(Picture above: Live Wire Band, a successful San Francisco-based cover band)
Two things got me “Rev.’d” up for this one.
First was a status update from an audio engineer about a week ago noting that the band he was mixing had started to play one of “those songs” and therefore he was tuning out.
The second is spray painted graffiti 20 feet above the deck at famed Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas that read (or really, demanded) “No Mustang Sally, No Skynyrd.”
That graffiti is really high, so someone had to really WANT to make that statement.
I have played in cover bands pretty much exclusively since I started playing music. I know there are people who will automatically write me off for that. Those people are, well, stupid.
Not all of us are songwriters. And I am honest enough to admit that songwriting is not my strength. Also, I never had any illusion that I was going to be a rock star or have a record deal.
Side trip: Years ago when I was editing a print magazine called GIG. A couple of the sales guys played in a really cool band called Fletcher McTaggart.
I went to see them play a time or three when I was in NYC. Being an all-original music band, Matt Charles and the other guys in the band were used to playing for beer and—with any luck—chicks.
So when a bar in midtown asked them to play New Year’s Eve for a few grand, they grabbed it.
When Matt told me about getting the gig I seem to remember asking if they were ready for it. And I believe his response was something like, “How hard could it be? It’s a cover gig.”
A month later when i was back in town he pulled me aside and asked, “Dude, how do you do it.”
“Do what?” I replied.
“A four hour gig! It was hell. It was the hardest thing I have done in my life!”
So, before you “I am so superior cuz I play in an original band” types ignore this because it is written by a cover band guy, go out and try to play a five set bar gig when you are used to one 45 min set.
Go ahead. I dare you.
Anyway, back on track…
I play in a weird band. After years of chasing what I thought booking agents wanted and not getting any extra gigs for the effort, I decided to play stuff that I liked and, as i said, it has gotten weird.
We do the stuff one would expect from a horn band—Chicago, BS&T, lots of Memphis soul—but we also do stuff like Hendrix, ZZ Top, Cheap Trick and Journey all arranged with horns.
Like any cover act, there are tunes that band members despise and beg not to do. But the rub is that the songs that players hate and are sick of are often big crowd-pleasers.
So even the bands who never put these tunes on their regular set list end up playing them regularly because the get requested all the time. What usually ends up happening is that the band plays a half-assed version just to satisfy the crowd or maybe earn a nice tip.
But my band has taken another road…
Instead of “refusing” and ending up doing half-assed versions, we have embraced some of them and really dug in and learned how the songs work and how to do them right.
Couple of examples: Mustang Sally by Wilson Pickett and “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves.
Two songs band members hate. And they have other things in common.
Both are typical I-IV-V blues progressions like a million other tunes.
And that is part of the problem.
Too many of us think “I-IV-V. I know it.” And we play the chords and are done with it.
But check out the videos. Listen to Katrina and the Waves. Hear anyone playing straight chords? Listen to the way the organ—not the guitar or horns or vocals—hold the whole thing together.
What is the glue that holds this song together? Hint: It ain’t the horns or even the excellent vocal. Listen to the organ…
There are three versions of Mustang Sally linked here, too:
A live version from 50 years ago that is a lousy recording but bristles with energy.
Wicked Wilson Pickett his own bad self on Dutch TV in the mid ‘60s
A way-too-typical anonymous cover version with every cliche and wrong turn you can make:
Every cliche and wrong move you can make. No harmony. No parts. It goes nowhere. And lots of masturbatory guitar solos.
And a great cover by the Commitments:
A great cover. Listen to the band, not the vocal. No one is just playing straight chords.
The two good versions have little in common except a band that listens to each other, plays off of one another and makes it all about the pocket before the icing of vocals and horns are even put on the menu.
So, yeah, we play Mustang Sally.
We play Walking On Sunshine.
We don’t play either of them exactly like the record. But both of them have become among our faves to play…because we tried to do ‘em right.
For us. And we weren’t lazy about it. Just saying’…
– Rev. Bill