Come on, feel the noise!
Exploring the city’s cover-band scene with the big-haired kings of metal
Thu, Jun 4, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
“If I was going to be a groupie, I’d be a groupie for Steel Panther,” –from High Voltage Tattoo by Kat Von D, celebrity tattoo artist
The heat of the crowd pressing me forward into the front of the stage. The rainbow dancing strobe lights. The cheers. The music. The energy. This is the elation of rock ’n’ roll. The lead singer extends a black-gloved hand down to me. Now this is the elation of rock ’n’ roll. I reach up beyond the anonymity of the crowd to the glory of the stage. Passing from shadow to glowing brightness. He grasps my hand and pulls me up. Panic. I am once again just myself, a journalist who is afraid of heights. And in this case, the stage is as high as my shoulder; I’m wearing high heels and a miniskirt. I pull backward, trying to free my hand, but the power of music is as strong as a vise, and I find myself floating upward, being simultaneously hoisted by the fans below and pulled up by the lead singer.
Suddenly I’m onstage, a part of the magic I had previously admired from afar. I have a clear view of the full showroom. Five hundred people dancing below me. The band plays an ’80s power-rock song, either “Don’t Stop Believing” or “Livin’ on a Prayer” or “Cum on Feel the Noize.” As I gain my footing, the song pauses, the lead singer pulls me close, whispers encouragement in my ear, and the song continues. Later, people will ask what he said. I don’t tell. For a few beats, I’m the only skirt to bask in the glory. As other girls join, I try to dance and be carefree like my supposed alter-ego, but it doesn’t work. Perhaps 10 girls are on the stage, maybe more. Some are grinding on the band members, others prefer the attention of dancing solo. But everything is a rainbow of hair metal, spandex, ripped-clothes happiness.
You see, this isn’t any rock concert, this is Friday night at Green Valley Ranch, home of the infamous LA-based heavy metal cover band Steel Panther.
The Vegas cover-band question
Friday nights at Steel Panther, crowd control becomes an issue. The venue resorts to a one in/one out policy, thus creating a line that resembles a Strip nightclub. I was dying to know how a glorified cover band could be so popular. I’d understand if they drew tourists. (Tourists + a free show = college kids + Napster, circa 2000.) But this audience was mostly locals, and they seemed to love Steel Panther with an energy reserved for the return of Led Zeppelin.
Long before I considered writing this article, a waiter at Koi told me Steel Panther was the only form of nightlife he participated in. More recently, a bartender at Parasol Up went on and on about how much he loved the band. How could this be? What was it about Vegas that made cover bands so popular? If everybody loved Steel Panther so much, then how did the other cover bands compare? And what about the rest of the Vegas music scene?
The “real” bands
Every major city has local bands that play original music. Vegas is no exception, though local music often gets drowned out by the hoopla over big-name residencies.
One weeknight, I checked out Cheyenne Saloon. The empty dance floor was an island in a sparsely crowded bar. Local bands gave their all, and the “audience” bobbed its collective head, listening politely. A trip to the Rock Room at the Penthouse yielded much the same experience. Middle of the week. Sparse attendance. Hard-working band. Beauty Bar on a weekend brought an enthusiastic and palpably cool hipster crowd. Yet if the same crowd was at Green Valley Ranch (or god forbid, the spacious Aliante), it’d look dead.
So this is what real rock ’n’ roll in Vegas looks like? Certainly, it has the smoky room, poorly-funded-Iron-Maiden-T-shirt authenticity of the rock scene I remember from back home. In Vegas, we all know that “authenticity” is a euphemism for boring, and that the rest of the world hopes to leave it behind when they visit. Vegas transcends authenticity, and that’s why the rest of the world spends so much money to vacation here. Little surprise if some of that philosophy rubs off on the locals. But does it extend to their musical taste?
There seems to be a giant hole in the Vegas music scene. Arena acts and no-names make themselves at home, yet most midrange, super-authentic bands never seem to venture any closer to Vegas than the Viper Room. Whatever force causes this absence is the same force that makes cover bands so popular.
When I saw that Ben Folds was coming to the House of Blues, I had to see how locals would react to a band whose mellow piano doesn’t exactly say Viva Las Vegas. Though the show was crowded, Folds’ stage presence was eclipsed by Steel Panther’s. I think the difference is that while Folds pours all his stage presence into his piano, leaving little for the audience, Steel Panther pours their energy into their stage presence. I was also left to wonder: How many years can you play your same old songs over and over again until you become a cover band of your original innovation?
So what do you get when you go to a Steel Panther show? Four totally hot men in leopard spandex pants? Yes, but that’s not the best of it. First of all, they aren’t billed as a concert; they’re “an adult-oriented show that is for mature audiences only.” At least that’s the warning sign Station Casinos places outside the showroom. Think of this band as a twofer: you get the fun metal music, but you also get to laugh your ass off. To put it delicately, these guys explore the foibles of gender relations with the raunchiest jokes you’ve ever heard. And if you’re not distracted by the raunch, you may just learn something about relationships. These guys are so accurate, they could write a book. Take the chorus to their new original single “Community Property”:
’Cause my heart belongs to you
My love is pure and true
My heart belongs to you
But my cock is community property
If that doesn’t ring true to dating in Vegas, then I don’t know what does. I’m pretty sure it’s the insightful satire combined with really good hair that makes this band so popular. According to Lexxi Foxxx, Steel Panther’s bassist, their popularity is “because we’re gorgeous ... that’s it.” Satchel, the guitarist, gives a different reason: “I think people all over the world realize that Steel Panther is about to bring heavy metal back to the masses, not just people in Holland, but to people in other countries that I don’t even know what they are. Not just people in other countries, but people in other planets.”
But what works for all the other cover bands? I started my investigation with the rock band Sin City Sinners because they seemed fairly similar to Steel Panther. I stopped by SCS’ Thursday-night gig at Wasted Space and was struck by the black leather, hipster rock ’n’ roll vibe. Whereas you can’t look at Steel Panther directly because their hair and makeup are so bright the light bounces off them like a prism, SCS have calming long dark hair (well, except for the blond drummer). And instead of glitter spandex, lead singer Todd Kerns was wearing a Watchmen T-shirt.
Next up was the Spazmatics, the ’80s new wave band with the nerd-costume gimmick. Watching them on a Saturday night at South Point, I kept wondering why I paid money to see nerds sing and dance. Isn’t that what high school reunions are for? The dance floor was full of people who had been dancing to this music since it was popular the first time around. There were also the young locals who wanted a good time. In that vein, I guess the nerd costumes make sense. The concertgoers can dance with the assurance that they are cooler than the people onstage. Perhaps this is what the folks from Omaha need in order to feel confident enough to let loose.
On second look, it seemed the lead singer maybe was cute under the awful outfit, giant glasses and slicked-back hair. And the bassist had piercings and long hair hidden under his helmet. A hipster in disguise? Perhaps I could find my way backstage in order to investigate.
The 10 a.m. Sunday Gospel Brunch at the House of Blues is the closest thing I’ve come to churchgoing since I lived in the Bible Belt. I sat in the $20 balcony watching over the long tables of people eating below me. The whole idea of “cutting a step for Jesus” inside a casino made my head explode. Or maybe that was the joyful noise/wall of sound hitting me like a blast furnace of Louisiana forgiveness.
Admission to Purple Reign (a Prince tribute band) comes free with Gospel Brunch ticket stubs. The dance floor looks like the prisoners of a business convention have been set free. Mark Veon, a businessman from Pittsburgh, said it was his third time seeing the band. Here for a convention, he discovered them by accident a few years ago. “At first I thought they were the real thing, because I didn’t know any better.”
Classic-rock tribute band Yellow Brick Road was exactly what I thought they would be. Slick, nonthreatening, technically perfect rock. I’ve never seen a hip thrust look so wholesome. They played the usual suspects—Van Halen, U2, Queen—to a receptive Wednesday-night audience at Green Valley Ranch. They also dabbled in some of the cover-band standards: choreographed guitars and self-deprecating humor. In a little inter-band rivalry, Steel Panther said that YBR doesn’t rock as hard as them. Satchel said, “Tell the guys in Yellow Brick Road that Satchel said, ‘nice try.’”
The only thing that was shocking about YBR was when they blended Nirvana with Michael Jackson to create the hybrid “Smells Like Billy Jean.” Nirvana bassline, MJ melody. It worked, and it was a welcome spark of individuality, yet the blend negated all that is dark and true about Nirvana. The audience seemed more amused than horrified.
After I compiled my field guide to Vegas lounge acts, it was time to dig deeper. First, I met up with Sin City Sinners at Boulder Station before their Friday gig. With the entire band plus the manager and minus the drummer (who was sleeping under his set) crowded around me, I was ready to find the truth behind cover bands. I started with an easy question: Why is Vegas a cover-band mecca?
“What we’re doing here, you can’t really do it in LA. I guess because the casinos have gambling, they can afford the budget. In LA, you’d be lucky if you got $75 a guy,” said Brent Muscat, bass player and former member of the band Faster Pussycat. Muscat looks like a cast member from Dazed and Confused, like somebody you wish you could’ve been friends with in high school.
“Or it’s pay to play there,” added Jason Green, the band’s manager (also known as Spencer Benedict in other circles).
“The reason I’m here is because I grew up in Cleveland. That’s all you need to know,” said guitarist Mike Szuter.
The interview continued like that, in a circular whirlwind. I found that anytime I interviewed a band, I could only get one word in before they picked up the conversation and left me behind.
“So, do you think of yourselves as a lounge act?” I tried to word the question as delicately as possible. Sitting next to these guys, I could feel their authenticity rising off them like heat waves. I didn’t want to be offensive and call them a cover band, even if they technically were.
“Someone called us a lounge act. I’m proud to be a lounge act. A hard-rock lounge act,” Muscat said.
“If you think about it, the lounge acts in the ’50s were playing music that people in the ’50s liked,” I reasoned. “The equivalent today would be ...”
“Us! I like to say we’re the rock ‘n’ roll Rat Pack,” Muscat interrupted, “Back when it was Sinatra and Sammy and Dean Martin, they’d always have guests and an opening act and Louis Prima and whoever, and that’s what we started doing at the Divebar. That was the whole idea for me, let’s just have fun, bring in guests and try to build a local scene and at the same time be kind of a lounge act.”
Real vs. fake
When I first saw the wealth of cover bands in Vegas, I assumed that since Vegas is so “fake,” people must be attracted to “fake” music. Yet, when I asked different musicians about my pet theory, they seemed confused. For example, Steel Panther was indignant when I asked them if they really lived the heavy metal life:
“Bringing heavy metal back is not easy. You say, ‘Are you really living that lifestyle?’ Hell yeah, we’re really living that lifestyle. You have to if you want to bring metal back. You can’t fake it,” said the gorgeous blond lead singer, Michael Starr.
“You can’t just go fake it,” said Satchel, the hunky guitar player.
“It’s like you just faking being a reporter,” said Stix Zadinia, the rockin’ drummer.
“You wouldn’t fake an orgasm, would you?” Satchel asked me.
As with every question I asked them, their answers quickly moved to the “not appropriate for newspapers” territory. This is a real shame, considering how funny they are. But in conclusion, creating fake music (I don’t even know what that means) is equivalent to faking an orgasm. Got it. Considering that Steel Panther has a reality-TV show in the works and that they sold out their show at the Download Festival in England, they must be doing something right.
Vegas, the stationary tour bus
as I conducted more interviews, patterns emerged. The answer everyone gave was some variation on this: Vegas is like a stationary tour bus. Thanks to gambling, casinos can afford to pay musicians a living wage. Because of tourism, there is a demand for live music. And, due to the convergence of the two, a talented (if not unknown) performer can make more money here than they can anywhere else, and they have the added bonus of returning to the same pillow every night.
In an e-mail interview, YBR lead singer Brody Dolyniuk echoed the same sentiment, “Being a working musician is a rare opportunity, and we’ve all held ‘real jobs,’ so we truly appreciate being able to do this. We’ve also turned down opportunities to take the show on the road for extended periods because most of us have families here.” Todd Kerns, lead singer of the Sin City Sinners, agreed: “I was on the road for 20 years; it’s weird to be in the same bed for a couple years.”
The allure of original music
“Our love is playing original music. That’s ultimately what everybody wants to do,” explained Kurt Frohlich, the lead singer of the Spazmatics, in a phone interview. From talking to him, it seems that the desire to play original music is the blessing and the curse of the modern-day musician. Basically, the thing you most want to do is the thing that earns the least amount of money. Typical. Every cover band seems to get around this by sneaking some of their original music into a set list of covers. Both Sin City Sinners and Steel Panther have original albums in the works. Brody Dolyniuk of YBR wrote that his bandmates have all done or are doing original projects on the side.
Sometimes being in a cover band can get your original music exposure it normally wouldn’t have. Mike Szuter explains, “This is a really good delivery vehicle for original music, because we play three or four of our own songs a night, and we have a lot of return people who come, and they know all the words to our songs.”
Frohlich’s work in the Spazmatics allows him to play in his original band on the side. It’s called the Underground Rebels, and that Spazmatics bassist with the long hair that I noticed is in the band, too. “We have a lot of fun doing the Spazmatics, and it’s a blast because we get to act like total idiots onstage, and it’s so much fun for us, and then we get to do our original thing and be us, so it’s a great balance,” said Frohlich.
Just because these bands don’t play 100 percent original music doesn’t mean they aren’t rock stars. Take Steel Panther. They showed up to their Weekly photo shoot in a limousine. Pretty impressive considering they were coming from Green Valley Ranch, which is less than a block away from the Weekly offices. It takes a lot of dedication to live the heavy metal lifestyle, like riding in a limo when it’s more convenient to walk.
The best rock-star accessory is a backstage set-up. Steel Panther’s backstage has a wonderful spread of every type of domestic beer on ice, fruit and vegetables and Red Bull. Everything you could want from a catered party. It reminded me of the scene from Almost Famous, toward the end, where the girl groupies are eating the food backstage. To be a part of the magic, I snuck a few grapes ... and filled my purse with beer.
Of course, you can’t create a rock-star omelet without breaking a few hearts. One of Steel Panther’s original songs is about just that. The song is called “Girl From Oklahoma,” and unfortunately none of the lyrics are appropriate for reproduction—even in an alt-weekly. After a lot searching, I found the line of women hoping to be the next “Girl From Oklahoma.” I would be one of them, except that’s totally unprofessional, and I could never decide which band member is the cutest.
In the end, no matter the type of band or genre of music, it all boils down to the performance. Is the audience getting off? After all this research, I found that we Las Vegans are lucky to have so many ways to do so. Just think, we’re the only city with a Santana residency and a resident Santana tribute band. And don’t be surprised when Henderson turns out to be the epicenter of the return of heavy metal.