In all likelihood your favorite rock band or artist got their wee start doing someone else’s material. It remains the sort of natural path most musicians follow as they begin to hone their own sound. Some artists do go forth and produce new and original works while others may wish to rely on other’s material still, hence the staying power of the cover band proper. In the world of cover bands there happens to be a whole swath of styles, everything from the hardcore playing of all songs in any given single artist’s catalog to “wedding” bands who play very familiar material but from a spectrum of the well-known, like Steve Miller, the Rev. Al Green, and maybe some Hall & Oates or even Loverboy, for good measure. The latter are the bands everyone secretly loves because they tap into the collective social psyche as most everyone may relate to much of the material, though few would ever claim true fan status.
Finally, there’s what I’ve come to loosely define as the “meta” rock band. Meta, as you may know, can be defined as “referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.” There exists a fine line a cover band walks between being cover or meta, in my opinion. Why? Because cover is exactly that, but meta plays on a participant within the genre either going back to the good old days of when they sucked, perhaps playing a tune with a previous ensemble or just flat out paying homage to whomever.
Maybe one of my favorite examples of meta goes back decades when Jimi Hendrix played Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band title track in his set while Paul and Ringo were in the attendance. I mean, come on! Hendrix, no stranger to a cover, transcended the moment and blurred the line here. While I of course did not witness this, I was thankfully witness to a Butthole Surfer VooDooFest set when their time slot opposite of REM’s apparently caused them to feel a need to cover Athens’ darling’s arguably first hit “To the One I Love.” As I recall, lead singer for the band Gibby Haynes said something to the effect of “We have to do this.” Or maybe he apologized. Or both. And that’s art in a nutshell, isn’t it? The artist has to do what they’re doing. To be meta, to be cover, to be neither, or to straddle the line in between.
Later this month when the Foo Fighters headline an evening of VooDooFest (some may wish to tag it #FooDooFest – you read it here first, folks!), those in attendance may be in for a treat. The Foos, no strangers to the Crescent City with their recent Preservation Hall residency, have been dabbling at some recent gigs as part of their set as a the glorified wedding band genre under the guise known as The Holy Shits, playing songs from The Rolling Stones to Van Halen to Alice Cooper. A treat for any rock lover’s ear and unexpected delight for sure — who doesn’t like to be surprised by their favorite artist riffing on the familiar, making it their own, or even just throwing in a lyric that’ll reference another artist’s work without changing too very much? When Beck graced the House of Blues on Sunday evening and broke into his “Hell Yes”, if you listened carefully he threw in a whisper of Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See” with that song’s chorus, or hook, if you prefer.
But what about when in lieu of a cover, or meta, or even the inescapable super group, an established band just dials it back a few decades and plays another band’s material but with that band’s actual lead singer? This year the eels did just that and many times over with former Journey frontman Steve Perry. Apparently a fan and friend of the band, Steve happened to follow the eels on their tour and here and there happened to belt out a familiar Journey song or three. Pretty crazy stuff and very fun, if you catch any of the videos on the web taken by fans. By comparison maybe you have Weezer followed by Ric Ocasek and oh yeah, by the way, we’re going to be playing some Cars songs at the end of our set tonight. Rock fans could have a field day when it comes to these unforeseen amalgamations of live performance. While the eels skipped New Orleans these last two tours, here’s hoping the Crescent City may see them soon, and to have Steve Perry in town would be a welcome addition as well.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.