'Cover' story

Lawrence bands put new spin on performing old songs

Steve Ozark is becoming more proficient at applying his makeup.

But he is still irritated by the process of trying to duplicate the black-and-white facial design of Kiss star Gene Simmons.

"The worst part is the time and the sweat - that was such a bad idea," says Ozark, bassist for Lawrence band Sellout! "I've been through four wigs. They start to turn into a Rastafarian nightmare."

Thankfully, there is one practical advantage to adopting the image.

"At 45, I'm the oldest guy in the band," Ozark says. "That's why the Gene Simmons look really works: It hides those crow's feet."

While Lawrence is a city renowned for its music scene, that praise usually implies its "original" music scene. There hasn't been much of a demand for cover bands (those who primarily perform other artists' material) since the late 1980s. Yet there are a few acts in town that have found a new spin on performing old songs.

In the case of Sellout!, it means getting into character.

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Sellout! members Nick Kounas, left, Steve Ozark, Jenny Smith and Valery Price adopt various personas during a summmer show at The Jazzhaus, 926 1/2 Mass. Sellout! is among a crop of Lawrence cover bands that are finding attention-grabbing ways of performing other artists' material.

The various members don the identities of famous musicians and celebrities, which presents the opportunity to see Tina Turner and Jim Morrison sing a duet while Wayne of "Wayne's World" and the construction worker from The Village People back them up. Ozzy Osbourne, Marilyn Monroe and James Bond also have been known to join in.

"We call the costumes our sixth man, like in basketball," Ozark says. "People who have never seen us will walk in and go, 'Well, this is different.' Then they see that we're definitely not taking ourselves too seriously."

Sellout! renders hit songs from the '60s to today. Specifically, Ozark cites Beck's "Loser," AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" and Stevie Nicks' "Edge of Seventeen" as the most recent tunes his group has worked up.

"When Nick (Kounas, guitarist) and I put the band together four years ago, it was like, 'I'd rather come over to your house and jam than go in today's environs and play original music.' Having done it for so many years, I knew I'd enjoy it more to play music for the sake of playing music than to try and get a crowd by doing original songs."

They chose the name Sellout! - with a brazen exclamation point and a dollar sign often inserted in the place of the S - as a way to leave no doubt about the unit's objective.

Past Event

Sellout

  • Friday, December 2, 2005, 10 p.m.
  • Jazzhaus, 926 1/2 Mass., Lawrence
  • 21+ / $5

More

"It says basically we've completely sold out to the whim of the people," Ozark explains.

The band is composed of members (ranging in age from 20s to 40s) who have played in some notable original groups from yesteryear, such as Kill Creek, Modern Saints and The Backsliders.

"It doesn't really get to the level of seriousness of somebody chasing their dream to get a record deal, get signed and get known by the world," Ozark says.

Instead, it offers instant financial gratification.

"When you walk in the door, (a cover band) is going to make 10 times what an unknown original band would make," says Ozark, who has earned his living as a booking agent for the last 17 years.

Does Sellout! encounter any resentment from local original artists?

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Special to the Journal-World

Gourmet Mushroom X members Clay Ptacek, left Scott Sperry, Steve Buren, Randy Fitzgerald, Rob Fitzgerald and Bill Colburn (not pictured) run through their unusual cover set during a performance at The Replay Lounge, 946 Mass.

"I wouldn't blame them," he replies. "I don't hear it, but I'm not out and about very much. I'm one to always say that it's unfortunate that there are so many good bands in town - and nationally and internationally - and cover bands are outdoing them in terms of business."

Sharp-dressed men

Sellout! is not the only group in Lawrence that flirts with costumed impersonations.

The newly gigging El Loco embraces the long beards and cheap sunglasses popularized by ZZ Top.

"But we don't have the spinning guitars yet," admits bassist/vocalist Mike Craig, whose band made its debut at The Jazzhaus last weekend.

"(Guitarist Don Desmond) sent me a letter and said, 'I just thought I'd see if you wanted to start a ZZ Top tribute band. You're the only guy I could think of who'd be close to (Top bassist) Dusty Hill.' So I called him back. He answered the phone, and I said, 'A haw, haw, haw, haw.'"

Live, the band performs a crop of ZZ Top favorites such as the "haw, haw, haw"-phrased "La Grange," followed with sets of classic rock by artists such as Lynyrd Skynyrd and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The 47-year-old Craig also fronts Hot Load, a half-cover/half-original trio that has been performing in Lawrence for six years.

"Any guy can sit around and play everybody else's songs forever, but if you're writing your own stuff, that's where it's at," he says.

"There will always be a place for a cover band in Lawrence," says Jacki Becker, concert promoter for Eleven Productions. "Whether you want to hear the DJ spin the record or see someone play it live, you want to hear that song that takes you back to a time in your life when you were having fun doing something listening to that song."

Second chance

Perhaps the city's most conceptually unusual cover act is Gourmet Mushroom X.

"We're a Lawrence punk rock supergroup cover band," says drummer Rob Fitzgerald. "We're loud and obnoxious. We drink a lot and have a good time."

The twist is that the members of Gourmet Mushroom X have been in so many bygone Lawrence groups - Action Man, Second Chance, Brompton's Cocktail, Id Explosion - that the musicians cover their own tunes from previous bands.

So sprinkled between Black Flag and Sex Pistols interpretations are more provincial tracks such as Joe Worker's "Frozen Embryos" from the early 1990s.

"Maybe half of the material we play is stuff that somebody in the band wrote at some time in their life with some other group," Fitzgerald says.

Although together for five years, the outfit only occasionally performs live.

"We play for fun and for our egos," says Fitzgerald, who also shares drumming duties with his younger brother Randy. "It's more of a social club than trying to be in competition with other groups."

Perhaps that's the unifying theme of these particular cover bands. When one removes the pressures to write original material, go on tour and land a record deal, it only leaves the innocently enjoyable parts about playing in front of a crowd.

"I've seen plenty of good original musicians watching us," says Sellout!'s Ozark. "They all tell us how wonderful and talented we are. We just go, 'Oh come one. We're just cheese with extra cheese. We're just out having fun.'"

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