The marketing department of Universal Pictures surely had high hopes in 1980 for the release of the studio's movie Xanadu. After all, it was a glitzy romantic musical fantasy starring Olivia Newton-John, the gang leader from The Warriors, and aging, toupeed song-and-dance man Gene Kelly. And it had scenes with roller skating. What could possibly go wrong?
“I remember watching that movie as a kid and liking it and digging the soundtrack,” singer Thomas Escalante offers. “But then I saw it again recently and realized just how…bad it was!”
Oh well. However, the box office flop has had at least one local legacy in inspiring the name of the Escalante-fronted new cover band that, even though they've had only two gigs under their studded belts, are likely going to have a very busy 2017.
Xanadudes (Now We Are Here) is the latest sonic offshoot of the Continental Club Mafia. The loose collective of musicians based at the midtown venue features about a dozen players, each in seemingly a dozen different bands, with more cross-pollination of lineups than a Marvel/DC crossover event.
The beautiful thing about the Continental Mafia over the years is that no idea – whether hatched in sobriety or not – is too outlandish to go from casual conversation to an actual concert. All B-52’s and Monkees cover bands? Sure! A polka group with tuba, accordion and grown men wearing lederhosen who open shows with a cover of the Luv Ya Blue-era anthem "Houston Oilers #1?" Perfect!
While ostensibly an ’80s cover band, this particular lineup concentrates on a set list dominated by pop, synth-pop, new wave and post-punk tunes. But what’s interesting is that while they roll out big MTV numbers like Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf,” Gary Numan’s “Cars,” David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Men at Work’s “Who Can it Be Now?” they also dig deeper.
That means you’ll also hear Tears for Fears, The Vapors and Spandau Ballet. And when they go to tunes by Devo and Talk Talk, it’s “Girl U Want” and “It’s My Life” rather than “Whip It” or “Talk Talk.”
“There’s a ton of songs that are like that, that people love but maybe have forgotten about,” Escalante says. “The main thing is that we want to have fun.”
It was late 2015 when Escalante first had the idea to put together the group, following a conversation with Continental Club owner (and don of said mafia) Pete Gordon. But he knew he needed a strong synth player – the instrumental foundation of so much of the music he wanted the band to play.
Enter Mark Beebe, who coincidentally had just started really getting into the instrument, and whose brothers Paul and David are charter Mafia members. It was Paul who made a recommendation for his big brother’s finger services.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve for me, the most challenging musical endeavor on which I’ve embarked, but also probably the most rewarding,” Beebe says, adding that other members fill out the sound by playing “synthy” riffs on their instruments.
The group held initial rehearsals in January 2016, with their first gig in March at Big Top Charley’s Shoeshine Lounge. They had to add the “(Now We Are Here)” part to their name after discovering there was already a group named the Xanadudes – a Rush cover band.
After much woodshedding, their next show was last November at the Continental to a packed, highly enthusiastic house, along with their namesake movie's being screened on the wall during the show. The lineup now is Escalante (vocals), Beebe (synth/guitar), Jason Davis (guitar), Blake Powell (bass), Philip White (drums), Mitch Pengra (keyboards) and Chuy Terrazas (sax).
All dress the part of the ’80s to varying degrees, perhaps none more so than Beebe in a blond wig, white-rimmed shades, white shirt and skinny black tie. Beebe says that the “costumes” certainly add a visual impact for the audience. The sartorial splendor also allows the self-described “nondescript, bald, engineer-guy” to exude more rock and roll while providing some “liberating anonymity” in a different persona.
In a bigger picture, cover bands in Houston are definitely on a huge upswing in popularity, appearing in clubs small and large and at festivals as well as the usual private events like weddings and class reunions. That brings up an interesting dichotomy and the oft-debated question: Are cover bands “real” bands? Since they don't write their own material? Even their members — many of whom create original music in other avenues — have their own internal conflicts.
Perhaps no group better exemplifies this than Skyrocket!, the act led by brother/sister duo (and Houstonians-turned-Austinites) Trish and Darin Murphy.
After years spent performing their original music, they formed the ’70s/’80s cover group of like-minded players for a bit of fun. But saw it…well…skyrocket in popularity as bookings exploded and they gig to larger and larger audiences and venues who joyfully know every word to every song.
“You can’t deny that everybody wants to do their own material, but the [cover band] thing has taken off pretty quickly with all the nostalgia,” Escalante says, adding he admires cover bands who can make a living out of it and still have fun doing it.
“There was a time when I was snobbish about cover bands, but I’ve gotten over that,” Beebe adds. “I see how much the audience enjoys the music. Sometimes they just want to go out with their friends and have a good time and hear music they know. But I’m on the fence about it. It’s a double-edged sword.”
Locally, audiences for ’80s cover bands like Molly & the Ringwalds, Thunderpants, the Molly Ringwalds, the Spicolis and the Spazmatics are a mixture of middle-agers who remember hearing (and seeing on MTV) these ’80s songs while they were on the charts, and younger fans who are discovering the music now.
From personal experience, he says that while his own two young daughters might dance to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” or Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” they will actually choose to hear Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” or Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” Beebe says that he now hears ’80s music all the time in grocery stores, whereas when he was growing up, it was the oldies of the ’50s and ’60s wafting through the produce and frozen food aisles.
For the upcoming gig, Xanadudes (Now We Are Here) plan a mini-set tribute to George Michael with some new songs. They already cover Wham’s “Everything She Wants” and have a version of “Last Christmas” (recorded before Michael’s death) on their website. “What a loss, what an incredible voice,” Escalante says.
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But he doesn’t expect that, as now, there will be any sort of serious studying of sheet music for new material. “When we want to try a new song, we just kind of show up and play it by ear!” he laughs. “And we put it together like pieces of a puzzle.”
As for 2017, Head ’Dude Escalante says that he has plans to expand the band’s set list (he wants them to take a stab at Oingo Boingo’s “Dead Man’s Party), and possibly outside the ’80s, as well as adding a female vocalist. He promises other surprises for the extended Continental “Family.”
“Guys like Pete Gordon, Allen Hill and David Beebe when he lived here, they’re who I see as the Implementers,” Escalante sums up. “But Pete always calls me the ‘Idea Man.’ And I think that’s my role in this Mafia!”