A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Netherlands.
According to Wikipedia, a cover band is "a band that plays mostly or exclusively cover songs". The Dutch Wikipedia page adds that cover bands are a "fine alternative" for the original band or artist, who are (for obvious reasons) much more expensive to book. Sure, well-known bands cost a fortune, but isn't that for a good reason? And is a cover band really such a good alternative? I think it's important to find a definitive answer to the question so we can collectively save a ton of money going forward. Not only are famous artists expensive to book: they also have a reputation for difficult behavior. The rider that demands strictly blue M&M's is a cliché for a reason (also, we have reason to believe Ed Sheeran may want to steal your dog). I wouldn't be surprised if this was legitimately included in Axl Rose's pre-show demands, along with a parakeet, twelve golden brooms, and a raincoat.
At last weekend's Dutch rock festival Zwarte Cross ("Black Cross"), there's a tent that exclusively features cover bands. I decided to spend the entire weekend in this very tent, in the hope of determining whether cover bands can make fans just as happy as the original supergroups.
My plan had a few pros and cons. The biggest pro was the complete elimination of FOMO. One weekend, one stage; I didn't have to make any decisions. Zwarte Cross has about 25 different stages with an array of different acts, from party DJs and comedy rappers to country rock acts and hardstyle to hip-hop. It felt pretty good to decide beforehand exactly where I'd spend the entire festival: in the cover band tent listening to cover bands.
The biggest con: my entire day depended on what time a group of middle-aged, balding dudes would take the stage. Maybe I'd want to take a nap at some point and wouldn't be able to because the Eric Clapton cover band would be about to go on.
The first cover band was a stand-in for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The California outfit is known for their energetic live shows: Anthony Kiedis oozes charisma and Flea loves doing physical stunts on stage. Compared to the real deal, the cover version was pretty lame. I learned an important lesson: it's vital that the cover band consists of musicians who are actually talented. Unfortunately, these guys weren't. They seemed confused about how many bars the intro to a song should last, and the guitarist and drummer weren't on the same page about rhythm.
Another crucial realization came while I was listening to a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band: you need to be familiar with the band's discography. I was about to walk away from the stage 30 minutes in because I was getting bored, and then I heard the intro to "Sweet Home Alabama". Oh, it was this band! I thought I was watching somebody else. Stupid. That aside, they turned out to be a fine rock band, largely thanks to the guitarist's pained facial expressions during solos. A few points were deducted for the butterfly that flew in during the set and temporarily chilled on the monitor. Not very rock and roll.
When a legendary band plays a show, the elated audience is usually hoarse by the time the group comes on stage. The first people are usually roadies who want to move a guitar a few inches or a sound guy who's checking the mic, but still: the crowd goes wild. It could be the band, after all. In the world of cover bands, that's not the case. The silence is deafening. When the members of the Fleetwood Mac cover band walked out on stage, you could've heard a pin drop. Why? Lack of star power? Insufficient charisma? Is it so hard to love a random guitar player who wasn't personally involved in crafting the songs you love?
The Eric Clapton cover band is worth mentioning because they pulled a meta joke by playing his cover of Bob Marley's "I Shot The Sheriff". From a purely technical standpoint, the band was actually good—meaning they looked professional and touched the right string, drum, or key at the right time. Also, the lead singer looked exactly like Eric Clapton himself. If that's something to be happy about, it wasn't up to me to decide.
(Also worth noting: Several of the bands consisted of one or more members of the Dutch rock group De Staat. Did these guys spend all of their government subsidy money and free time forming a dozen cover bands? Fun!)
If you want to enjoy a cover band's set, you have two options: either you revel in the humor of it and adopt the "it's so bad it's good" approach, or you genuinely appreciate the fact that they're really good musicians, indistinguishable from the real thing, playing songs by a band you love. I experienced the latter when I watched my final cover band: The Metallicas. Everything fell into place. The added bonus of seeing the cover band versus the real thing is that James Hetfield and company probably play songs from their lesser records (anything after Load) while the cover group only played the good songs (everything up to Load). The singer actually looked a bit like Hetfield. Their voices are similar and both are kind of unbearable, in a way.
While the band played, I went through a nostalgic, emotional journey. I saw myself as a seven-year-old metal fan, and thought about all the time that's passed from then to now. I realized that I still really like Metallica, something I'd nearly forgotten. I also concluded that it didn't matter to me that this wasn't the real Metallica. When I asked the guy next to me if he felt the same, he just said, "Oh well."
What wisdom can I impart after spending two straight days watching exclusively cover bands? That—if the band sounds good—it's more about the songs themselves than the people playing them. I mean, when you go to see a DJ it doesn't matter that he plays songs by other people. But it's also important to remember that you won't enjoy a cover band's set if you don't know or appreciate the original band. Oh, and everything the Wikipedia article says is accurate: if you'd prefer to keep your money in your pocket, a cover band can be a suitable alternative to the real thing.
Was it fun to stand in that tent at Zwarte Cross for two whole days? Of course not. At times, it was pure hell. Luckily I broke my own rules so I could check out a few bands I actually wanted to see. Because fuck the rules—especially the ones you make for yourself.