By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Nov 27, 2006 at 5:29 AM
It's not every day a cover band puts out a live concert DVD.  Then again, not every cover band is like the 5 Card Studs.

The DVD contains everything you'd expect from a real band: TV appearances, a promo reel and studio recordings, as well as a feature length Studs show filmed at the Potawatomi Northern Lights Casino.

What makes it so unique is that it's these five guys, dressed like washed up Vegas lounge singers -- wigs, leather pants, cigarettes and cocktails.  The band will be the first to admit that "So Big It's Alive" is, in fact, larger than life.  The DVD, after all, is "rated 'S' for sexy."

"The funny thing about it is that it comes across as a big-time show, but I think there were maybe 15 people there," says Chris Tischler, who leads the band under his pseudonym, Cesar Palace.

But that's a pretty small crowd for the Studs, who are quickly becoming the city's cover band of record.  Which may be because the band isn't going on stage playing "Freebird" or "Brown Eyed Girl."

Instead, expect to hear "Green Eyed Lady" or "Mama Told Me Not To Come."  Every note will be dead on, because first and foremost, these guys are real musicians from real groups, including Hudson, Wooldridge Brothers and Loyal Order of Water Buffalo.  But the Studs are the first to admit that they're more ironic lounge act than cover band -- and casino seemed like a perfect place to film a DVD.

"The musicians in the band are top-notch, but anyone who's seen the Studs knows that we're a very visual experience," says Tischler. "With that venue, it seemed like a perfect match."

What sets them from other cover bands, says Tischler, is that they don't take themselves seriously -- at least when they're being the 5 Card Studs.

"A lot of the people who come to see us know that it's an act, that we're portraying these characters in a cover band -- washed up Vegas superstars in their own mind.  They know that we come from very diverse musical backgrounds.  There's a lot of deep, deep jazz, a lot of Americana in there, as far as our musical interests.  There's punk rock and hair metal -- that's me."

Says Tischler, "I think that all lends itself, in a weird way, to how we play the covers, too."

As for composing original music as the Studs, Tischler says the group's busy schedule doesn't lend itself well to creative writing time.

"(Bassist) Paul 'Reno Nevada' Jonas actually wrote the lyrics to one tune called 'Pretty Girls and Sushi,' which I still think he should record," says Tischler.  "I think that would be fantastic, but as far as writing actual compositions, we probably could, but we don't really consider ourselves a cover band.  We play covers, but we put an original twist on an unoriginal concept."

Of course, not everyone gets the joke.  Tischler looks back at the great gigs, like Bastille Days a few years ago, where the whole crowd was into the act.  But then there are shows like the ski club. That, he says, was a debacle.

"They're not only not getting the joke, but they're getting drunk and surly.  It was to the point where they were torch-wielding maniacs, rushing the stage."

And that's when the cover band has to buckle down and do its job.

"Either way, you're hired to do a job.  People come to see you.  If you have night that isn't going well, you still have to put on a show and be gracious about it.  Then bail."

Another challenge the band must overcome is continuing to evolve its set list, and the songs they play aren't exactly easy musical numbers.  Usually a song won't feel right and will slowly get swept under the rug.  But in the end, "it's always a group decision," says Tischler.

And even the songs that have become Studs' staples can remain exciting, as long as they put a creative twist on them every once in a while.

"There have been like three shows where we didn't play 'Secret Agent Man' and sometimes you're like, 'God, I don't even want to read that name' and then you find different ways of enjoying it.  I'll sing a line a different way or do some stupid acts."

As for favorite tunes, Tischler says every guy has his own.  "For me, there are a bunch.  'Sweet Caroline,' 'Lights' by Journey.  The sheer, ridiculous bombast of it -- I'm laughing while I'm singing this stuff."

But does playing the same songs, the same parties, the many weddings and other gigs where the five musicians act out their shtick 75 times each year -- get monotonous?  Or does the money that comes with being a top local act make playing "The Love Boat" every week more palatable?

"Bottom line is that I love doing it, and I can say that the rest of the guys love doing it, too.  Obviously, the money is a great thing, and I can't complain about it at all.  As the Studs legend goes, we were all individual superstars who got together as a lounge super group. As reality goes, we were all just guys in bands who started as a joke. We figured that we could make some money that was like $25 or $50 a guy for a show, which was awesome.  The money is all right, but the bottom line is if it's not fun, then there's no point in doing it."

"So Big It's Alive" is available at 5 Card Studs shows and will soon be for sale on the group's Web site,

Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.