Largo called Gilbert's. There, the resident cover band was holding court as they're prone to do on any given Sunday.

The place was packed, so much so that we had to park our car on the side of the road and await a shuttle that transported us to the premises. It was an enjoyable way to spend the day, once the threat of rain dissipated, the dogs adjusted to the surroundings, and we were able to stake our claim on a couple of chairs and a portion of a table.

So far so good. But then the music started, and I found myself reconciling my revulsion for cover bands and my own desire to enjoy the environs and not piss off Alisa with my disparaging observations about the entertainment.

Therein lies the problem. Fortunately, I was able to waylay my comments until we were leaving, by which time Alisa had consumed the requisite number of cocktails, and I was looking for a way to pass the time whilst stuck in a line of traffic leaving the Keys. I was the designated driver after all, and both dogs were conked out after our sojourn and therefore incapable of providing me with any further entertainment. Consequently, that's when I took my cue.

However, before I get into the discourse that transpired, let me say this. The band at Gilbert's was indeed competent. They replicated every riff, every note, every melody with exacting perfection and the crowd seemed to suck it all up. And they didn't perform that god-awful excuse for a song "Play That Funky Music," which cover bands in these parts seem to echo as if it were the national anthem. That's one notch in their favor. So, there's the disclaimer, cover band admirers. Let the debate (rant) begin!

Me (facing a long line of cars and somewhat cranky): I gotta say, I still don't get it. What's the purpose of a cover band? It's not like they're investing anything different into these songs. Wouldn't a good jukebox or even a competent deejay suffice?

My wife Alisa: Speaking of records, you sound like one that's broken.

Me: Seriously, what's the point? Yeah, they did an adequate job with these songs, but it's the same oldies I heard them playing the last time I saw them three or four years ago, Santana, Billy Joel, Deep Purple, Allman Brothers, nothing that was less than 40 years old except for that one Tom Petty tune.

Innocent bystander and friend Cathy: One would think you could relate...

Me: I mean, I like it when bands do original tunes and then choose to toss in a couple of covers. As long as they put their own stamp on the songs or add a different flavor. The Beatles did cover songs early on. Everyone covered Dylan back in the day -- the Byrds, Manfred Mann, Sonny and Cher -- but they invested their own style into the music and made it their own. These guys added nothing to the mix at all.

Cathy: I really think you're being narrow-minded, Lee. They entertained this crowd, People like to dance. You don't like to dance and that's why you don't get it. People are simply out to have a good time on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. If the crowds didn't come, they wouldn't get these gigs. But obviously people enjoy them.

Me: They don't know any better. If we lived in a place like Austin or Boston or Nashville where there was a healthy original music scene, these cover bands would be out of business.

Cathy (irritated): Are you saying I'm stupid? I don't know any better?

Me: No, not at all. It's not your fault. You take what you're given. You know, the lowest common denominator...

Cathy: I think I know better than that.

Me: Okay, here's my analogy. There's only one Mona Lisa. But anyone who's skillful enough or can maybe find a paint-by-number kit, can come up with a good copy. But only the real deal is considered true art.

Cathy: You're over-thinking this. We're talking about people who are simply there to dance! Besides, what other band would attempt a cover of "Roundabout" by Yes or the Allman Brothers' "Melissa." That's one of my favorite songs.

Me: It is a good song. So, whenever I have a desire to hear it, I grab my old vinyl copy and stick it on the turntable.

Cathy: But it's different hearing it by a live band.

Me: As opposed to a dead band?

Alisa laughs.

Me: I'll grant you that the singer did a good Joe Cocker impression. But Rich Little was a great impressionist too. Why not hire him? See, that's my point. These guys have no back story. They're merely imitators. There's no stamp of personality. They add nothing to the experience. It negates the original artists who did put their talent, their passion, their creativity into their art. These guys make it seem rote.

Cathy: I understand your point, but really, you're taking this too seriously. Chill out.

Me: Maybe so, but music is more than mere replication. Songs are supposed to kindle memories, draw on passion, incite emotion... Besides, this song selection was so unimaginative. Billy Joel on his own can be insufferable enough. But someone imitating Billy Joel? Really? This is two degrees removed from Muzak.

Cathy: Maybe if you tried playing a little Billy Joel for your wife, you might get lucky more often...

Alisa: Maybe.

Me: See, it's not only about trying to impress. It's also about seduction.

Cathy: Now we're talking! I believe we're finally in agreement!

Alisa: If only!

Weigh in on your cover band thoughts below.

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