By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jun 21, 2005 at 5:40 AM

{image1}These days, you can't toss a fried eggplant strip at a street festival without hitting a cover band. Almost every outdoor party books at least one, with some events hiring many more tribute groups than all-original outfits.

Sure, many of us like to tip back beers and groove to the music from our youth, but is there more to it than that? Why are we so in love with cover bands ... or aren't we?

"Feelings, nothing more than feelings ..."

Since music sparks emotional responses, we fuse to the tunes that are in heavy rotation during emotional times in our lives -- like at the beginning or the end of a serious relationship. Inevitably, there's always a song or album that strikes a chord, becomes a personal anthem, and later, takes us on a wicked trip down memory lane whenever we hear it.

"Hearing a certain song brings back memories of when you were young and carefree, whether you are a senior citizen or a senior in high school, it takes a moment in time and makes it eternal," says Jude Kinnear from the acoustic cover band, Fred and Ethel.

"Here comes a regular, call out your name ... "

It doesn't take a gaggle of marketing professionals to realize many Milwaukeeans find their groove and stick with it. For some, the "comfort zone" is the destination of choice, and they just want to go where everybody, while not knowing their name, does know the same songs.

"(Seeing a cover band) is like walking in to a room full of old friends. You know what to expect," says Mark Uselman of The Sweet Tarts, an eclectic cover group that cites Vanilla Ice, The Chipmunks, Spinal Tap, Pat Boone and Marilyn Manson as influences.

The Boogie Men's Dr. Detroit Goldenstone says going to see an all-original band for the first time is like catching your favorite national act and hearing them play songs from their yet-to-be-released record.

"Perhaps you'll learn to love the songs in time, but right now, they're just a bunch of songs that you've never heard before," he says.

"We're in the money, that sky is sunny ... "

Jeff Benske would love to make a living playing original music, but his cover band, 5 Card Studs, pays the bills. Last year, the Studs played 80 gigs, sometimes as many as 16 shows in a two-month period.

"The Studs started out as a kitschy joke, but it quickly spiraled out of control," says Benske, who owns Top Shelf Guitar Shop in Bay View. "In the beginning, we flipped off the idea of doing weddings, but then we thought, 'Why should we turn down the money?'

"Playing weddings is not something we sought out, it happened through word of mouth, and now we do it because we can."

Members of the 5 Card Studs, until very recently, also maintained an all-original band called Hudson. This allowed the musicians to flex their creative muscles, and complemented their money-making project at the same time.

"We have a band for work (5 Card Studs) and a band for pleasure (Hudson)," says Benske, who believes Hudson will reunite in the future.

Cover bands might earn top-dollar for live gigs in Milwaukee, but the dough doesn't roll effortlessly. "U2Zoo plays a straight two-and-a-half hour show like a real U2 concert in clubs," says band member Brian Lang (aka "Wisco Edge").

Benske says his band will sometimes spend 12 hours at a wedding, setting up their own lights and PA, and then tearing down at the end of the evening.

"It's not your usual two, 45-minute sets," says Benske.

"... fiesta, forever ... "

Supporting the local music scene, discovering new talent or checking out seasoned musicians who continue to rip it up isn't the primary goal of many Brew City concert-and-festival goers. It's more about socializing, drinking and having a good time.

It's possible this mentality comes from Milwaukee's "blue-collar" work ethic. Work hard during the week, but when the proverbial whistle blows on Friday afternoon, it's time to party hardy.


"Milwaukee is a town of hard-working, hard-playing people who don't generally have time to seek out some new and interesting all-original band," says Goldenstone. "At the end of the average person's work week, they're usually ready to take a shower, have a good time and be entertained."

Lang moved his U2 cover band from Philadelphia to Milwaukee a few years ago, partially because he thought Brew City's culture would be a good fit for a serious tribute project.

"(For Milwaukeeans) seeing a cover band is like a little sub-culture party after a long work week," he says.

Milwaukee's blue-collar work ethic may also explain why many concert goers refuse to pay a steep cover charge. In Chicago, bands get $15-$25 per fan, but here, many people grumble about a few bucks at the door.

"People in Milwaukee are indifferent to the music scene. It seems like the $5 cover charge still cuts into the beer money for some reason," says Benske.

"... hang the bloody DJ ..."

For years, many Milwaukee music fans have pined for a radio station similar to Chicago's XRT or Madison's Triple M.

It's possible that the lack of free-form (or semi free-form) radio stations in Milwaukee are part of the reason why locals embrace the same old songs for decades. Most commercial stations spoon-feed from a small pool of artists day after day, rarely enticing listeners with someone new.

But relationships between DJs and local bands have changed, too. It used to be that DJs promoted local bands and exposed listeners to new music, but now, commercial radio DJs don't have nearly as much control over the songs they play and therefore can't introduce new or local music to the masses. Sure, some commercial stations do "local music showcases," but they seldom rotate local artists during the day.

"Cover bands are popular in Milwaukee because many of the people don't know much about the original bands, what they do, or where to find them. Corporate programming has taken over, and there's little chance for a band to get an in on commercial radio," says John Hauser of the Love Monkeys. "I believe the people that support cover bands would actually show the same support for the original bands if they actually knew something about them."

{image3} Eric Blowtorch, who plays original music with his band Eric Blowtorch and the Inflammables, says many original bands bypass Brew City while on tour, leaving local concert goers with fewer chances to see original acts and to get to know their music.

"So many great and/or popular bands skip Milwaukee on their tours, have lousy live shows or don't exist anymore," says Blowtorch.

"I will follow ..."

For some live music lovers, it's more fun to see a band in a packed club, no matter how sweaty or smoky. It's almost a chicken-and-egg situation: People go to see cover bands because they think there'll be a huge audience and, consequently, there is.

"It allows a person to be part of a greater experience where they are one of 300 to 500 people packed together," says Lang. "The cover bands draw the crowds, and that is what people want to be a part of."

"A person turning 21 isn't necessarily going to go to listen to live music for the music. They go to where the party is and that's where the cover bands come in," says Hauser.

"Milwaukee has no artistic imagination," says Benske.

"... It's the end of the world as we know it"

Some tribute groups say the days of live music are forked because there aren't enough gigs to accommodate the glut of local bands, both tribute and original.

"Live music, in general, has taken a big hit over the past 10 years. There simply aren't as many venues for a band of any type to perform," says Hauser. "Plus, kids aren't raised on live music these days. Very few schools have bands for the dances. Hip-hop and DJ scenes are a pretty big thing right now."

According to Guy Fiorentini of the all-original band Salt Creek and a guitar teacher, many fresh music enthusiasts are approaching music in a high-tech way.

"Digital editing has created the illusion of perfection, so much so that a live performance by many bands might pale in comparison to their CD, says Fiorentini.

"I think a lot of the people who might have been guitarists or drummers 20 years ago are now DJs, MCs, and producers. Hip-hop has replaced rock as the soundtrack for the zeitgeist."

It's possible that the lack of Milwaukee bands making it into the mainstream, MTV world recently might have people less pumped about live performances. It's been a while since Milwaukeeans vicariously celebrated stardom through a band of our own, like BoDeans, the Violent Femmes or Citizen King.

"Take me to the place I love, take me all the way"

For most rockers, it doesn't matter if they're playing the Marcus Amphitheater or St. Mark's Festival. It's still their chance to live the dream and play rock star for a couple of hours.

"I have even seen some cover bands here in Milwaukee being idolized like 'real' original touring rock bands. It's wild," says Lang.

The thrill of seeing fans respond frenetically, to sing along with lyrics (even if someone else wrote them) is, undeniably, a total rush. "It sounds cliché, but so long as the crowd is putting off energy, it's very easy to give it back," says Goldenstone.

On the other hand, Benske says it wasn't until he gave up on the rock star dream that he could stomach being in a cover band.

"We, especially guitar players, all had the dream of going on road and touring, but then reality sets in and life sets in, and it's time to grow up," he says. "Everybody has a window of opportunity, a time where they're a lot more comfortable eating soup in a van, sleeping in a van and using their coat as a pillow."

"Who are you? (Who, who? Who, who?)"

Eventually, most cover bands want to play their own stuff and many of them do.

"If we want to play an original tune, we do it. Although we're known as a cover band, we've managed to release two CDs of original material and have sold more than 10,000 copies," says Hauser.

Some cover bands are born out of a passion for a particular band or genre, some out of the desire to make money or big-fish fame, but ironically, for Uselman, it was a way to cut loose and flip off the music industry.

"When we were in an all-original band touring the country, our manager, our agent, our promoter and our record company were all treating us like little puppets. You always had to be 'on' and 'marketable.' It was extremely controlling, and we were the most unlike ourselves we've ever been," says Uselman. "Now, I'm actually 100 times more myself than I ever was in an original band."

Meaghan Owens of the all-original acoustic duo Beautiful Pollution is deeply committed to writing and creating new music. However, she says sometimes originality is compromised when money is involved.

"The nature of being original means you try and try to make something new. Then if you reach success your hit song becomes the one song you play for the rest of your life until you end up basically covering your own song," she says. "I mean once you've played it a million times it isn't your song so much as it's the fan's song."

"One love?"

It seems there will always be a "them vs. us" mentality between cover and original bands. Even though the line gets fuzzy, with original bands playing covers and cover bands playing their own songs, most groups are branded as one or the other.

How much friction really exists between cover and original bands, or can they actually work together?

"I think cover bands are in a position of more artistic power than they realize. They could join -- and strengthen -- the Musicians' Union, and encourage original artists to do the same. They could stipulate that original bands open up for them," says Blowtorch. "They don't have to be human jukeboxes."

Owens says the large venues and concert promoters need to help bridge the gap between the two genres. "Local original bands need more support from Summerfest and the larger venues where it's not always pay to play," she says.

Hauser sees a similarity between all bands, whether tribute or not.

"Cover and original bands both come together the same way and that's usually in somebody's basement working on material. There's no guarantee of life after the basement for either so getting out is usually a miracle and any band should pat themselves on the back for getting that far," says Hauser.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.