You can't miss 'em. Spend a Friday night at a seedy motel bar anywhere in the great US of A, and you'll hear the awkward, sad sound as you scurry out the door clutching your room key. The cover band. Doomed to fill the sordid haunts of this great country with the disjointed refrains of the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Linda Ronstadt, U2, Staind. Doomed to mirror the hollow emptiness of American culture by replicating it, chord change for chord change.
If for some reason you pause to listen -- perhaps amused to hear a rendition of some forgotten pop memento like Tommy Tutone's "867-5309/Jenny" -- you might discover that the guitar player is actually alright, or the drummer actually has some chops. More often than not, though, you conclude that the singer's pretty weak, or the whole band just looks like they'd rather be someplace else. And so would the three people listening at the bar. And so would you. In fact, so would most people at any seedy motel bar, and that's probably why the cover band is so commonly found there: Like a Gideon Bible, the lousy cover band remains one of the vapid but consistent elements of familiarity for the American road warrior.
But there are cover bands, and then there are Cover Bands: A certain breed that worships both the milestones and the speed bumps of rock. That makes the old sound new again. That soothes the audience with something familiar and fun that doesn't take a lot of work to enjoy. That dresses it up, acts it out, and reanimates those tired hits you've heard a thousand times. Hence the term "cover" -- the creatures a Cover Band creates boast the same bones and flesh and chords and lyrics as the original, but covered with a different skin that makes you smile to see it, like running into a friendly old acquaintance who used to go to law school but now works as a tattoo artist.
But where to find these kinds of Cover Bands? Keep an eye on Oakland's Stork Club, which has recently launched Stage Rage on the second Saturday of every month. The conceptual event is still suffering a few fits and starts, but for anyone who feels it's been too long since Blue Oyster Cult tunes were performed with real joie de vivre, Stage Rage is worth keeping an eye on as it finds its footing.
Stage Rage is masterminded by Stork Club regulars Second Date, who each month will host a guest cover band to open for the Bay Area quartet. Plans for the half-time intermission seem to include some combination of snacks, comedians, and bizarre Judge Judy parodies. While waiting for the action to start, it's recommended to spend freely at the bar -- Cover Bands and amateur comedy go best with plenty of alcohol and friends. The alcohol, the Stork Club will provide; the buddies, you need to bring. Please do.
October's Stage Rage started off with a bang, as San Francisco's Blue Period lit into a set of tight '80s rock, setting a retro-goth ambience à la Cure as the Mohawked guitarist matched searing riffs with the bouncing keyboardist. Considering the challenges of opening a Saturday night gig in a nearly vacant club, Blue Period was red-hot.
The only problem: It isn't a cover band! Blue Period only borrowed makeup, hairstyles, and performance moves from Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- not the songs themselves. Apparently this oversight resulted from a small mix-up in Stage Rage's infancy: Blue Period was booked before the cover band concept was firmed up.
Then came intermission, featuring the amusing but odd Judge Crudy Show, which featured "The Case of the Botched Butt-Job." By the time Second Date themselves took the stage, the small crowd had visibly wilted.
But Second Date -- specifically, chanteuse, vixen, and frontwoman Anne Marie Gray -- invented the Stage Rage concept, so these guys know what being a Cover Band is all about, rumbling through a rounded selection of tunes from the Shangri-Las to the Stray Cats to selections too recent to evoke actual nostalgia. The band's take on Macy Gray (no relation to Anne Marie, though they certainly sound alike) sounds great, though you may still have Macy's latest CD in your car.
These mostly familiar tunes amount to danceable rock performed with table-top finesse by the diva-esque Anne Marie, who accentuates the action by dressing like a reform-school girl in bondage or, as she did at September's inaugural Stage Rage, a femme fatale in a black leather coat and spiked heels. These visuals, combined with the Stork's wide-open floor, make it easier to gawk than dance.
Which raises that old issue of what truly makes a Cover Band: A reverence for the originals? Solid, respectful musicianship? Or a yen for over-the-top high jinks and campy costumes? The latter attitude seems to typify Stage Rage so far, and a truly transcendent night out requires only a final, crucial addition: a heated crowd hungry for nostalgia and musical goofiness, dying only to hear what lost treasure or tasty old standby will be resurrected next.
There's hope this Saturday that such a crowd will appear: Second Date's hand-picked opening act is Teeze!, a group that pays homage to '80s hair bands with a set list chock-full of Judas Priest, Guns N' Roses, AC/DC, and Van Halen. Teeze! vows to deliver a truly awe-inspiring stage show replete with fog, makeup, leather, and latex. Ah, the other '80s -- the cut-off Ts, the ripped fishnet stockings, the huge hair, the heavy metal histrionics. Not a bad era to resurrect on a sleepy Saturday night. Let's hear it for the high hopes of Stage Rage. Let's hear it for bare skin and full coverage.
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