Live, original music is a rare bird. If you want to get the kick of catching it you have to dig a little. Live ain't the problem, original is. The majority of local clubs that book live music rely heavily on cover bands.
Rochester has an array of original bands, solo artists, composers, etc., but audiences seem to gravitate to the unimaginative and the obvious.
You can weave through a crowded dance floor at the Montage Grille with a cover band on stage one night and watch tumbleweeds weave through the joint the next when an original band is playing its heart out.
When the Bug Jar puts a bunch of original bands in Highland Bowl each summer, a couple hundred souls come out. When the East End throws its summer street festivals --- full of cover bands --- thousands show up. Thousands.
"People wanna go hear the music they know," says Mike O'Leary, owner of Milestones. "People don't want to take musical chances."
Everyone says the same thing: They want to hear what they know. The audience demand for comfy material is high "because they know the songs," says Me & The Boyz singer Tina Guarnere. Me & The Boyz plays fiery funk and soul covers. The bandmembers are all fantastic musicians and dance floors flood everywhere they play. But this is due in large part to their choice of recognizable material.
Not everyone gets it or digs it. Some, particularly original musicians, almost take it personally.
"How can someone see a cover band and go, 'These guys rule?'" asks The Grinders guitarist-singer Todd Dentico. "They're not great. Elton John's great, not the band doing the Elton John song. There's nothing to it, c'mon. Plus it's boring."
The Grinders is your basic rough 'n' tumble, rock 'n' roll bar band. Though the music is referential in the extreme, the band writes its own stuff.
But he does concede on one point.
"You know, it's different if you're doing one or two cover tunes and the rest are your own. That's OK. All bands do that --- the freakin' Stones --- every band's done that."
So by Dentico's math, his band isn't a cover band even though they throw in the odd cover here and there. He did play in a cover band once, though. But he considers his time with The Hope Dashers above reproach --- again thanks to an equation.
"It would have mattered to me if I wasn't in two original bands too," he explains. "Otherwise people would have been exactly right giving me shit."
"Right from the beginning what we planned to do was get in front of as many people as we could," says Uncle Plum guitarist Mike Gladstone. Uncle Plum used a sort of bait-and-switch.
When the band isn't playing modern rock radio covers, they hammer out original tunes that could --- and should --- be on modern rock radio.
"We figured we would play the kind of music to get people out to come see the band then we'd work in the originals from there and they'd get comfortable with them and make the transition."
It worked. Though the band is still known primarily for its covers, Uncle Plum is probably the top drawing act in the city.
"It's happened," he says. "We've sold over 3000 CDs so far. People enjoy hearing the originals, they sing along now that they know them."
Uncle Plum manages to pull people in an increasingly fickle market.
"You're competing with so many different things in the city," says Gladstone. "It's difficult to get a lot of people out."
Worse yet, audiences could simply stay home altogether.
"People aren't going out that much," says O'Leary. "And when they do, they want what's familiar, what's comfortable."
When Milestones started in the early'90s no cover bands were allowed.
"It was what Milestones was about: originality," O'Leary says. "You had to be original. That was the niche. That was what made the room unique and gave us a name. There were a significant number of bands that were playing original music and there were a significant number of people who would come out and see them."
Flash forward to today: "There's just less original music out there and less people going to see original music," he says.
But besides the supplier and demander, there's the musician with his hopeful hand out. And let's face it: It's nice to get paid. The more accessible the band, the bigger the draw, the bigger the payday. Some bands have had to adjust to survive.
"Back 10 to 15 years ago bands could make enough money where it made sense," O'Leary says.
He ventures there is one-third the number of original bands there was when he first opened. So he's had to adapt as well.
"I wouldn't say cover bands are a necessary evil," he says. "But they're a necessity now. They can be fun. You know, I used to try and be a snob about it. I think that was somewhat foolish. I don't think most people care. Some of the original band people might care."
Steve Grills is an amazing blues guitarist. He's a regular six-string encyclopedia. But Grills and his band The Roadmasters do no original music.
"I've actually thought about that myself, what defines a cover band," Grills says. "And to me it's obvious: a band that's playing material that your average listener has heard time and time again on the radio so they immediately recognize it. I try to do songs that mean something to me. I also try to avoid songs that have been done to death."
It seems the blues can suffer from the familiarity curse as well. Just ask Grills how many times he's been asked to play "Sweet Home Chicago," "Stormy Monday," or the dreaded "Mustang Sally."
The songs that Grills does play give him room to express himself as well as celebrate his heroes.
"You should not try to be somebody else," he says. "You really need to find your own voice. I enjoy the improvisational aspects of what I do. Basically, I approach music as a guitarist. I'm a guitar freak. I love the guitar and I love all the different blues guitarists."
Guitarist Aleks Disljenkovic, who plays jazz with The White Hots and jump blues with The New Trendsetters, rides the fence. He plays classic covers (or standards, as they're often referred in this genre) and slick originals. He seems happy with both.
"A long as I'm not getting booed, it's OK," he says.
But contemporary pop and rock, particularly Top 40, leaves a lot less wiggle room for a musician to show out and hone a creative edge. If you venture to far away from the original arrangement and tone, people won't recognize it anymore.
Me & The Boyz bassist Rickey Ellis found nominal success playing original rock music with Duke Jupiter back in the late '70s and early '80s. He's already chased the dream. Now he's just having fun.
"To bring original music into this might kill some of the fun," Ellis says. "Because then you've got to satisfy egos that aren't involved in cover music. Nobody takes it personal now because we're doing all cover songs."
Still, the creative temptation lingers. And with Me & The Boyz, it's not a question of talent, it's a question of marketing to picky, perhaps narrow-minded, fans.
"This would be a perfect band to do originals 'cause the band's so good," he says. "You know, you try to play three minutes worth of material that they don't listen to --- even if it's a cover tune that's a little off the beaten path, that they don't recognize --- you can see 'em looking at each other looking for a reason to go to the bar. It's a drag. It'd be great if we could figure out how to put an original in without ruining the great relationships we have."
And even though Uncle Plum tries to put a twist on their covers and shoehorn in as many originals as they can, there's still a hint of frustration.
"Of course it would be wonderful to be playing all our own music," Gladstone says. "Thousands of people out all the time, singing along. That would be awesome. But to be realistic in this market --- and I think most markets --- the way things are now, you really need to do a combination to keep a lot of people out and interested. It's a nice buzz to play in front of 10,000 people at Ten Ugly Men or play the East End Festivals and have all those people out in front of you. I wonder if we just did the originals would we be able to get our own material in front of that many people. Hard to say."
Gladstone thinks local radio support would be a big boost.
"Hit 'em with it the same way they do with other music," he says.
"My opinion is you're not going to change them," he says. "People are raised on familiarity and pop culture. If they wanna leave during our originals, I don't care. I'm not desperate. I'm having a good time. I love playing. I play to play."