If there's one thing that most bands have in common, it’s that they write their own songs. More than skill on any particular instrument or quality of voice, songwriting is considered the true measure of an artist. That wasn't always the case. Frank Sinatra was one of the most famous singers of his generation but he only wrote a few songs in his life. As late as the 60s, the roles of musician and songwriter were frequently separate. That's not really tolerated much these days.

Despite that sentiment, one group of bands refuses to give in. Despite all suggestions that they aren’t truly fulfilling an artistic goal, we still have people more than willing to create the antithesis to this artistic union – the cover band. Due to a weird coincidence in scheduling, I managed to see quite a few of these in the last two months. Between the multiple bands at Comes a Time, Phix playing a friend’s wedding, and the Phil and Friends webcast, I got to see many different variations on the theme. What makes some bands more interesting than others?

When forming a cover band, you start out with a basic decision in philosophy. Which approach do you want to use – recreating the original music or providing a new approach. The former approach seems to be easier in theory but the rewards are lessened. Cover bands might get mocked for not writing their own material, but those that rearrange their songs can lord it over the note for note reproducers. Moreover, there’s a challenge that’s harder to overcome – vocals.

If you want to sound just like Jerry on the guitar, that’s quite possible. Research what equipment he used, buy it, and practice practice practice. Maybe you could play in a manner that makes people remember why they got excited for his music in the first place. They could close their eyes as you played and they could believe for a moment that they were back. I’ve seen bands like that and invariably the moment is shattered the second they sing. The closer you get to bringing the illusion that you are seeing the originals, the less it takes for it to shatter. Vocals are quite distinctive. It’s hard to find someone who is talented enough to play guitar like Jerry, factor in that you also have to somehow make his voice sound close enough to not shatter the illusion and it’s a near impossible feat. The closest I’ve ever heard was the singer for the JGB set at Comes a Time.

JGB at Comes a Time

Even if you can get so close to the original that people might not know the difference if they were listening to a tape, there still is another disadvantage that you have. Writing a song together provides benefits for a jamband beyond giving you material to play. The best kind of jamming is spontaneous song writing. It’s the hard work of creating songs together that enable you to create great jams together. Phix were a lot of fun at George and Elayne’s wedding, and I’d love for them to play mine when and if it happens, but no one would confuse their jams with SPAC or anything. It’s not that they couldn’t play their instruments, as they had the ability to play the most complicated composition. Spending time with your own material makes it easier to explore on someone else’s.

Phix at George and Elayne’s wedding, Boone, NC

That’s the central irony of the cover band. While the reproduction bands may get a sound closer to the original, it’s the ones that rearrange the music that actually replicate the spirit. Phil and Friends might have an original band member, but there is no period of the Grateful Dead that has the style and frequency of jams that that band performs. Despite the enjoyment I had at the 1999 Warfield run, my favorite cover experience might be seeing Joe Gallant and Illuminati on their Blues for Allah Project tour. They played all of Blues for Allah among other material, rearranged for an orchestra. It was high energy and interesting and when I left, I felt the buzz that you only get from a great concert. It was proof that you don’t have to write your own material to blow people away. You just have to make it your own.

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html

He is the stats section editor
for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at http://www.livejournal.com/users/thezzyzx.