By D.C. Bloom
(LSM July/Aug 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 4)
“Man, these guys are great!” enthuses a sweaty, disheveled 50-something man jockeying to place his order at the bar at Austin’s Cedar Street Courtyard. “Just wait, the second set’s gonna be even better,” assures an equally sweaty, equally disheveled early 40-something woman in front of him, while behind them a 30-something hipster who’s clearly pacing himself — and in far better cardiovascular condition — says, “But the third set’s really killer.”
Such is the passion for Skyrocket! (exclamation point theirs, not ours), the hardest working ’70s and ’80s party band in the Live Music Capital of the World. Austin holds that distinction, of course, not for its cover bands that ply their craft in the city’s Sixth Street pickup bars, but because it’s a mecca for working musicians from around Texas hoping to make their mark playing their own original songs. But many end up rethinking their career objectives while playing $50 gigs on Tuesday nights before a handful of half-interested beer drinkers or totally disinterested diners. You don’t need to be Milton Friedman (Google him, youngsters) to understand that those are just the hard realities of supply and demand; for every venue that’s still in the business of booking live music, there’s, oh, maybe 300 or more bands and singer-songwriters hoping to land a gig that offers just a bit more than a few crumpled dollar bills in the tip jar.
The seven members of Skyrocket! have a “been there, done that, and we’re havin’ a lot more fun doing covers and we’re actually making some decent money” attitude about having put their individual musical careers on hold to become what is essentially a live Karaoke band for nostalgic adults with disposable income. But it’s not like these musicians didn’t have anything going on for themselves before banding together to rock corporate events and weddings putting their own spin on classics such as “Dancing Queen,” “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” “Tainted Love,” “Brass in Pocket and “Jesse’s Girl.” No, these Skyrocketeers! are about as far from your stereotypical dive-bar musical hacks as Cliff Richard is from Keith Richards — both of whom may find their songs being played by the band on any given night.
Between them, Skyrocket! members have released a dozen or so albums as solo artists or as band frontmen. Benjamin Hotchkiss, who will morph from Rod Stewart to Mick Jagger to David Bowie during the course of the Cedar Street Courtyard show, has fronted original Austin bands such as the Duckhills and the Real Heroes. Johnny Goudie’s band from the early aughts, called, Goudie, had major label releases to their credit, and he’s been the driving force behind a series of musical mutations, from Mr. Rocket Boy in the mid-90s to his latest, Liars & Saints. Trish Murphy, whose brother, Darin, plays drums for Skyrocket!, is not only the band’s designated Material Girl, she also boasts the most impressive discography with four critically-acclaimed albums to her credit. The rest of the band is rounded out by lead guitarist Paul English and multi-instrumentalists Corey Glaeser and Kyle Crusham, all of whom are solo artists in their own right or have played with the likes of Will Sexton and Fastball.
“I actually hired Skyrocket!, then called the K-Tel Hit Machine, to play my last CD release show (for 2005’s Girls Get in Free),” Murphy says. “And then I started thinking, ‘I wanna be in this band.” She’s aware that some may see it as an act of slumming of sorts for a successful singer-songwriter to be performing other people’s songs in a goodtime party band, but Murphy suggests that this narrow job descriptor “doesn’t connote the level at which we aspire to do it.” She contrasts what Skyrocket! does with the feeling she had after seeing a YouTube video of Rain, Broadway’s tribute to the Beatles. Murphy says she felt a tad sorry for the players “because they couldn’t infuse it with anything of themselves. They absolutely had to be these copy characters.”
Skyrocket!’s covers aren’t cookie cutter or moldy by any means; the band has the mad musical skills, the sheer numbers, and the theatrical bent to pull off oldies in a new and clever way that keeps fans coming back — not just to hear their favorite classics again, but to see what the band comes up with next. “We’re at the stage now,” Murphy says, “where we try to think, ‘What can we do next that will be one more song that we can do that we can say we really did it crazy great?”
Skyrocket! pays tribute to a veritable jukebox full of hits, seeding their sets with those recognizable riffs from an earlier time that get their fans’ booties shaking and air guitars jamming. Or, as Murphy points out, they’ll play “lost or forgotten one-hit wonders” that illicit “oh, yeah, I remember that band” responses from their audiences. But their focus is on conjuring up fond memories of another era. For other acts that can be labeled as tribute bands, the objective is to pay homage to an individual band.
That’s the goal of Beatlegras, the Dallas-based bluegrass trio comprised of Dave Walser, George Anderson and Milo Deering that brings a Bill Monroe vibe to the Lennon & McCartney songbook. This Fab Three, which has released three albums, creates what Walser describes as “an original take on the Beatles — but if it starts to sound too much like the Beatles, we need to keep working on it.
“We like to improv around something that sounds good and funnel into the familiar,” Walser explains. “It’s kind of a game for the audience to keep guessing where we’re going.”
So they mash up the down-home bluegrass sounds with the Mersey Beat, fusing, for example, “Orange Blossom Special” into “I Saw Her Standing There,” or vamping out a funky upright bass line for three minutes before launching into “Lady Madonna” and its signature riff. The fact that bassist Deering didn’t grow up listening to a lot of Beatles music also helps keep Beatlegras from sticking too closely to the original versions. “We’d suggest something like ‘Norwegian Wood’ at a rehearsal, and he’d go ‘How’s it go?’”
Beatlegras’s rousing set at Austin’s Old Settler’s Music Festival in April may have been their rooftop performance, so to speak, because after seven years of constant touring all over the United States, Walser reports that the trio is “taking a break for awhile.” They may not be off the road all that long, though, because in the next breath Walser also reports that the lure of Beatles’ music played in a different way has recently attracted fellow Metroplexer and guitar ace, Rhett Butler. Butler, who can play two guitars — very well — at the same time is interested in playing some local gigs with the group, and, as Walser puts it, “we’ll see what happens.” With any luck, they’ll soon get back to where they once belonged.
Hell’s Belles, an AC/DC tribute band, has been on the Highway to Hell for more than a decade now. Adrian Conner, the gang’s Angus Young doppleganger who joined the band in September of 2001, attributes the band’s longevity to the fact that hard-rock fans seem to enjoy the novelty of hearing songs like “You Shook Me All Night Long” lustily performed by an all-female group.
“I’m a super-fan of AC/DC,” Conner enthuses. “Theirs is some of the best rock and roll ever written.” And mining that rich vein of rock gold is what has kept the band flying around the country and in much demand since their first show. Over the years, Hell’s Belles have opened for such groups as Megadeth, RATT and Great White. But they pull in plenty of fist-pumping punters just fine on their own, too. “People know they’re going to have a good time at our shows,” Conner says. “It’s affordable, and they don’t have to think about it too much.”
But with only so many consumer dollars to go around for concerts, the hold that tribute bands have can be a double-edged sword for someone like Conner. “It’s a bit wearisome, because I write original music, too,” admits Connner, who outside of Hell’s Belles also fronts her own Austin band, Adrian and the Sickness, which has released three albums since 2004. Their most recent, B.F.D., was produced by fellow Austin resident, Kathy Valentine, of the Go-Go’s fame.
“If my original band drew the crowds Hell’s Belles does, I’d be pretty well known,” Conner jokes. Still, the chance to play the manic Angus Young affords her the chance to “be a real rock star,” and she says she hopes to stay with it is “as long as I can do the physical part.
“It’s a real workout,” she continues. “You should see my abs.”
For others, doing the physical part means bearing a strong physical resemblance to the icons whose music they’re honoring and mimicking. Some of these wannabes edge dangerously close to kinda-actually-think-they-really-are-and-that’s-rather-scary and stay in character 24/7. They’re the truly fanatical ones like the fellow Mark Wahlberg played in the 2001 movie, Rock Star, who know every mundane and trivial aspect of their character’s life and career and wouldn’t think of being inauthentic for even a second. They blur the line between playing covers and getting creepy about it all. These also are the folks who will turn to plastic surgery to make themselves look even more Elvis-ish or Michael Jackson-like.
Brent Brunson, however, didn’t have to resort to those extremes, because Providence blessed him with genuine George Strait looks. “I get stopped all the time for autographs by people who swear I’m him,” says Brunson, who’s actually a bit younger than the real deal.
Sounding and looking like a reasonable facsimile for the King of Country to star-struck fans who want to believe they’re in Strait’s presence is one thing, but pulling off the feat while singing with members of the Ace in the Hole band is quite another. But Brunson, who’s been doing his straight-up Stait tribute act for only a few years now, apparently holds his own just fine when he performs with bona fide Aces up his sleeve like Benny McArthur and Ronnie Huckaby. And passing for a legend with nearly 60 No. 1 hits has its privileges — like commanding as much as $15,000 a gig. That’ll buy even an impersonator some pretty decent ocean-front property.
Tapley Entertainment, based in Dallas, bills itself as “the complete source for national acts, dance and show bands, comedy acts & lookalikes for entertainment & special events.” If you’re in the market for some Sharp Dressed Men, a ZZ Top Tribute band, they can hook you up. Or perhaps it’s some Voodoo Blue you’re after to get your Stevie Ray Vaughan fix. Then there are bands paying tribute to Jimmy Buffet (Adventures in Parrotdise); Barry Manilow (Chanilow!); Tom Petty (Petty Theft); and even the Jonas Brothers (the Bonus Brothers). Or suppose you’ve always wondered what Elvis would have sounded like if he’d been the love child of Lars Ulrich and Ozzy Osbourne. If so — and if it were biologically possible, of course — there’s Metal Elvis, the Elvis tribute “with a twist.” But if you’re looking for an evening of Texas Music Appreciation 101, then there’s no better choice than the band Lone Star Attitude, according to the firm’s David Tapley.
Lone Star Attitude sprang out the Texas Music Project that the state legislature created in 2003 to support music education in Texas schools. Lone Star Attitude furthers this cause with a stage act that features the wide array of music created by Texas artists. “Their sets feature songs from everyone from Roy Orbison to Eryka Badu,” says Tapley. “It’s everything that is Texas music.” Lone Star Attitude’s Jon Christopher Davis adds, “With so many influential artists, it’s easy to forget just how many Texans have shaped the American musical map over the last 50 years.” That’s what a Lone Star Attitude show is designed to do: remind audiences — or help them realize for the first time — the breadth and scope of Texas music.
“They’re ambassadors for Texas music,” Tapley says. “They give them a Texas experience, but they don’t do impersonations.”
For that, Tapley offers something called the “Cavalcade of Stars,” which treats audiences to performers who actually look and sound the part of musical legends both dead and alive. “This allows people to witness singers they couldn’t see,” says Tapley, which is a bit oxymoronic, but you get the picture. “It’s a fantasy approach,” he offers, and the fantasy is big box office. The Cavalcade has been rolling for over 20 years, entertaining audiences all over the world. A typical three-hour show will run a corporate event planner $8,500. But with that price, they’re able to pick from a vast menu of faux performers: say, a Willie Nelson or Reba McEntire from column A or Madonna and Cher from column B.
Back at Cedar Street Courtyard, the emphasis is clearly more on fun than fantasy. While Skyrocket! members will get theatrical from time to time — with Murphy donning lace fingerless gloves, for example, to parrot vintage Madonna’s MTV persona — it’s certainly not a cheesy lounge act these talented musicians are putting on. And they’re often challenged to grow as performers to do justice to bygone songs, going beyond their comfort zones with their instruments or having to hone new musical skills.
Further, as Murphy points out, “we all end up craving opportunities to do our own original stuff or to participate in others’ original projects.” Johnny Goudie has taken months off from Skyrocket! to tour with Ian Moore, and Murphy admits she’s “starting to get the itch” to get back into the studio herself after recently lending vocals to Robyn Ludwick’s latest release. Still, there’s a commitment to keeping Skyrocket! soaring as long as their fans are demanding that ’70s music show — and particularly since the band’s members have come to depend on the pretty reliable revenue stream that the covers game has earned them. So they’ll probably continue to be out there most every weekend, setting off blasts from the past while selling ample quantities of adult beverages.
“The bottom line, you know, in so many ways, is if you’re a working musician it’s a freefall all the time,” says Murphy. “It’s a freefall whether you land on an awning for a while or not.”
As Skyrocket! launches into Tom Petty’s “American Girl” for their smiling, dancing, slightly drunk and slurringly-singing- along Cedar Street Courtyard fans, it’s clear this particular awning’s gonna hold just fine for some time to come.