Tributes and Tribulations

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Art and life co-habitate, informing, imitating, and enriching each other constantly. Each week in Better Living Through Music, RFT Music writer Ryan Wasoba explores this symbiotic relationship

Last week, RFT Music's Jaime Lees wrote an op-ed piece entitled The Problem With An Under Cover Weekend. It pissed some people off, but she had good intentions. Her main thesis seems to be that we should support and celebrate original local music rather than reward bands for doing covers. I find the debate more complicated.

Original music is exciting, in part because it is impractical. The supply of unheard songs will always outweigh the demand. I tend to view music from a standpoint that leans toward the artistic element rather than the entertainment aspect, probably in an 80/20 split. But enforcing my priorities on others would be disrespectful, and I completely relate to the appeal of the cover band. It's the excitement of a live band with the quality control of familiar material.

I cannot write off a well executed cover band. Groups like Dr. Zhivegas are not as much rock bands as they are mobile party facilitators. Conceptually, a cover band is no different than a DJ, except the human element invades the songs themselves rather than just the playlist. If you think of a cover band as pure entertainment, you can see why cover bands almost always make more money than original bands - and why many of the best musicians in town are moonlighting in highly paid cover bands rather than struggling in the trenches.

An Under Cover Weekend doesn't exactly promote cover bands. It deals in tribute bands, the subset of cover bands that recreates a group's entire experience from songs to mannerisms to clothing. When well done, this offers more than an original band or a cover band can; it offers escapism, both to the bands and the audience. Neil Young isn't going to be playing a venue the size of the Firebird anytime soon. Next time the Killers roll through town, the band won't be playing a setlist as fan-approved as what Volcanoes offered at AUCW. Michael Jackson concerts only exist in memories. Tribute bands aren't just fetishists, they're utopianists. They are fans performing for other fans, putting on a show devoid of the artists' egos. In some cases, the tribute might be more satisfying to the fans than the original.

The downside of the tribute band is the amount of effort and commitment involved. Starting a band is tough, and most who choose to devote the time do so in order to express oneself. There's also an element of patheticness, of essentially trying to be somebody else. If you play bass in a November Rain: A Tribute To Guns & Roses, you'd better love Duff McKagan.

But AUCW is a loophole. A band can become another band for just one night, and the amount of promotion and hype behind the event makes the effort worthwhile. The members of Palace might have woken up in their ABBA clothes, but as of that day, the band was still Palace.

I propose that An Under Cover Weekend is a win-win for bands and fans, for original and cover bands alike. Anybody who was impressed by the Beck tribute set and had never heard Humdrum before likely did some Googling or Facebooking or Bandcamping the next day. To say that it is the biggest event of the year for local music would be false, because it exists in a realm void of the concept of geography. It is like summer camp, a brief getaway that allows all involved to return to life with a slightly different perspective.

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