Altered Five is a cover band with a different bent
If there was a list of things that the Milwaukee music scene WASN'T lacking, cover bands would be perched high atop that short list. Go into almost any South or West Side bar on a Friday or Saturday night and chances are you'll hear the all too recognizable sounds of The Boogie Men or The Sweet Tarts, reminding you why platform boots and afros went out of style in the first place.
The familiarity of the songs brings these bands a loyal following. They give their audiences their money's worth by playing the songs you only own on vinyl, so it's rare that they ever do anything original with songs that they play. Anyone can learn a few Styx songs on guitar and play them so they sound just like the record, but it takes real musicians to bring something new to a familiar tune.
Enter the Altered Five.
These five veterans of the Wisconsin music scene were drawn to the concept of performing custom-made blues arrangements to the songs familiar to even the most casual listener.
Think of Thomas Dolby's "She Blinded Me with Science" with the new wave keyboards replaced with a cool, harmonically rich guitar riff and funky groove or Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way," with its gee-whiz guitar riff, transformed into an elegant blues song sung with authority.
Possibilities are what make the music, as bassist and background vocalist Mark Solveson puts it, "creative and interesting yet familiar."
Bassist Solveson's musical background goes back 25 years and he has played with some of the best jazz musicians in Milwaukee. Guitarist and background vocalist Jeff Schroedl and his brother, drummer Scott, were members of the rock group Tambora.
Keyboardist and background vocalist Steve Huebler, who rose to local fame for his work with The Ruby Starr Band and Jukebox Heroes, has been focusing his attention to the world of blues, appearing at local blues jams around the city.
These four would be a great band, but something was absent. They needed a singer with power, confidence, and authority. This came in the form of vocalist Jeff Taylor, accomplished pianist and trumpet player, piano teacher, and assistant principal at Vincent High School.
Solveson says, "We all have a lot of experience playing in previous groups, and most of us have played together in the past. The missing link was the singer. We auditioned several people and Jeff Taylor was the perfect fit for the sound we had in mind."
Beginning in late 2002, the group put in over a year of hard work to perfect its sound. Their backgrounds came into play as they tried to find the "hidden" possibilities in the pop songs they selected, like John Coltrane mining jazz gold from "My Favorite Things."
"We arrange to our strengths. We have to start with a great song that is very recognizable. If we 'bluesify' a song that is not known to begin with, we defeat the purpose," Solveson explains. "Also, we try to pick songs that have lyrics that adapt well to blues-rock. For example, the first words in the song 'Missionary Man' by the Eurhythmics are 'I was born of original sin.' Melody and harmony also play a part in the songs we select. We take a lot of liberty with changing these elements, but it help to start with a song that has some natural blues tendencies.
"It has taken a great deal of work to get to the point where we really love playing every song of the night."
Part of the fun of an Altered Five show is the element of surprise that is involved in trying to recognize the tunes.
"Most people appreciate the musicianship of the band and enjoy figuring out our customized arrangements. It's great to see someone go from a confused inquisitive look to a laugh once they recognize a song we have changed up," Solveson says.
It's going to be a challenge to keep things fresh, but Altered Five has made a good go of it so far. Solveson says, "We try to keep learning new songs and keep the arrangements of those songs interesting. We also try to keep an open mind about what songs we can remake.
"For instance, Jeff Schroedl has been high on trying a blues version of "My Sharona" for months, but the rest of the band was pretty cold on the idea because it is such a familiar pop tune. He finally came up with the perfect arrangement and now it really cooks and is currently a band favorite."
Most importantly, the Altered Five wants to have fun along with its audience.
Altered Five plays at the Milwaukee Ale House in the Third Ward, Friday, April 16 at 9:30 p.m. The band's Web site is alteredfive.com.
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