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It's Saturday afternoon in downtown Tempe. The Coffee Plantation's patio off Sixth Street and Mill is warmed by a late winter sun that slow roasts the usual blend of slackers, hackers and idle overachievers. A four-piece band is tucked off in a corner of the courtyard. The music, a bouncy, semiacoustic take on melodic pop, attracts the attention of passers-by. Some flash high signs to the band as they walk past the stage; others stop to listen, eventually grabbing a chair when a table opens up.
The atmosphere is undeniably ingratiating, a mood so friendly and open that the only visible sign of skepticism is a little preschool girl in a summer dress who stands to the side of the stage with her hand on her hip and her head cocked to one side, studiously assessing the music.
Smart money says she liked what she heard. The band, after all, is the Scones, one of the better acts on Mill Avenue and one of the few serious local rock bands with an eye for fun. The Scones' appreciation for fooling around ranges from more obvious antics like onstage Letterman-type shtick (they like to play "What's in the bag" to unsuspecting shoppers strolling by) to the more subtle but telling ability to smile and embrace gigs at venues that fall outside rock-show norms. Very few bands, for example, are willing--or even able--to play coffee houses by day and sports bars the same night. Fewer still agree to play cover songs at the expense of original material.
That's something else that separates the Scones from the rock-band masses. Scones shows are about 50-50 between covers by the likes of The Beatles, Split Enz and Crowded House, among others, and original songs that sound, oddly enough, like The Beatles, Split Enz and Crowded House.
"We try to push the original stuff," says lead singer Martin Shears. "But when you do three-, four-hour gigs, you wind up doing quite a few covers."
Lead guitarist Ron Winters is even more pragmatic. "We can go do a one-hour original show at an alternative club with everyone else and get paid 20 bucks. Or we can do four hours, play our originals, play some covers and get 20 times as much."
Shears and Winters, along with bassist and back-up singer Jeff Owens, speak about the Scones during a break at their Coffee Plantation gig. Shears cuts the most distinctive presence with his bald head and English accent. A native of London, he moved to Phoenix in the mid-'80s after his parents relocated here. By the time they moved back, Shears was in a band called Curious Walk and decided to stick around.
Curious Walk "imploded" four years ago, which prompted Shears to start playing solo gigs of mostly cover material at area coffee houses. He then decided to get something going with Winters and Owens, who played in genepool, also now extinct. Drummer Dave Schreck, who ducks the interview for some iced tea, rounds out the Scones' lineup.
"Martin used to show up at genepool shows and dug it," Owens says. "We used to sit around and bitch about the music scene, about how cliquey it was, and of course we were mostly whining because we weren't in the clique. It was like, 'Dammit, why can't we ever get a Friday at Long Wong's?'"
Owens says he was "nervous" at first about playing in what could be thought of as a cover band--understandable, considering the general perception that cover bands reside at the bottom of the rock 'n' roll food chain. Owens admits that his music friends still like to needle him about it. Shears, on the other hand, says he rarely gets the business about singing someone else's songs.
"I probably give myself the business about it," he says. "I don't want the Scones to be known as a cover band. The originals are infinitely more important, and we want to go on and do bigger things with those, and we plan to. But we've got to make a living in the meantime. There are very few bands that can make a living doing original music in this town."
Shears' vision for his original material is no daydream. Scones songs are, for the most part, as tuneful as the band's covers, with "Every Day's a Saturday" and the melodic and nicely constructed "A Lot Like You" standing out. Both songs are bright and bouncy, with Shears and Owens teaming for smart, familiar harmonies.
If the vocals especially bring to mind the croon of Crowded House, the comparison is nothing new to the Scones, especially Shears, who's heard more than once how his British-accented vocals make him sound like a Finn from New Zealand.
"It's the highest form of flattery because I like those guys a lot," Shears says of Crowded House's Neil and Tim Finn. "But if you were to stick my voice and theirs on an oscilloscope, you'd see how they really are drastically different. It's just the accent--and my timing is similar."
A singer's timing on vocals is one thing; a band's timing in terms of its surroundings is another. And the Scones aren't exactly in synch as far as making an impression on Tempe's music scene. Melodic Gin Blossom bands are long gone, their catchy choruses replaced by more rhythmic, angst-addled concerns.