Cover Boys

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."

We listen a bit longer. Rat Ranch plays "Should I Stay or Should I Go." We go.

Ten Base T: Fumduck's
Slightly older than the rest of the hellions populating Strip stages, Ten Base T's audience consists of enthusiastic die-hards genuinely thrilled to be there, the smallest but easily the most involved of the street's crowds. Three encores, no less!

A mix of bland mid-'80s AOR tunes is suddenly shattered by the insertion of an Alice in Chains number. "They're going for the contemporary feeling, I suppose," a companion notes gently. The unidentified lead singer has cloned Tom Petty (right down to the shoes), and he's backed by a band of three guys who look like they didn't have a chance to run home and change after a long day on the loading dock. Ten Base T plays rock nostalgia for the sort of poor soul who actually misses the formative glory days of MTV.

Toy Subs: The Outback Pub
Although not really a cover band, Toy Subs has of late been playing far more cover gigs than original ones. But even Toy Subs' slick, cool, polished covers assume the Toy Subs sound, partly because of singer Jamie Jahan's distinctive vocal style. Still, the band knows its audience. "For the longest time," says Jahan, "there were songs we avoided playing, until we realized that crowds here have certain expectations, certain songs they want to hear."

"I don't know, it all starts to sound the same after a while," insists one of our reviewers. "It's just Toy Subs no matter what song they're doing." The Toy Subs' imprint on each song may annoy cover purists, but will likely impress others. Don't look for accurate renditions here, just fine vocals, excellent musicianship and a fairly rowdy performance. The Toy Subs' version of "Dear Prudence" is a winner.

On occasion, kind-hearted club owners will allow the Subs to play some of their own (excellent) original stuff, but unless your flier tells you otherwise, don't count on it.

Axis: Sam's Place
Ever wonder where bands that really miss playing Backstage (but who don't want to drive up north to play at Headquarters or Hurricane Alley) go to let off steam? Taking the best (or is that the worst?) of the posing, hair-thrashing, "ain't we cool" choreography of the mid-to-late '80s and combining it with a playlist that defies even lenient definitions of "progressive," Axis appears to be lamenting days when leather was cool, beer was free and songs were three very loud chords. For some reason (could be because of the low sound level), everything sounded like ZZ Top. Axis was the only band to get visibly agitated by an unresponsive crowd, and the only band to leave the stage with a promo for the next set: "Coming up next set... Pearl Jam and AC/DC! So stick around!"

We didn't.

The Missiles: The Edge Bar
Though not strictly a cover band, the Missiles can indeed restore long-lost college memories. Lovably drunk, like the most prominent frat guy at a weekend beer bust, the Missiles are all-pro, with an extensive playlist ranging from Frank Zappa to Robyn Hitchcock and all points in between. They're irreverent, sarcastic, sometimes moody and always looking for the party. The Missiles may be Houston's best-traveled group of musical elder statesmen.

"These guys aren't a cover band!" a friend exclaims. "They're an original band pretending to be a cover band!"

Cover band? Original band? On the Richmond Strip it all bleeds together. But for the teeming multitudes, all that matters is that it's live, it's loud, it's familiar, and hey, you can drink beer to it.

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Elizabeth Reeder