Tonight in Ann Arbor, Sinatra’s voice may fill a local club where swaying couples hold each other arm-in-arm. In Detroit, Led Zeppelin may be belting out “Black Dog” for a just-married bride and groom. In a Grand Rapids coffee shop, The Beatles may be harmonizing for sipping listeners. These icons haven’t played shows for more than 30 years, but you can still hear them live. Well, sort of.
This is the beauty of cover bands, eclectic groups of friends, families or even strangers taking a break from their day jobs as engineers, furniture store managers or kindergarten teachers to become rockers and soulful jammers by night. These bands bring our favorite tunes alive while straddling the line between income and passion — making money while making music.
Two Ann Arbor-area cover bands, The Remix Band and The Vintage, have been playing shows around Michigan for about five years. The origins of Remix are more akin to a family than anything else. The four senior members, Kirk Lawrence (drums), Doug Haskins (vocals) and husband-and-wife pair Ross and Jana Doolittle (keyboards) had been playing together for about 10 years as Zero Gravity before deciding to start Remix. Kirk’s wife, Karen Lawrence (auxiliary percussion), joined in 2008. In 2010, they were joined by one of Ross Doolittle’s ex-high-school-band-students, current ‘U’ student Aaron Wallace (guitar). The beginnings of The Vintage are slightly less complicated: Five years ago, Ron Tippin moved from Georgia to Michigan, found drummer Mark Wilson and bassist Rik Latta, and began booking cover gigs.
The bands blur the line between “original band” and “cover band.” At many events, Remix intersperses cover songs with originals from Zero Gravity. The Vintage doesn’t pepper its performances with original songs, but the group does have an original band, Wide Track, which features the same members and has released two albums and plays benefit concerts in the area.
“It’s really hard when you try to be an original band and a cover band at the (same) time. You’re kind of working at cross purposes,” Tippin said.
The bands may have different backgrounds and styles, but their goals remain the same: to provide the enjoyment of a live show and supplement their day-job incomes. Sitting in his home in Dexter, Kirk Lawrence talked about part of the motivation behind Remix.
“We decided, ‘Hey, let’s do this, let’s start this thing up. See if we can make a few bucks at it, because we seem to have a lot of fun with it.’ ”
A cover band is a business — all the passion in the world won’t pay for gas and instruments. Lawrence discussed how hard it is to say no to gigs that can’t pay enough to cover Remix’s expenses. Remix goes where the work is, and Lawrence described how the band often used to perform in Saginaw, but is progressively playing more and more shows near the bigger cities in southern Michigan, such as Ann Arbor, Detroit and Lansing. The reason is clear.
“The economy is certainly a lot better here than it is north,” Lawrence said. “We’re hopeful we get a little bit more down in this area … (but) in this area there is a lot more solid economy.”
Karen Lawrence noted why Ann Arbor is so appealing for cover bands: “There’s a large population of younger people down here.”
While a main provider for shows is weddings, a large clumping of college-age students provides a notable opportunity for these bands. And every band, whether original or cover, heads to where the opportunity exists. For Remix, these gigs aren’t always perfect, but playing in freezing weather or in clouds of angry insects is a part of the job, and they’re doing what they love.
It can be a tough career, but in Ann Arbor and the surrounding areas, such hardship can produce a type of artistic strength.
“It’s very blue-collar around here,” said Tippin, who has lived in Georgia, California and Chicago. “People are used to fighting for what they want, fighting for carving their space out in the world. I’ve seen some amazing original music, and the cover bands tend to have a more original approach about them. There’s just a lot of artistic, and massive (do-it-yourself) ethic in these parts.”
The goal is to be heard, to get gigs and to provide a great live show.
“There’re a lot of bands, a lot of musicians trying to do the same thing,” Tippin said.
Aside from money and the difficulty of getting shows, the main thing is the actual music and the joy of the performance. Tippin talked about the “immediate energy” of a live show, which can’t be found anywhere but in front of a band. For both groups, the most important thing is giving the audience a stellar show, and it’s obvious that Remix and The Vintage can’t imagine not going out and playing music.
“Anytime people are getting into it, and ready to have a party, to get down to music, it’s going to be a memorable night. We just love to do it so much,” Tippin said.
Aaron Wallace talked about the happiness of playing at weddings.
“For the most part, when two families come together, they are in a good mood, especially if they know each other, and it seems like the air is kind of different,” he said.
Lawrence added via e-mail, “It’s a great feeling for us when someone comes up and thanks us for being a part of their wedding and tells us they had a GREAT time! That’s the payoff for us!”
Tippin described a different type of atmosphere that The Vintage enjoys.
“We are most in our element when we do concert performances. We won the Doug-FM Battle of the Cover Bands last year, and we opened up for White Snake and Tesla at (DTE Energy Music Theater) in Auburn Hills. When we did that, it was come out and play like you’re doing a concert. Even though we do cover tunes, we view ourselves as more of an original band doing covers or remakes.”
For cover bands, there’s always a struggle between artistic expression and monetary gain. Still, Remix and The Vintage have found a healthy middle ground on which to play. With each song, even if it’s another artist’s work, they find an opportunity to create a connection with the audience, to bring out a spirit in the song that can’t be found outside of a live performance.
“Most musicians would tell you the first love is to write and record your own music,” Tippin said. “Hearing your music recorded for the first time, that’s always the ultimate thrill. But when you’re playing covers, you’re basically a live DJ, and to get a packed dance floor for covers is a big thrill too.”