A martini glass shimmies its way off the rack hanging above the bar, shattering on the floor as the fittingly named Crashbox bangs out Alice in Chains' “Man in the Box” 20 feet from the bar.
It's a Saturday night at EpiCentre's Wild Wing Café. Patrons nod their heads, miming the words, and shuffling their feet in time as the trio launches into Stone Temple Pilots' “Interstate Love Song.”
On any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday you'll find people at Wild Wing, neighboring Whisky River and Lake Norman haunts like the Rusty Rudder, singing along to any one of several regional cover bands. People are dancing to disco-era hits like “I Will Survive” or scooting tables from the makeshift dance floor to sway to Bonnie Tyler's “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Cover bands are big in Charlotte, often pulling larger crowds at the club level than national acts. A cold beer and the familiarity of a three-decades-old Abba song or a more recent Killers' tune provide a soundtrack for a night out.
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Covers can mean big business, with bands playing anywhere from two to six nights a week. Some members gave up unappreciative crowds and low pay in original bands in favor of more consistent work and a respectable paycheck.
Jerry Finley co-founded the Southeast's busiest '80s cover band, the Breakfast Club, for fast money after his Winston-Salem-based original band went belly-up in the early '90s.
“The group I was with owed a considerable amount of money. We had an indie label deal and put out a couple records and it fell through,” explains Finley, who now lives in Atlanta. “I decided (playing covers) would be a way for the band to make money quickly. About six months into it we'd made our money back.”
Finley turned covers into a career, but others enjoy the rush of playing live.
“It's a passion,” says Lizette Totillo. The singing stay-at-home-mom and her keyboard-player husband, Matthew, balance raising two children (8 and 4) and cover buzz band Bluemonday. When the Totillos moved from New York to Lake Norman four years ago, the group quickly went from playing bowling alleys to gigs at Speed Street and Taste of Charlotte.
“The response was overwhelming,” says Totillo. “In New York we were always the B (grade) band. We never broke into what we were able to break into here.”
That's no surprise considering the city's soft spot for cover acts and tributes.
“This is a cover band town,” says Lori Wertz, who performs at hotel bars and restaurants.
Cover bands can earn from a few hundred to $2,000 a gig. Scott Moss from Moonshine Jenny says they average $1,000 a week per person.
It wasn't always so. “In the mid '80s and early '90s original music was huge,” says Crashbox's Michael Waters.
Wertz, who hung out at long-ago clubs 1313, 4808, and Park Elevator while working at Record Bar, remembers musicians dismissing cover acts as “human jukeboxes.” That was 1989. By the time she returned to Charlotte following graduate school in 1997, “things had shifted.”
“I think it's because (Charlotte's) gone so corporate,” Waters says. “As downtown started to develop and chain bars started opening up – (cover bands are) what they wanted.”
Not all cover bands are satisfied with churning out familiar favorites each night. Simplified, for instance, has evolved into a popular original college rock act. With a laid-back acoustic rock feel in line with the Dave Matthews Band, the group performs five and six nights a week.
“When Simplified came together we were doing 50/50 – half covers, half originals,” says guitarist Chris Sheridan. “It gave us more shows. Being able to do covers… you can sell yourself on that. We used that strategy.”
That didn't last long. Simplified began adding original songs to its sets and fans responded. “Our show is (mostly) originals now, depending on the venue, and all the covers we do are in our original style,” he says.
The band has released two full-length albums, sold out Visulite, and opened for O.A.R. and Simple Plan – all on the strength of its originals.
Using covers as a platform is becoming more common, says Bill Elwood, a veteran sound engineer who works at Wild Wing. It can provide an introduction for an unknown act.
“I'm seeing more bands using covers to capture the crowd and sliding their stuff in. There are a handful that can pull off almost all originals because of their following,” he says. “It's tough to do all originals if nobody knows who you are.”
Making the transition from cover band to original act isn't easy, though. You have to be willing to play less often and risk losing income and the enthusiasm that comes from a roomful of people who know every word to every song you're playing.
Scott Moss of Moonshine Jenny hopes his band can make the leap. It played 120 shows across the Southeast last year. When the group began sneaking original songs into its sets, those often went over better than its covers.
“It has been profitable. For a while that was the only source of income for a couple of us,” says Moss. Moonshine Jenny played its first noncovers show at Puckett's Farm Equipment in April. “We've gotten to the point where we'd rather be playing our own stuff (even) if that means playing less and not making any money.”
Around: 3 1/2 years.
Play: '90s grunge and current rock with spot-on vocals.
Next Up: Wild Wing Café, South Charlotte, June 13; Wild Wing Cafe EpiCentre, June 27.
The Breakfast Club
Around: 15 years.
Play: '80s new wave and hard rock, while looking the part.
Next Up: Alive After 5, The EpiCentre, June 4; Amos' Southend, June 20.
Base: Lake Norman.
Around: 15 years.
Play: Mostly '80s rock featuring strong female and male vocals.
Next Up: NV Lounge, Cornelius, June 12; Rusty Rudder, Lake Norman, June 20.
Around: 5-plus years.
Play: Jack Johnson-meets-Counting Crows; heavy on originals.
Next Up: Ballantyne Village Bistro, June 3; Mac's Speed Shop, June 7.
Base: Shelby and Salisbury.
Around: 3 1/2 years.
Play: Southern-flavored rock and pop.
Next Up: Wild Wing Café, Mallard Creek, June 13.