A few weeks back, I was drinking coffee, perusing the gossip pages online, and stumbled on a hilarious piece in the scandal-plagued Page Six section of the New York Post. Apparently in Las Vegas there's not one, but two KISS cover bands composed of little people, and they've got a beef. Joey Fatale, the 4-foot-4-inch-tall singer of Mini KISS, thought Tiny KISS was ripping off his concept, and there was nearly a confrontation between the little guys at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.
I've never been much for cover bands, but midget KISS impersonators? That sounds like a good time. Around the same time I read the Page Six piece, I'd been noticing that, in our own music section, there were these cheesy motherfuckers posing in their leather and spandex and headbands, in multiple ads for Metalhead, the '80s hair metal cover outfit that has residencies at several venues around the 'Nix and in Tucson. I saw three full-color ads, all within a few pages of each other, which means they must be drawing decent-size audiences.
That thought alone depressed me -- I know way too many great local bands who write their own material and struggle to get crowds -- so I decided I needed to check it out firsthand. Metalhead plays at three venues around town weekly -- the Library in Tempe, Q-Lounge in Phoenix, and Martini Ranch in Scottsdale.
I figured that maybe the audience was composed of dudes my big brother's age -- early 40s -- grasping at nostalgia since Axl's Chinese Democracy still hasn't seen the light of day. Or maybe some ironic hipster wanna-bes were dressing up in period costumes, which would be kind of funny. I ended up wrong on both counts.
First I hit up the Sunday night residency at Martini Ranch, which may take the title belt for most cover-band performances per year, with Rock Lobster and Punk Rock Nation also holding down regular weekly gigs there. Up in Scottsdale, I wouldn't guess there would be much of a Metalhead demographic, but damn, I was wrong.
I'd roped in my homeboy Dean Thomas, the Brit who owns the Cornish Pasty Co. restaurant in Tempe, and his girlfriend to join me, both because he's seen Metalhead several times and because he's a huge Iron Maiden fan. Best I can tell, Metalhead doesn't cover any Maiden, but I still needed an expert along for the ride.
To my surprise, Martini Ranch was packed to the gills, but not with any of the sort of folks I thought Metalhead would attract. There were plenty of young business types in about their mid-30s in linen dress shirts checking out the chicks, and plenty of college frat-boy types that looked imported from my home turf around ASU. There was also a large contingent of scantily clad, peroxided, friendly looking young ladies working the crowd with heavily made-up, come-hither looks on their faces. In other words, it was your average Scottsdale meat market scene, sans any actual high rollers.
"Nothing but a bunch of cheap strippers," Dean said to me as we snaked our way through the crowd. I saw no reason to argue with that.
Metalhead was playing "Panama," by Van Halen, when we came into the room. Now, I think "Panama" is an all right song for its era. 1984, the album it's from, was the first slab of vinyl that my big brother ever bought for me, so there's a little nostalgia involved. The guys in Metalhead played it pretty faithfully, as they did with all of the covers I heard, but the level of ridiculousness was off the chain.
The lead vocalist, Lucky, who looks a bit like the fake, supposedly transgendered author J.T. LeRoy in his blond wig, was repeatedly swigging from a vodka bottle that was obviously filled with water, which I found simply silly (the band's rider, which is available on the Web site metalheadrocks.com, specifies that they need sugar-free Red Bull and eight to 12 bottles of light or domestic beer in their green room -- not exactly debaucherous). Lucky's onstage banter included calling girls in the audience sluts and taunting them to do shots (it apparently slipped his mind to throw in the obligatory "Don't forget to tip your bartender").
The band members flailed and posed, leaning and leering, whipping their wigs (I hope they were wigs) back and forth, leading the crowd in chants of "Metal! Yeah! Fuck!" and the like. Up front, dudes were dancing and pumping their fists while the band played Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name," occasionally cranking out the air guitar.
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I didn't see anybody dressed up in '80s spandex, or anyone who seemed to appreciate the band in an ironic sense. I thought the scene might be different if I hit up the Library on Metalhead's Thursday night residency, but I was wrong on that count, too. The band was playing "Panama" again when I walked into the bar; I observed while I quelled my déjà vu with a Budweiser. And I wouldn't be surprised if 20 percent of the people in the crowd there were the same dorks I'd seen in Scottsdale. But in any case, the place was packed.
That's the issue I've got with cover bands, and Metalhead in particular. It's not that I begrudge the guys in the band their living, or blame them for being able to attract the crowds they do. But when I see incredible original bands like the Loveblisters or We Fly Our Kites at Night or the Liar's Handshake struggling to get audiences a fraction of the size I saw with Metalhead's shows, it frustrates the shit out of me. Cover bands can serve up a good time for some folks, I suppose -- I just don't believe in supporting them myself. Then again, if Metalhead were to get some midgets in the lineup, I might be more easily convinced.
If you really want to hear covers of Whitesnake, Poison, Def Leppard and their ilk, cool. But please, once a month or so, go spend that five bucks on seeing an original local band. It'll be a far more rewarding expenditure of time and money, I promise.