It was Friday night at a crowded club. I was taking refuge near the back, sipping water out of a small plastic cup. All around me happy partyers fought for position at the bar, flirted with members of the opposite sex and dripped sweat on the dance floor. Occasionally I'd remove a pocket notebook from my coat and write about a unique outfit I saw or a clever pick up line I heard. Then, I'd replace the notebook and take another sip of water.
A typical grueling night of work for the Volcano's Meat Market Correspondent.
I was just about to pack it in (toss away my plastic cup) when I overheard a curious conversation between two bar employees. The gist of the conversation was simple: One night during the previous week the bar was unusually busy. Not knowing what do to keep the patrons occupied, one of the employees overrode the jukebox and plugged his iPod into the speakers. According to the employee, the dance floor was packed within minutes. The iPod killed. Rocked the house.
"You should have seen the place," I remember the employee saying.
On my way home I thought about the implications of the employee's claims. If what he said was true, if a smattering of songs from an iPod could instill in people an intense desire to dance, then why should a nightclub ever pay for an entertainer? Why bother if an iPod could amp up the crowd just as well as a DJ or a band? Bars around the South Sound could buy iPods, download a list of Billboard‘s Top 100 and be good to go. Some bars in town do it already. People hardly seem to mind.
Thinking this might be true made me sad. Nostalgic, too. Were skilled DJs and live bands relics of the past? What happened to the days when you could head into town on a Friday night and know a local rock band was waiting to greet you? A band of hometown favorites that never quite made it to the big time. Guitarists with the fingers of Eddie Van Halen; singers with the range of Janis Joplin. The experienced bassist who holds it all together. Everyone in the band strutting, hair-flipping and belting out your favorite songs, all for your nighttime amusement.
What happened to the days of the cover band?
Meet Stir Crazy
To confirm my theory that live acts are quickly disappearing from nightclubs, I decide to seek out and talk with a local cover band. In years gone by, cover bands were a staple at wedding receptions and high school dances, knowing perennial party favorites like "Brick House" and "Don't Stop Believing" backwards and forwards.
In my many months reviewing meat markets, I've only seen two cover bands: KRY at The Swiss and Stir Crazy at the Emerald Queen Casino. Both bands tore it up. The crowd, the bar, the music, everything. Stir Crazy especially. A babe lead singer. A veteran, talented band. If anyone knows about the current state of cover bands, it's these guys. I want to know what, if any, change they have seen since popular music seems to have stepped away from five-piece guitar and drums to a synthesized, digital style. Have Stir Crazy found their gigs drying up? Plus, for the sake of my own nostalgia, I want to hang with a band that loves classic rock. Whose guitarists drink beer and love Yngwie Malmsmteen. A bassist and drummer who know the ropes. A singer who has the voice of Janis Joplin and the looks of Gracie Slick.
Again, Stir Crazy is my band.
I arrange to meet Stir Crazy at the South Pacific in Tumwater. Stir Crazy's bassist Brad Hoglan explains to me beforehand that the South Pacific, or "the Paw" as the locals call it, is one of the few clubs left where the band can really let their long hair flow freely. It's an intimate setting, friends come in droves and the band can drink booze, something other clubs and casinos bar acts from doing.
I arrive to the Paw a couple of hours before Stir Crazy is set to go on. I find Hoglan and his wife, Lisa, the promoter and light operator for Stir Crazy, sitting in the back of the club munching on appetizers. Hoglan is in his 50s. He wears a leather jacket and a funky hat. The couple greet me with smiles and I'm immediately welcomed to join in on the appetizers.
Munching on the salty piece of pork, I first ask Hoglan how he got into music. Hoglan says he picked up the bass after first hearing Grand Funk Railroad. "When I heard Mel (the bass player for Grand Funk) play on the Red Album, I went, ‘I'm doing that,‘" Hoglan says.
From that moment he was hooked. Hoglan has played in cover bands (originals weren't his thing) from high school onward. Hoglan says he's been in a number of bands, starting another up as soon as one falls apart. Hoglan likes all types of music, but it‘s rock that he loves. It's what inspires him. Stir Crazy as a band is also inspired by good ol' rock and roll. Grand Funk, Journey, CCR. But about five years ago, Hoglan says the band had to start incorporating more dance songs.
"Of course we've had to change things up a little bit because there were less places to play," Hoglan says. "We started switching up about five years ago. Started adding dance."
Interesting, I think, cracking into an egg roll. Why would a band with roots steeped in the heavy riffs of Grand Funk start adding in Lady Gaga and (gasp!) disco songs? But before Hoglan has a chance to elaborate, the rest of the band shows up. I'm quickly introduced to Mary Studebaker, Scottie McDevitt, Rob Rideout and Jeff Super; not to mention their wives and fiancées. I shake hands with the band and try to nod and smile. There's a distinct atmosphere of "why is this dude interviewing us," but the band is friendly anyway. Gradually they start to open up about Stir Crazy, their experiences and why it's rare to see a cover band out at a club.
After Hoglan, Studebaker is the first one in the band to warm up and agree to talk into my recorder. At 38, Studebaker is the youngest member of Stir Crazy. The band's lead vocalist for the past eight years, Studebaker started singing in cover bands when she was 20. She says at one point she tried to make it professionally as an actress and singer in Boston, but quickly realized it would be impossible to support herself on money from gigs and non-existent acting jobs. Now she is happy working as a chef during the day and belting out songs at night. Studebaker is more of a sultry, hard-nosed sass talker than a prissy diva. She smokes, drinks and has no problem talking about her personal life.
"Stir Crazy is the longest relationship I've ever had," she says, laughing.
Studebaker says she's lucky to still make money singing while other live bands - cover and otherwise - struggle to find places to play. She's also not shy when admitting that cover bands are decreasing in popularity.
"There's DJs, karaoke, and they're cheaper for a club than live bands," she explains.
Studebaker sees today's popular music as not needing live bands. Digital music, she calls it. Computerized. She argues that while digital music has its place, nothing comes close to seeing an old-school five-piece band live and kicking.
"It's easy to program something into a computer," she says. "But it takes practice and talent to make songs sound close to the record."
After we talk for a while, Studebaker excuses herself and starts to get ready for the show. I grab a beer (gotta stay limber) and search out McDevitt and Super. McDevitt, Stir Crazy's drummer, and Super, one of the band's guitarists, are polar opposites in terms of personality. McDevitt is nothing but smiles and laughs. Having come very close to losing everything he had (McDevitt went through what he calls a "dark patch"), McDevitt seems like a man who is grateful for a second chance. Everything is looking up. Super, on the other hand, is a tad more reserved. Widely regarded by other members of Stir Crazy as the artiste, Super's serious demeanor is hard to break through. His arena-rock haircut and open shirt are more Ronnie James Dio than local band. Although he is friendly, he's definitely intimidating. Thank God I grabbed a beer.
While the two have incredibly different personalities, their knowledge of the local cover band scene runs parallel. Both McDevitt and Super have been playing in cover bands for most of their lives. They rifle off the names of now-defunct clubs (the Firwood, Evergreen Ballroom, The Trails) and talk about "back then" with a little gleam in their eye, like veteran quarterbacks remembering their college days. McDevitt says he can recall a time in the 1980s when cover bands were booked to play five nights a week.
"In a lot of the rooms now it's unheard of that one band will play a whole weekend at one place," McDevitt says. "Anymore, it's one band per night. And that's it."
Super says he was playing so much in the ‘80s he made a living off cover music. Now, making a living off cover tunes is nearly impossible. The days of the large club scene, the large selection of bands and the month-long bookings are gone.
"There's a lot more casinos to play," he says. "And while that opens up avenues, I don't think it's quite the same as the amount of clubs in the past."
Just before the band goes onstage I find Rideout. Another guitarist, Rideout has a couple theories about why cover bands are no longer flooding the South Sound. Like Studebaker, he thinks DJs and karaoke bars have taken away a large share of the market. He also speculates that increased smoking and DUI laws cut down on the number of people heading out at night. Fewer customers means less money for the bars, and they simply can't afford to pay live acts. But as one of the most laid-back members of Stir Crazy, Rideout isn't stressing out about the lack of nightclubs to play in.
"It goes in waves," he says, "and it's starting to make a comeback." While sipping a beer, Rideout casually pontificates on the importance of live music - cover bands or otherwise - and why it will never be surpassed by an iPod.
"It's a connection between the music and the audience," Rideout says. "(Live music) gets people amped up, gets them dancing."
"Don't Tell Me You Love Me"
After talking with Rideout, I grab a seat and watch the band warm up. I flip through my notes. One thing is clear: cover bands have faded away from the club scene. Why does this make me sad? Is it because I have a soft spot in my heart for old-time, head-banging rock? Is it because, like Studebaker, I don't think the digital stuff is as much fun? But like Rideout says, everything goes in cycles. And I'm in the cycle - the generation - of the iPod. All I have to do is wait 10 or 15 years before live music comes back into the mainstream. In the meantime, if I'm looking for live music, I could stick to original bands (of which the South Sound has a plethora) and not worry so much about the nightclubs.
As the night goes on I forget to worry about the state of live music in the nightclubs. Stir Crazy picks up and I'm sucked into the show: Studebaker wailing on Journey. Rideout and Super going head-to-head on Night Ranger's "Don't Tell Me You Love Me". McDevitt pumping up the crowd before Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." Big Bad Brad bobbin‘ his head to Katie Perry. Drinks are poured; couples dance. My ears ring from the mammoth PA system. Everyone in the crowd feeds off Stir Crazy's energy. I'm worked into a lather by the end of the second set.
Fine. Let the iPods stay. Just make sure the good cover bands are still hanging around when I need to really let loose.