My whiskers are melting off my face from sweat. I am a last minute, Rite Aid-eared cat, and any bit of feline allure I once had has flown out the window by this point. As I’m squeezing my way past Alex from “A Clockwork Orange,” Tom Cruise from “Top Gun” and a disarmingly good Edward Scissorhands, I can’t stifle the thought that I look a little basic. This is, after all, the Blind Pig’s Halloween Band Masquerade — an event built on the power of the costume. But all great concerts bring salvation. This one is the perfect amount of dark: the stage, or whoever’s being resurrected on it, is the solely lit star of the show on this chilly Devil’s Night. I can hear the next band setting up while I stumble downstairs to the 8 Ball Saloon to use the little-kitties room. Rage Against the Machine is coming.
The bar looked a lot calmer in broad daylight some two days earlier, when I sat down — sans whiskers — with manager Jef Porkins to chat about all things spooky and musical. In the 15 years he has been working at the Blind Pig and adjacent 8 Ball Saloon, the Halloween Band Masquerade has been around for eight. The concert’s structure is pretty typical: gussied-up people saunter in around 9:20 p.m., grab a drink and listen to diverse sets brought about by some great local bands. What’s so spooky about that? Well, there’s the fact that all the bands are in full costume, boasting their best impersonations of musical icons and replicating those pioneers’ most adored songs.
“There was a band called Shellac in Chicago,” Porkins said, beginning the origin story. “They’re fronted by Steve Albini, who’s probably the most famous of the three of them. And they did a set as the Sex Pistols for Halloween once. I’ve heard it; it sounded terrible, but it was really funny. I thought it’d be funny to do shows like that, and just dress up as a band that nobody could see anymore and not be able to repeat it.”
To put that thought into motion, Porkins formed a band co-op called Arboco, in which roughly 12 local bands started to book shows together, pool the money earned from those shows and set it toward making each other’s records. The Halloween Band Masquerade is Arboco’s most successful (and now only) spawn.
“We did more shows, just like regular shows throughout the year. But this one became such a big show, and we were able to get so much money from it, that we were like, ‘Let’s just do that,’ ” Porkins said. “We have three more records to put out, but we only have money for two, so this year would be the last year we would have to do (the money pool). Then after that, if we keep doing it then we’d just split the money like a normal show.”
Porkins’s band, Scissor Now!, is a member of Arboco and one of the five performers set to jam at the event this year — as Led Zeppelin. The bands get to pick who they want to be, which is always a lengthy, deliberative process.
“Every single year, we’re loading up (after the show), and we’re like, ‘Next year, I want to be this.’ We came up with Zeppelin really early, I think in like February. I was screwing around, playing ‘Dazed and Confused’ on the bass, and the drummer just started playing it, and she (lead singer Jessica Bratus) started singing it,” Porkins said. “And then we listened to it, and we learned the other parts and we played it, and then I was like, ‘Do you guys want to be Led Zeppelin?’ I had no idea they were gonna say yes.”
Since Porkins is a bass player, I cheekily asked him how he’s going to pull off the non-descript charm of Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
“We don’t have a guitar player, so I’m splitting the signal from my bass and making it sound like a guitar, as well. And I’m gonna wear a Jimmy John’s uniform,” Porkins paused to laugh, “because it’s Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.”
Porkins values the way the Halloween Band Masquerade has challenged him over the years, pushing his musical boundaries by forcing his band to emulate artists to a T.
“To listen to all of those, and learn all these songs that I’ve always wanted to play and understand them more intimately, I think I’ve grown as a bass player — playing like Black Flag. I was in a band called Suicide by Cop and we did Black Flag the second year. And I just decided I wasn’t gonna be a slouch and I’d actually learn how to play like these very technical bass lines — for a punk band, at least. And it went really well.”
One of the unifying characteristics of the concert series is that bands are never replicated: once Led Zeppelin has played the Blind Pig, it can’t play again, so long as the masquerade continues. Why is this an impenetrable rule? Porkins laughed again.
“I think everybody would do The Misfits every year,” he said. “The other rule was that you can’t do a band that somebody could just go see right now anyway. But that’s kind of fallen by the wayside, as well, because Motorhead is still around — somebody did Motorhead. Daft Punk’s still around, and we did that. But I mean, if you’re gonna present it well and be good at it, why not?”
This year’s lineup is completed with Counter Crosby as Pink Floyd, Volcano Worshippers Hour as Rage Against the Machine, Cyrano Jones as The Kinks and JUNGLEFOWL as Björk. Porkins mused on the plight of artists who perform covers.
“That’s the one thing about this band (Led Zeppelin). The other bands, we try to do it straight, like they did on the record, things like that. For this one, we pretty much just have to make it our own. That’s what we do when we do covers, anyway. We change them a lot. Either you change them and make them your own, or you nail it.”
When Friday night approached, I began to realize how badly everyone wanted to nail it as I waltzed into the historic venue, cat ears just shy of “on fleek.” I stopped a woman wearing skin-tight bellbottoms — with a faux protrusion in the groin area — in the lobby. It turned out to be Jessica Bratus, the lead singer of Scissor Now! I complimented her on the accuracy of her below-the-belt Robert Plant simulation, and she smiled and pulled out the empty water bottle responsible for it. A local small business owner, Bratus relishes the ability to mimic the looks and moves of legends on stage every year.
“At this show, I have so much respect for the levels that the bands take it to. People are really professional about the band that they’re covering, so I think that the best part of this is watching other people,” Bratus said. “Also, for me personally, it’s taking on the role of who I’m performing as. I watch videos — I watch dance videos, like lots of performances, so I can emulate the moves that they do on stage. Robert Plant, he does a lot of nifty little moves and a lot of wrist-flicking, chest-out, hips out, shoulders back.” We snickered at the position she had wiggled herself into. “It’s really funny,” she said.
Then Björk walked past me, in swan dress and all. Melissa Coppola, second-year graduate student in the School of Music and lead singer of JUNGLEFOWL, was Björk.
“It’s nice to, like, get in character — you know — pretend I’m from Iceland,” Coppola said. She had already begun to adopt Björk’s staccato mannerisms at that point — and it only got better when she took the stage.
JUNGLEFOWL opened with “Earth Intruders,” which was eerily on point. Coppola, or Björk, would lower her body to the floor in throws of passion, shout out Icelandic-accented sentiments to the audience. Neon lights were rife as she sang “Birthday,” a Sugarcubes (Björk’s first band) song, which was one of the night’s highlights.
The Kinks came out next with their blue velvet jackets and white doily collars. “Lola” was the closer and the crowd favorite, of course — the whole audience was screaming to “Now I’m not the world’s most passionate guy … ” by the end. Cyrano Jones/The Kinks finished, and I realized my whiskers were melting off.
When I assumed my place after the bathroom, among vampires this time, Rage Against the Machine was mulling about the tiny stage. The lead singer of Volcano Worshippers Hour had put on a grandiose Zack de la Rocha wig, crisp white shirt and black armband. He was traipsing around, aggression brewing and building, until finally his band dropped the opening chords to “Bulls on Parade.”
The crowd erupted: moshing started in the front, and we couldn’t keep our bodies from thrashing to the screams of who we thought was the actual de la Rocha for the majority of the set. As far as we (the Tom Cruises and the cats alike) believed, Rage Against the Machine was in Ann Arbor — and for one night only.