Cover Boys

For Houston's cover bands, the party never ends and the songs remain the same

The songs of the famous sung to the faceless masses... Pearl Jam... Beatles... Stones... resounding up and down the Richmond Strip. Out here it's cover band heaven or hell -- depending on how you hear the music. The collective noise on the party corridor is definitely too loud to ignore. What every weekend Strip gypsy needs is a Cover Band Beginner's Guide.

Once upon a time, being in a cover band meant a life of Holiday Inns. But the Richmond cover bands are composed primarily of musicians trying to make some cash, polish their technique and (most important) sit at home days working on their own songs. Most are eager to make the jump to original music, but they're doing it on their own terms.

Fans of original music scoff at cover bands, but for better or worse, cover bandsmen know that the wall-to-wall humanity at Sam's Boat, The Outback Pub and the other clubs featuring cover music far outnumbers the tiny legion of Original Music Venue groupies.

Generally, cover-band patrons aren't hardcore concert goers, so cover bands provide the only taste of live music many of these folks will encounter. This audience wants to have a good time, chant along with the band, pick up dates and drink themselves silly. They don't want to risk a night out on an original band they might hate -- they want to like most of the songs, and they want to do it for less than the cost of a ticket to the Summit.

So, for those nights when the radio ain't enough, the jukebox ain't the greatest and Lollapalooza isn't within 1,000 miles, we offer a shuttle tour of Richmond's live cover scene.

Arrival: The Outback Pub
Arrival looks like a "real" band, acts like a "real" band and, based upon looks alone -- if you hadn't heard their playlist that afternoon on KLOL -- you would swear these guys were Houston's latest entry in the Hot Hip Young New Original Band category. They're young, energetic and known around town as the first with the latest material.

Lead singer Tilman Walker attended the Eddie Vedder School O' Vocal Tricks, and although the resemblance can be a bit much, it's largely effective. In spite of a drummer who appears to need a dose of Vivarin, Arrival is quickly carving a niche as the cover band of choice for Generation X/Lollapalooza bandwagoneers.

Zen Archer: Sam's Place
Jamie Ashby's vocals and Steve Wilson's guitars take best of show, hands down. Ashby has the versatility to re-create the vocal qualities of just about anyone, and Wilson accurately emulates the playing styles of dozens of guitarists. Zen Archer is also one of the few cover bands that can inject a hefty dose of originals without getting its collective wrist slapped by unhappy club owners.

Our reviewers are split on this highly polished outfit. "It's music for morons!" one decrees. I disagree. Any band that can carry off Dennis Leary's "I'm an Asshole" for a predominantly Stussy-clad crowd is a-okay by me.

Limos: Sam's Boat
Struggling against a sound system with a shrinking-decibel problem, Limos did its best to work magic for a sardine-packed crowd with a significant drunk-frat-guy factor. Every time the band got a little energy cranked up, some ordinance-conscious bonehead insisted on lowering the volume, rendering Limos about as effective as a jukebox with action figures.

Heavy on Seattle-sound covers and looking ready more for MTV than for the Holiday Inn circuit, Limos ("not 'The Limos,' " they corrected gently, "just 'Limos' ") seem like they'd like to be an Inside-the-Loop/Goat's-Head band, but know better.

Limos is known for unexpected twists, such as its recent full-makeup Kiss set at the Outback. Fun, talented, nice guys, and (the women of the panel agree) darn cute to boot.

Zero Gravity: The Outback Pub
Frantic, frantic and more frantic. As odd a collection of musical types as one could whip up, Zero Gravity has a slightly sarcastic and relentless energy: vaguely current, unpretentious and louder than hell. By the time ZG entered our sights, most of our enthusiasm for cover bands was waning, but the band won brownie points for not playing the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," and a few more for daring to be downright irreverent to its chicly casual audience.

Not even pretending to emulate Top 40 vocals, Zero Gravity frontman John Peek instead relies on an in-your-face personality that leaves the crowd alternately thrilled and offended, and on a downright unusual playlist full of quirks and turns.

Rat Ranch: Sam's Boat
RR is acknowledged as Houston's King of Cover Bands, but as Beavis says, "They look like they're not trying very hard." Rat Ranch relies heavily on a time-honored (i.e. "dated") collection of songs, not unlike the CD you get when you subscribe to Entertainment Weekly. "But they have the best equipment of anyone," a companion notes. This is also the only band to use keyboards to good advantage, making its '80s covers more credible.

"Why are these guys considered the best?"
"They've been around a long time."
"I don't get it."
"Don't say that too loud. The crowd loves 'em."

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