Royal and Righteous

One evening this March, Killian Sweeney and Noah SkYess were discussing future projects for Willis, the glam rock band they were then both part of. Eventually, as their whiskey-soaked conversation continued, the notion of staging a tribute to proto-glam rockers Queen issued out of the haze. The tribute, they thought, could be called Queen for a Day. Better yet, it would involve not just Willis, but a large number of Houston's up-and-coming bands.

It was at this point that the topic of '80s for AIDS -- an event held in December 1993 that featured local bands covering '80s hit songs -- came into play. Part of the reason was that Sweeney and SkYess remembered the event as being a lot of fun. Another reason was that a benefit made it easier to gather together the number of bands that would be needed to make Queen for a Day an occasion to remember. And if the show was to be a benefit, then AIDS seemed the obvious beneficiary, given that Queen's lead singer, Freddie Mercury, had died of AIDS-related complications in 1991.

That same night, Sweeney and SkYess even determined where they wanted to hold their concert: Mary Jane's. The club on Washington Avenue and its owner, Toby Blunt, had always treated Willis well, and since benefits tend to bring good business, they thought they'd return the favor.

All that remained was actually organizing the whole thing. Ideas are always easier than reality, and when the notion got to the point of becoming action it became obvious that Queen for a Day would have to be handed off to someone else. For one thing, SkYess had developed plans to move to New York City. For another thing, Willis, as a result, would be disbanding.

Still, the concept of honoring the creative forces behind "We Are the Champions," "Bohemian Rhapsody" and other onetime radio staples was too intriguing, and goofy, to let go. So Sweeney and SkYess looked for someone to pass the benefit off to; the logical choice was Diane Koistinen, the woman behind '80s for AIDS and also, as it happens, the vocalist for de Schmog, another band that Sweeney was (and still is) involved with.

'80s for AIDS had a similar origin to Queen for a Day in that it wasn't initially a benefit -- Koistinen describes it as "kind of a dream for all these bands that wanted to do all those cheesy songs." The '80s tribute became a benefit when it became clear that the easiest way to deal with the money generated by the event was to give it away, as opposed to trying to figure out how to divvy it up between the numerous bands involved. The AIDS angle came about because Koistinen, in her career as a professional hairstylist, had worked with AIDS charities. A Friday night all-ages event held at Numbers, '80s for AIDS drew an audience of about 1,000 (mostly kids who weren't even familiar with the songs that were being spoofed or honored) and raised more than $7,000 for AIDS Foundation Houston's food pantry.

While '80s for AIDS was done on a grand scale that required months of planning, Queen for a Day has, from the beginning, been a much smaller operation. Its location, Mary Jane's, can only accommodate around 175 people (not counting the bands involved); it's not an all ages event; and the date that Toby Blunt felt would be fitting for the event, Mother's Day, occurs on a Sunday, when clubs generally do little business.

As was the case with '80s for AIDS, Koistinen chose Queen for a Day's lineup, this time selecting personal favorites and friends to ensure that the event is "as smooth and as fun as possible." While some invited bands -- such as Poor Dumb Bastards -- couldn't join up because of scheduling conflicts, those that could make the event were quick to sign on, given fond memories from '80s for AIDS, and, in some cases, a Queen fetish. Twelve bands committed: Bleachbath, de Schmog, Dry Nod, The Jinkies, Keenlies, Linus Pauling Quartet, Peglegasus, Rugrash, Rusted Shut, Sad Pygmy, Sasquatch 2000 and Smile 69. The songs were handed out on a first come, first grab basis. Some bands made their Queen choices when Koistinen contacted them; the remainder rummaged through the Queen catalog at an organizational meeting held at Mary Jane's in late April.

The bands were quick to discover that performing Queen songs is not an easy task. Besides the complexity of the arrangements, there's the obvious problem of matching the range of Mercury's vocals. "It would be blasphemy to say that anyone would dare actually cover Queen," exclaims Ramone Medina of Linus Pauling Quartet, who takes some time off of work at Half Price Books to point out that "the thing about Queen is that their stuff is so cheesy that it lends itself to being abused ... you don't have to actually sit there and go, 'I have to do a serious version of this.'"

Indeed, even though some of the bands are being schooled by Roberto Cofresi -- Dry Nod's vocalist/guitarist, as well as resident Queen expert and self-proclaimed "Music Coordinator" for Queen for a Day -- the performances at the benefit will probably be more interpretations than covers. For instance, Houston's loud-is-good rockers Rusted Shut will be fusing Queen's "We Will Rock You" with their own "Kill, Kill, Kill" to form "We Will Kill You." Besides song variations, some of the bands involved will feature guest performances, such as Joint Chief's vocalist Jay Maulsby harmonizing with The Jinkies on "Bohemian Rhapsody," and the long-defunct Sprawl's Jeff Nunnally and Clay Embry joining up with de Schmog on "Crazy Little Thing Called Love."

Medina believes -- or hopes -- that Queen for a Day will resemble a Replacements show, back "when they used to be a bunch of drunken idiots ... they would just walk up there and start playing songs that they couldn't make out how to play. They would play the chorus and that's about it; people would get pissed off and throw stuff at them."

"Hopefully we'll avoid the part about people getting pissed off and throwing stuff," Medina adds, "but I think it'll be the same attitude: just go over there and make a bunch of noise. I think it will be more fun than anything else."

It's the fun that's important; after all, benefits are commonplace and people certainly don't go to shows simply because they're raising money for some charity. The fact that the proceeds do go to a good cause is definitely a plus, though. And while some benefits donate only a portion of their proceeds, Queen for a Day is a rarity in that all proceeds from the door will go to AIDS Foundation Houston's emergency fund. The bands are, of course, playing for free. However profits from T-shirt sales will, Koistinen hopes, cover the cost of a keg of beer for the bands.

One thing that those involved in Queen for a Day are quick to remark upon is 27-year-old Koistinen. In particular, they point to her enthusiasm, hard work and dedication to helping raise money for AIDS charities. (Although Koistinen simply says she does it because "it's a blast.") As Keenlies frontman Brad Moore explained on a recent trip to Raja's Indian restaurant: "This is like one way that we can do our little part. We'd do a benefit for anything just 'cause we do enjoy drinking beer and playing rock and roll, but Diane [Koistinen] has focused us in the right direction, to do a real thing for a real cause. It's certainly something that everyone can be proud of. And it's Queen."

"What about Queen?" Moore was asked.
Wearing his patented stupid-ass grin, Moore proudly exclaimed, "Queen rocks!"

Queen for a Day will be 9 p.m.-2 a.m., Sunday, May 14 at Mary Jane's. Cover is $8. Doors open at 7 p.m. Call 869-JANE for info.

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Joe Hon