They say that familiarity contempt. I say that they have never been to New Orleans, where familiarity breeds comfort, friendships and occasionally rabid fanfare. Never is this more obvious than when attending a concert by one of the city’s top cover bands. Anyone who has ever seen Bag of Donuts, The Top Cats, The Chee-Weez, or The Molly Ringwalds knows that these bands have more of a devoted following than many of the acts they cover. New Orleans musicians are widely respected as some of the best in the world, and many members of these bands fit that superlative.
Why then, are they playing other people’s music?
Well, while our musicians are top-rate, the hoi polloi’s tastes are a wee bit less sophisticated. In other words, the general public would rather sing along to a Bon Jovi tune than try to hum along to some experimental jazz. That is most likely true the world over, but here in the Crescent City, we are lucky enough to have the crème-de-la-crème of cover bands.
Bag of Donuts is arguably the first of the “concept” cover bands to surface in New Orleans. With outlandish costumes, cartwheels, contraptions (one that shoots toilet paper as far as the eye can see!), and K&B whiskey, the show has a circus-like-feel to it. The undeniable (and unstoppable) ringleader of the madness is Bobby Hoerner, who will stop at nothing to get a crowd pumped up. The band consists of four members: John Duplantis, lead vocals, Jonathan Hoemer, guitar/vocals, Jerry Christopher, bass/vocals, and Kevin George on “lead drums and samples.”
Bag of Donuts cover rock songs spanning many decades. Don’t be surprised if you only hear half of a song or a medley of songs with the same bass line (e.g. “Superfreak,” “New Age Girl,” “Can’t Touch This”). This band is not as concerned with song accuracy as they are with amusing the audience. They do not take themselves too seriously and encourage the crowd to embrace the absurd. Drummer Kevin George explains why these cover bands all do so well: “There is a common strand in all of us, with the gimmicks, showmanship and music selections, but everybody does it differently.” When asked what sets them apart from the other bands, George responded, “Other bands will do it better but we’re guaranteed to do it drunker.”
The Top Cats recently celebrated their 25th anniversary, indicating the cover bands are no passing fad. This band is all about crowd participation. The drummer and lead vocalist Robert Schulte will strap on a bongo and literally dash into the audience inciting conga lines wherever he goes. The band has four members, all of which have been there for the twenty-five year duration: Robert Schulte, drums/vocals, Buzzy Beano, guitar/vocals, David Gamble, keyboards, and Pat Campbell, bass/vocals. The song selections are often surprising (“The Cupid Shuffle,” “Back That Ass Up,” and “Hot, Hot, Hot” to name a few), but the enthusiasm is contagious. Schulte’s take on the cover band’s popularity: “It’s like red beans and rice —why do we have to have it every Monday?” He agrees that the comfort of songs we all know and love plays a big role in the experience. Why are these bands dominating the cover band scene? Schulte explains, “It’s more of an event.” That’s an understatement; make sure you bring your dancing shoes.
The Chee-Weez often take to the stage in matching theme-inspired costumes (S.W.A.T. team, disco, Blue Man Group.) The vocally driven show spans the decades as well as the genres. During the energetic show, you might hear Kid Rock, Def Leppard, and David Allen Coe without ever noticing how eclectic a mix these tunes really are. The players are: Kris LaCoste, lead vocals, Daniel Dicharry, keyboards/vocals, Mark Hebert, drums, Matt Richard, lead guitar/vocals, Brandon Foret, guitar/sax/vocals, and Joey Mangiapane on bass and vocals. The performers launch themselves around the stage like seven-year olds at the jungle gym—no small feat when the powerhouse LaCoste is still able to belt out Journey without losing a lung. The band clearly feeds off the crowd’s energy. Dicharry says the success of the bands has everything to do with the crowd: “People like to go out and listen to familiar songs, [to] sing along and get s*#t-faced.” When attending a Chee-Weez show, you are likely to satisfy all of these desires and a few you haven’t thought of yet!
When attending The Molly Ringwalds concerts, you can’t help but wonder if you’ve left Louisiana and have somehow magically been transported to Vegas. The self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest 80’s Tribute Band” has a stage show boasting intelligent lighting, light boxes, pyrotechnics, kabuki drops, and multiple widescreen airing parody videos starring the five band members. The cast of characters are: Sir Devon Nooner, guitar/vocals, Platinum Randi Wylde, lead guitar/vocals, Dickie English, keyboards/vocals, Lord Phillip “Hot Tub” Wang, bass/vocals, and Sir Liam Thunders on drums and vocals. They all dress as notable characters from the eighties and speak with English accents. In a unique twist, there is no lead singer- they each take turns singing lead and all participate in chillingly accurate harmonies (“Mr. Roboto” will blow your mind!). Nooner tends to play the role of frontman with an easy rapport, witty interactions, and reckless abandon with regard to dance moves. The Molly Ringwalds play strictly eighties songs, ranging from predictable (“Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield) to obscure (“Too Shy” by Kaja Goo Goo.) The crowd is as varied as the musicians, ranging from 18-to-45-year olds. Asked what he thought the draw was, Nooner mused: “People come to our shows because it’s escapism. Say there’s a couple that has been married for eighteen years and they grew up on these songs, and maybe they’re annoyed with each other that night, but they come to a Molly show and hear the song that they danced to at their prom and for that moment they’re happy … and then Platinum Randi Wylde feeds the wife Southern Comfort from the stage; she gets drunk, shows her t*#s and they fight on the way home.”
The cheeky behavior and overt sexuality that pervades their shows has garnered them the biggest female audience of the four mentioned bands. When asked how long they thought they would be around, Nooner quickly replied, “until people stop requesting ‘Jessie’s Girl,’ which, unfortunately, means we will go on until the end of time.” One can hope!
The key to the unwavering popularity of these bands lies in their devotion to putting on amazing shows that entertain on multiple levels. The time, energy, creativity, and money that goes into each band’s stage show is inspiring. While these bands are, in a sense, each other’s competition, it is truly refreshing to see that they all love and respect each other. It is not uncommon to see members of the various bands in the audience supporting whoever is playing that night, and often the performers will call them to the stage for a jam. As Top Cat Schulte put it: “It’s camaraderie instead of competitiveness.” To all the naysayers who turn their noses up at cover bands, I say: lighten up, take a chance; you may just find that you’ll have the time of your life. What is the moral of this story? Never judge a band by its cover.