Cover Wars

A New Jersey Music Craze Hits The National Airwaves

VH-1's "Cover Wars" reflects the cover band craze that was rooted in Jersey and has grown around the nation. Area bands including Brian Kirk and the Jirks, the Benjamins, Dog Voices, and Pez Head competed for musical equipment and a chance to be on the final show and attempt to win a van fully equipped with more musical gear.

"I think it's very entertaining," said Benjamin's keyboardist Roger Hitchuk. "Even to people who don't have extensive musical knowledge." Bands are given split seconds to group together and then a song is thrown at them. The show is divided into three rounds, with three bands competing. Each band had their own stage and was allowed to bring fans to the taping. "It's a difficult endeavor to create a forum where music can be used as a vehicle for competition," said Brian Kirk, lead singer/guitarist of Brian Kirk and the Jirks. "VH1 tried and they did a pretty good job."

Round one is the human jukebox round. Each of the three celebrity judges chooses a song for each band. The band gets 20 seconds to play it, and the judges each rate the performance on a ten-point scale.

Round two is the style jam. The show picks a song at random and a judge gives the bands two genres such as rap or funk. All three judges use the same scale and vote again.

Round three is the chops round. At this point, the band with the lowest score was dropped. The winner of the first two rounds decides a song from a list of ten. They are given ten seconds to start it. After that time is up, the other band has to pick up where they left off. Both bands have to do their parts with extreme accuracy. The judges are sticklers for things like a missing lyric. First band to three points wins.

This round has produced some interesting interplay between the competing bands. In a show where Kirk and the Jirks battled with Pez Head, the chops round produced a nice duet on Night Ranger's "Sister Christian." Kirk began in his soul-reggae style and Pez Head's singer Elaine Tuttle held some long emotional notes to end it. Sharing a song with the veterans Kirk and the Jirks probably delighted the younger Pez Head whose guitarist Doug Losche called the Jirks "Shore Legends." The ability for bands to show their stuff in 20 seconds, worked for some but didn't for others. With the songs almost randomly pulled the show keeps to the trueness of a cover war, but it can provide moments as messy as a Def-Leppard made for TV movie. "I'm sure some of the bands that looked horrible are probably much better," said Rob Monte, lead singer of Dog Voices. "It shows how good a band is right there on the spot."

The surprise of the song choice makes for good competition. However, songs used on the show like, "Material Girl," and "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" went out with parachute-pants and hairspray. The music sometimes focuses on what you would hear from a wedding band or karaoke machine. I don't know anyone at a club downing a shot and asking the band to play R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly." Dog Voices was forced to do this song, but later pulled off a solid version of Bush's "Machine Head" that had judge and former Skid Row singer saying, "Personally I believe your version of the Bush song was better than Bush." Host Paul Shaffer asked Bach if this was the title to movie he'd seen on Spectra-Vision the previous night.

Dog Voices' rhythm section and lead guitarist Rich Moscola held their ground while Monte put the cameraman to work. In round 2, Monte held a cup of whatever an early TV taping allows while he put his own hysterical spin on a lounge version of Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild." Moscola complemented him with some of his patented chorus pedal licks. Dog Voices played tightly and gave the national audience a sample of their musicianship mixed with mayhem.

The Benjamins showed their professionalism staying poised as they were thrown some challenges. They managed to stay focus and deliver on song parts other bands would have collapsed on. The high caliber musicians were able to turn Bon Jovi's "Living On a Prayer" into sharp lounge and funk. They played all the rounds with consistent style and class.

No band was invincible to an inevitable song collapse, but Kirk and the Jirks seemed to have the least trouble. They had a little luck with the songs they were given. "We really were not surprised because we got songs that were popular like Britney Spears and everything to The Police," said Kirk. They managed to give the audience a taste of the quality vocals and instrumentation audiences are treated to around the shore. The audience could see why they are one of the most original cover bands around.

Pez Head didn't have the same luck with song choice. "It seemed like the songs they asked for other bands were the songs we knew for sure," said Tuttle. "We were very surprised at some of them," said Losche. "After doing our first episode, we knew they could throw anything at us." They still managed to stay as animated as a Saturday Morning cartoon while Tuttle's voice soured over crisp chording and an in-the-pocket rhythm section. The Cabin's (burned down June 2000) former house band teased the audience with pieces of their fresh, high-energy set.

"That's all part of the game," said bassist Frank Mount about some of the song surprises. Monte said he would've been surprised if they gave him "I Believe I Can Fly" first, but the first song they were thrown was "Turning Japanese", which Dog Voices is familiar with. "The whole premise of the show was surprises," he said. "We were (surprised)," said Hitchuk. "But it could've been worse."

Seeing if a band can make it through a song adds to the show's suspense. It's also fun to see a band turn a number-one hit into mush. Some of the musical stunts they were asked to pull off may even be a challenge to Shaffer's Late Show band. It's up to the audience to decide what bands are quality-material underneath the show's format.

The last round really is the deciding round. The others decide who will get to round three and who will start it off. "I definitely wanted to make sure we didn't get bumped off in the first round," said Monte. "I told the band we were definitely good enough to get through the next few rounds and win the show."

VH-1 chose 27 bands from hundreds who tried out by audition or demo, but does the show decide which cover band is king? "No," said Losche. "I don't think the show is really about who's the best cover band. Nobody got to really show what they can do. It was kind of a crapshoot at times." "I think it really decides who's the most spontaneous," said Hitchuk.

Former Pez Head drummer/singer Joey Dawson, who taped for the show, and Kirk both thought the show decides a defined version of the best cover band. "Essentially the band that wins is the band that pulls off all the songs they are given," said Dawson. "If it depends on if you mean if the best cover band is a band that does average versions of lots of songs," said Kirk. "In that case I would say yes. But, if you're talking about impeccable versions of a gig's worth of songs, I would say no."

VH-1 again gave bands a chance to get on TV and be seen. VH-1's "Bands on the Run" was a show that focused on exposure for original acts, this one shows off the country's better cover acts. "I'm awed at the amount of people who've heard of the show," said Hitchuk. It now gives them more ammunition for promotion and possibly pick-up lines. "(You can say) as used on VH-1 and find other ways to make yourself look good," said Mount.

Whether the bands get good or bad exposure, the show gives them a chance to be seen nationally. This type of audience is usually reserved for original artists. Monte said the show has created a circle of people who are interested in it. They've had responses on their website and there's been a war of words about the show on the VH-1 website. "More people will see us on TV than at a bar in one night," said Kirk. "I'm not sure what that will do for us in the future."

The bands enjoyed doing the show, but many still preferred playing live. "At a club, you know the people want to be there," said Kirk. "The response is immediate and gratifying. There is nothing greater to me than being on stage, playing music to people who appreciate it." "Being on a TV game show in that atmosphere wasn't like you were performing," said Tuttle. "It was kind of like an SAT."

The camera rarely had an effect on the musicians. "I didn't really feel it," said Losche. "I concentrated on knowing the chords." Monte noticed himself on TV when one of the clubs he was playing had a party for his taping. "To look at yourself on TV is kind of weird," he said. During taping he said he didn't give the camera much thought or attention.

The show provides a taste, but it's virtually impossible to get the full-flavor of a cover band in 20 seconds or less. "What makes you a good cover band is choosing a song people want to here," said Tuttle. "You have to do more than play the songs. You have to play them in an individual way. You have to be exciting to get people in a bar involved."

Bands mostly spent an hour of their rehearsal time working on the show. "We would have someone come in with a bunch of CD's ranging from Frank Sinatra to Marilyn Manson," said Monte. "I didn't want to get too prepared, that's not we're about. It was fun." Bands were given a package of pointers, lists, and song genres before going on. "We got into the studio and tried to anticipate what they'd ask us," said Hitchuk. "We made up a bunch of charts," said Mount. "On the way to practice we'd try to memorize them."

Mount said his band also worked on some hand signs to help stay together during taping. Tuttle said they went through many top 100 charts and hoped some of the songs they went through would be picked, but that didn't happen. A little strategy can't hurt. "We planned on preparing by falling back on a 3-chord progression that we all would follow, but it didn't happen," said Kirk. We got lucky and knew all the songs."

The experience as a whole seemed exciting for the bands. "The people at VH1 were great," said Mount. "It was a lot of fun," said Tuttle. "VH1 was awesome. All of the bands were great." "It was cool to see our friends excited for us," said Monte. "It was fun," said Losche. "It was one of the greatest things we've ever done. We'd do it again for sure."

Josh Davidson
Josh Davidson has written music feature articles for Jersey Style and served as the Jersey Shore rock columnist for Steppin' Out Magazine. Other music writing credits include Aquarian Weekly, Jersey Beat, Backstreets and njcoast.com. He has written free-lance for the Asbury Park Press' Community Sports section and has written featured articles for its news section, as well as covering campus news and sports weekly for the Signal, the College of New Jersey's (formerly Trenton State College) student newspaper. He has worked as a staff writer for The Independent, and his work for Greater Media Newspapers has also been published in the News Transcript. He is a former beat reporter for the Ocean County Observer who presently is a news writer for Symbolic Systems Inc. supporting the US Army's Knowledge Center. His music writing covers a vast range of topics, from the current cover band craze, highs and lows of the original scene, to the early days of the Jersey Shore rock scene in Asbury Park. He is also a musician, having written hundreds of songs as a singer/songwriter, and playing them out as a solo/acoustic artist. He has also played with cover bands, including It Doesn't Matter, and several original bands, including as the guitarist for the solo project of singer/songwriter Dave Eric. He continues to work on solo material and is presently the guitar player for Jersey Breeze.
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