Visitors to Dan’s Bar in Walnut Creek this week may get a surprise during a rendition of a hit song about the massacre of innocent Irish. Apparently, the song inspires some women to spontaneously flash their breasts, according to drummer Skott Bennett of the Bay Area’s leading U2 tribute band Zoo Station.
“It’s happened more than once, but only with that song,” recalls Bennett, stage name Barely Larry, regarding “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” “There’s missing the point, and there’s really missing the point. We’re a U2 cover band; smiling onstage really isn’t allowed. You have to stay in character and do your best.”
Maintaining integrity in a copied band sounds like an oxymoron, but musicians like Bennett have discovered a sober reality: Musicians can gain far greater exposure and success aping other people’s music than toiling away on their own. Scores of Bay Area musicians are getting paid and touring the state and country on the backs of the likes of Neil Diamond, Led Zeppelin, and AC/DC.
The moral dilemma begins with an exhausted decision to even play in a cover band, says Bennett, who played in San Francisco bands for fourteen years before forming Zoo Station in 2002. He used to look down on those who played classics and resented them for taking away gigs.
He changed his tune once Zoo Station started to take off. “I distinctly remember getting paid one night and laughing because we were happy to do it for drinks,” he said, adding that Zoo Station is his “least ambitious band but has had the most success.”
Success can come so easy, it can almost be painful, says Orlando Cerecedes, singer of Smiths tribute band This Charming Band. Cerecedes (aka “Orlandissey”) played and struggled for ten years before his current gig. “It’s sad and fun at the same time,” he says. Most recently, he played in the Portishead-sounding outfit Entamoeba, but the band couldn’t seem to break through: “The singer would literally say, ‘I can’t book any shows.’ And my tribute band was together a lot less time and we already had nine shows in a row. It was really lopsided.”
Kate Donnellon, lead singer of all-’80s cover band Notorious, was in groups that nearly signed deals with Arista and Capitol, but they never panned out. She joined Notorious because she was sick of waiting tables. “Every once in a while I fantasize that I’m going to somehow find something that will happen,” she says. “Maybe I’ll be able to sell songs. But you get older and you think, ‘Why even try?'”
Clubs see these acts as a guaranteed draw, according to Jay Siegan, owner of San Francisco’s Red Devil Lounge and manager of cover bands the Cheeseballs, Notorious, Pop Rocks, and Wonder Bread 5. “The cover bands bring so much in bar revenue, it helps us offset the lighter nights with original music acts,” says Siegan, who books five faux bands a month to pay the bills.
“It comes down to economics,” agreed Brooks “B” of Stung, a Police tribute band. “That’s all bars care about — if you can get people to come and buy drinks. … There are fewer places that can afford a slow night.”
Still, many musicians in cover bands continue playing in original ones as well. House of More is Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella’s original project, and it routinely opens for Zepparella. That helped House of More land a slot with pop band Stroke 9 at the Red Devil Lounge earlier this month.
Other groups jumpstart their careers in tribute bands with astounding results. Bassist Nici “Riff” Williams never picked up an instrument before forming AC/DShe in 1999. Now she’s played with Ted Nugent, Marilyn Manson, and Cheap Trick. Though AC/DShe achieved its fame by doing covers, ironically it tries to distance itself from the cheesy cover scene by solely booking original bands to open for its shows, she says.
Musicians who’ve resorted to playing in this musical backwater may lament never making it big on their own merit, but Donnellon says the chance to be a paid musician is what counts.
“A lot of people look at what I do, where I go, and the shows I get to play, and think that’s amazing,” she says. “‘You are a working musician, that’s awesome.’ And I’m starting to just really feel grateful to have just that. I could be working in an office.”
Top five Bay Area tribute bands
Artist covered: Led Zeppelin
Largest crowd played to: 1,000
Artist covered: AC/DC
Largest crowd played to: 5,000
3. Zoo Station
Artist covered: U2
Largest crowd played to: 6,000
4. Super Diamond
Artist covered: Neil Diamond
Largest crowd played to: 1,200 a night
Artist covered: The Police
Largest crowd played to: 35,000