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Monday, September 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Madison tribute bands let musicians be fans
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Dargan channels Elvis Costello in Lip Service.
Dargan channels Elvis Costello in Lip Service.
Credit:Rachel Warrich

The phrase "same old song and dance" doesn't have positive connotations, and in the world of local live music, bands that play hits by other musicians are equally loved and loathed. The thing is, how much of the loathing is warranted?

You've got to consider a few things before writing off a band that loves the Jackson 5, or Elvis, or Blondie, or the Ramones. There's the distinction between cover bands and tribute bands, one that many musicians and music fans can't agree on.

Bucky Pope, known to many as front man of the punk-'n'-funk band Tar Babies, launched a Buzzcocks tribute band called B'dum B'dum in July. Well, he's pretty sure it's a tribute band. Sometimes it's difficult to tell.

"There's a band called Super Diamond out in San Francisco, where I used to live," he says. "Not only do they play a Neil Diamond album song by song, but the singer, Surreal Neil, does the between-song banter word by word." While Surreal Neil dons the sequined getups of the real Neil, this isn't necessarily what makes Super Diamond a tribute, Pope says. It's about playing the songs as close as possible to the way the original artist did.

"I think cover bands are those bands that play fraternities and in the Wisconsin Dells. So we're a tribute, but I probably wouldn't wear shorts and a T-shirt to a gig that was the Buzzcocks, who had a weird, sort of frumpy look that involved a lot of sweaters," he says.

Plus there's one other distinction: "Cover bands are just entertainers, but we're fanatics."

Sean Michael Dargan - the ex-Kissers member who fronts the Elvis Costello tribute Lip Service and his own band, which plays original songs - says it's how the musicians channel the fanaticism that makes them a cover band or a tribute.

"I'd be hard-pressed to tell you a band I really like that hasn't covered something of somebody else's really well," he says. "But just because you play some covers, are you a cover band? It's hard to say."

For Dargan, playing covers has put food on the table for the past 20 years, but that still doesn't make him a cover artist. It's just that cover-loving venues tend to pay better. Playing a tune people know helps lure them from the street to the stage.

"Sometimes the best thing you can do to get the crowd going is play a song people recognize and play the shit out of it, even if you're a songwriter who's got something to say," he says.

As for Pope, it's all about giving songs the respect they deserve: a great live performance.

After the cover-versus-tribute question's been answered, there's the issue of what constitutes a "good" cover act.

Caroline Clanton, general manager at Scatz, books tribute acts - and little else - for the pub. Her rationale is pretty simple. "People don't get out on the dance floor and boogie like they do with tribute bands," she says, adding that acts like Separate Ways, a Journey tribute that played there last weekend, encourage people to come for dinner and stay for the show.

For musicians, there are fringe benefits that extend beyond dancing. Playing Buzzcocks songs has helped Pope get reacquainted with his guitar, which had fallen by the wayside.

Dargan argues that covers can show fans - and other musicians - a new side to a band's taste and repertoire. He notes that locally, the Getaway Drivers do a mean rendition of early Wilco tunes, and the Selfish Gene do a number of covers that will "absolutely astound you." Plus, a number of local bands ditch their everyday personas each fall to form tribute acts like Cupcake (a Cake tribute featuring members of the Shabelles) and Gold Rush (John Statz and the Cheap Shots as Neil Young) for Dane 101's Freakin' Halloweekend. This year that party is at High Noon Saloon Oct. 30 and 31.

Meanwhile, Pope thinks people who hate covers should just get over themselves. "Haters should just stay away, and if they come around, they can kiss my ass."

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