Covers and Cover Bands: Yes, No or Quizas

It can be infuriating for a young musician trying to get gigs playing original music.   They are often passed over for cover band or tribute bands. If you ask any musician trying to book gigs, engage audiences, or get attention, one of the easiest gimmicks is playing covers.  “When you play a cover someone has already done the work.  Not just of writing the song, but the work of making the world love that song” (Tom).

That said, I still love a good cover. It doesn’t take long to think up some truly great songs that are covers.  Jimi Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower”, The Flamingos version of “I Only Have Eyes for You, Marvin Gaye’s version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” and The Fugees version of “Killing Me Softly” not only stand up to the original versions, but would stand up against anything in popular music.

Then there are those classics that get new life each time they are reinterprated.  Some great Blues, folk or country songs are so old or have been done by so many people that the songs aren’t thought of as belonging to the person who wrote them, but band that did them the best

My favorite example of a song like this is Quizas which has been played by:

Trio Los Pancho

Nat King Cole


Celia Cruz, Lila Downs, Paco de Lucia, Ruben Gonzales and a host of other great artists.

As a consumer of music I can admit that when I am hearing a band I don’t know, I often enjoy the songs they cover more than their original songs.  A lot of what we enjoy about music comes with familiarity.  So while I sympathize with artists composing their own music, I can still see it from the perspective of audiences and venues that prefer to hear the songs they know the like to those that they may like.  Full disclosure: my band H for Hombre plays some covers and they are a lot of fun.  We try not to cover songs that stretch us out of the songs we would generally play or audiences would generally hear.  But, its great fun playing songs that people know.

Also, I think that while it may be easier for cover bands to achieve a certain level of success, they also have to deal with a lower ceiling.  Who is the world’s most popular cover band? How many albums have they sold? I think there is something great about a person or a group of people loving a group enough to dedicate themselves to a recreating a group or style of music that they love, but I still wouldn’t pay 15 bucks to see one.

What about you gentle reader?  Are tribute bands a help or a hinderance to creativity in music? What is your favorite or least favorite cover?

About Casey


9 Responses to “Covers and Cover Bands: Yes, No or Quizas”
  1. Meg says:

    Have you heard of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes? They put out tons of cover albums and I think they were kind of a big deal. You’re right about the low ceiling, though. I don’t consider a band who only does covers to be real musicians, just really great impersonators.

    • I have heard of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. I don’t know there stuff well, but I do have buddies who swear by them. They would definitely be in contention for biggest cover band of all time.

  2. CharlesHo says:

    I used to have an ex that had a cover band and I have to say I disagree heartily with Meg’s statement on cover band musicians not being “real” musicians. Myself, I can barely play the radio, much less an instrument and some of the songs I heard a cover band play often introduces me to a song I’d never know of prior. That or the song might be redone in such a way as to make it unique to the band (RHCP Love Roller Coaster comes to mind).

    No, for my money I think the elitism about what constitutes a real band only comes up with the rivalry between those who refuse to play covers and those who realize what you’ve suggested, people like hearing what they know. As a non-musician who enjoys live music, I like a mix. If you play a good mix of things I know, then interject your originals in there, I’d go “ooooh, what was xyz song” if it was dropped in the middle of other stuff I similarly liked. Especially in the age of I-Tunes singles downloads, I think there’s a middle ground you can find that isn’t exclusionary.

    • shbh says:

      I think where I agree with you Charles is that I think it is silly to have rules about what you do and don’t like. Tom’s example of Aretha Franklin covering “Respect” is the perfect example of an unassailable cover. I can’t imagine someone making the argument that Aretha Franklin is not a real musician, and that is her most famous song.

      I certainly agree that a middle ground is the most sensible way to approach the question. I am still unsure where I would put my piece of the middle ground.

  3. Colleen says:

    Mi favorito es Los Panchos. Me gustan sus harmonias. But Nat King Cole’s accent makes me laugh and that’s pretty cool, too.

  4. Covers have their place, to be sure.
    A cover song done well opens it up- you see it from a different perspective and it means something new. A true artist that covers a song does it in their own way- they bring some part of their art to it that is not featured elsewhere.

    What bugs me is when a band does a note for note rendition of some top 40 hit that I already cannot escape every time I’m somewhere with a radio. If you turn it into a medley, or change the time signature, tempo or rythm- that’s huge.

    Sometimes it’s perspective. Otis Redding wrote “Respect”. Aretha owns it. It’s perhaps the best cover ever. But that’s the thing- when she did it, it was new.

    I don’t have a problem with covers, really. They’re a great idea and they can be SO much fun to play. It can turn around a crowd that hasn’t really been feeling the music and give you a second chance.
    But when bands started being tribute bands, started building their career on how great their covers were, that’s when the art of it died. And they became guys working at a job for the money. And it changed the culture of going out to see bands, too.

    There are a lot of killer bands out there that are killing themselves trying to make ends meet- if they could get booked into those bars, and get the guarantees they used to, they might be able to release more of their own music. And a good band would still be a good band, and bad bands would suck.

    If tribute bands weren’t so popular, the street festivals that are so ubiquitous during Chicago’s summers would be filled with killer local bands playing new music and finding new fans, and yes, sometimes throwing in a cover or two. Maybe even “Don’t Stop Believing” every once in a while. But not every time.

    It also meant people stopped going out to see bands they didn’t know. They wanted to be entertained and have fun- the desire wasn’t necessarily to find something new.

    There are a lot of people who initially were turned on by my band covering “Ruby Soho” or one of our other covers. But it’s not what we rely on, and it’s not the only thing we’re bringing to the table. We’re not a nostalgia act. When that’s all the world wants, their options quickly become that or the corporate rock that are put together by the companies with the money to fund such ventures. Nostalgia doesn’t HAVE to be mutually exclusive with new creative groundbreaking music, but the architecture of the industry is pushing it further and further in that direction.

    And part of me blames the fans for being so easily placated. And yet for all my whining, there are still really excellent bands out there today playing their own music and finding new ways to get it out to people. The internet and the price of home recording has really changed the ability of artists to really utilize the d.i.y. approach to promoting their own music.

    But I’d rather pay $10 to hear an original band than $5 to hear a cover band any day of the week. I’d rather pay the money than hear the cover band for free probably. ‘Cause even if they’re amazing, I might as well just go home and put on the cd.

    • Casey says:

      Tom I should have let you write this article. It’s certainly a well thought out commentary.

      Also your example of Aretha Franklin is a good one. Most of us think of Respect as her’s.

  5. Mark says:

    The Australian Pink Floyd Show – Really talented impersonators…they are impersonating but doing it REALLY well and accurate. Kinda cool given the “real” band does not perform anymore.

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