About six months ago I was on Facebook and I noticed a post from my friend Liz about a 90’s cover band. I said it sounded like fun. That Saturday, we had our first practice.
I had previously been in the band Robots From the Future with Liz’s husband Keith. In fact, I was singing and playing the guitar for them as they took their vows on-stage at the Kitty Kat Club at the end of a Robots set which happened to also be their wedding. Liz had started taking drum lessons and really wanted a band to play in so she could have a reason to keep practicing and playing. Keith was already on-board on guitars so I volunteered to play bass and keyboards. There was an obligatory “Craig’s List Guy” who showed up for the first practice (I was late, I missed him, he wasn’t invited back) and there was one more person to join the trio of myself, Liz, and Keith, a young man named Cristhian Arias-Romero who was a friend of a friend and came highly recommended as a singer and performer.
For the first few practices we brainstormed 90’s songs we loved. We all came at it from different angles. Keith was suggesting things like They Might Be Giants and Ween, I was throwing out Elliot Smith and Jeff Buckley, Cris was pushing Britney Spears and Madonna, Liz was voting for Cake and Fresh Prince, it was a great mash up of music from different genres and years, like a tornado in a Sam Goody store circa 1999. I found myself thinking that this could be a fun band to be in. Not only did I already like Liz and Keith, but Cris was really a great guy too, the chemistry was fantastic from the beginning. If that could be combined with a band that could play a wide range of music and make it our own, maybe being in a “cover band” wouldn’t be so bad.
Cuz I gotta admit… I came into the band with a bit of a bias. I have always considered cover bands to be somehow lesser. It’s not like the musicians aren’t good, or the songs, it’s just that I associate cover bands with background music at weddings or fawning tributes to better bands. It was hard for me to mentally connect the words “creativity” and “cover band”. It’s like, “get your own ideas” or “the original artist did it better, why are you appropriating their stuff?” They’ve always seemed lazy to me and I’ve never been in a proper cover band before. Oh sure, I used to jam on the weekends with some guys and we pretty much just played Neil Young songs, but we never gigged and we didn’t take it all that seriously. It was just something to do.
So, joining a 90’s cover band? Really? I’m doing that now? And we named ourselves after a Star Trek TNG episode? Really??
Well, I got past my initial skepticism and started to enjoy myself and before long we had our first gig on the calendar, a night at the Eagles Club playing for the 90’s Preservation Society. It was the perfect place to kick-off a 90’s cover band and the first gig went remarkably well. We flubbed some notes and there were nerves, but the crowd was really responsive and Cris was such a natural showman that nobody cared. He was dancing and belting out the “jams” and really selling it and it was electric. Keith and Liz and I were pretty solid as a unit. It was crazy fun. That was when I really realized there was something to this band. We weren’t just playing 90’s songs, even from that first show we were a little theatrical, we were making the songs different and owning them.
There have been many conversations over margaritas and pizza at band practices about how cover bands are perceived. How many people in the music community look down on you if you “just play covers”. Some people don’t want to book you. Some of the people that DO want to book you only want you to be a radio made of meat. We’re a theatrical band that happens to play 90’s songs, not a tribute to Pearl Jam or background music for a bar mitzvah. Getting shows lined up was a little challenging at first, but a few made their way onto the calendar. One of our next shows was at Palmer’s Bar, which, frankly, is not generally considered to be a venue that most bands even want to play. Palmer’s is a dive bar with a stage about the size of a king size bed. Most of the people I told about our pending gig at Palmer’s used words like “stabbing” or “shooting” in their remarks in re: The Venue.
However, we were offered the gig and we took the gig and we rocked the shit out of Palmer’s, tiny stage and all. Nobody was shot or stabbed, and we were invited back, and we went back, and it was awesome again, and we are going back again later this month.
During the summer I actually played a few solo sets too. I did a night at Acadia and I played acoustic guitar for a dog rescue event on the government plaza in downtown Minneapolis, but FoD just kept getting better and more fun. I was offered the chance to play a fund-raiser carnival for Safe Hands Animal Rescue and I turned it into a FoD gig.
By the time we played the doggy carnival we were really starting to gel as a band. Cris showed up to that one wearing a homemade pink poodle outfit and it was going awesome until we got rained out and had to cut our second set short after only two songs.
Weekly practices, a few bar gigs, the 90’s Preservation Society, a dog rescue carnival, it was a busy first six months for our band, at least by my standards. I’ve never been in bands that play out on a regular basis. Most of my background is in writing and recording. This was getting to be a really fun time. And people were noticing. And then… sadly… Cris told us that he was going to be moving to Seattle.
This was a blow. I am happy for him, and his reasons are really solid, but we were just really turning into a really unique, creative, and interesting band… that happens to play covers. And we had three pending gigs on the calendar. And without Cris being a larger than life presence up front, it wasn’t sure how we could still be a cover band without turning into the stereotypical outfit.
Our next gig, the last one with Cris, was the 10th Brainniversary of the Winona Zombie Crawl, and it happened last Saturday.
This gig was special for a few reasons. One, we were playing both the opening and closing sets of the night bookending the acts Speshul K and Koo Koo Kanga Roo. Second, it was a road trip, Winona being something like 120 miles from my house, so we rented a trailer and got a hotel room for the night. Third, it was a freaking ZOMBIE CRAWL so we all went in costume. Last but not least, it was the last show with Cris without whom, it’s safe to say, we would not be the band we are.
The band all met up at my place around 1:00 in the afternoon where we ran through a couple songs, ate a pizza, and basically got loosened up. Then we went to the U-Haul place and got the trailer and came back and loaded up. The trip to Winona was beautiful, country roads with corn fields, perfect early-fall-late-summer weather, then the bluffs of southeastern Minnesota and the Mighty Mississippi River in the Lake City-Pepin-Wabasha area. We checked into our hotel, contemplated “food lamps”, and Liz and Cris worked on their makeup and Keith got into his robot zombie outfit. I think the kid behind the check-in desk at the Super 8 was crushing on Liz a little.
Keith and I went ahead to Ed’s (No Name) Bar, our home for the evening, and unloaded drums and keyboards and guitars and amps and all that good stuff. Our sound guy was Rob and he helped us do the usual “plug this thingie in over there” action. Actually, side note, Rob did a great job and I heard from a few people that the sound was excellent, so thanks Rob!
Eventually Liz and Cris joined us and we sound checked and stuff. Cris commanded quite a bit of attention as a 6 foot 6 cross-dressing nun, Liz had a bloody hammer, a bloody knife, and a severed head on a hook, Keith was silver with a rectangular scrotum, and I was an undead Lego man. All in all, not the usual Saturday night.
As we started our first set around 9:15 the crowd started to filter in. It was starting to be good times but then we were afraid we would cut into the next act’s time so we cut it a little short. I loved getting a warm-up set like that. It was really nice and I think it set us up well for the closer.
Speshul K, the first rapper I’ve ever seen wearing a pink bathrobe on stage, did a set after ours, and then Koo Koo Kanga Roo got up and turned the whole place into the weirdest Saturday morning kids show you’ve ever seen. There were zombies everywhere, and a rainbow parachute, and a big sign, and lots of dancing, and pumping beats, and comic books, and Jello brain molds, and cake, and the place really got going. So much so, in fact, that I worried about going on and losing the crowd. The bar was set absurdly high. We had our work cut out for us.
We started off with Poison by Bell Biv Devoe, and any doubts I had were quickly erased. The crowd was raucous. They loved us. They were singing along, dancing, loving everything. They stayed even though it was the midnight set. Cris was amazing, Liz and Keith and I were tight, and every song we played seemed to go better than the last one. By the time we finished with Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Should’ve Come Over” and Komeda’s “Boogie Woogie Rock n Roll” I was in heaven. It was the most fun I could remember having playing a set. We had a big on-stage group hug and there were tears and it was just…
It was one of those moments you remember for the rest of your life.
It felt like the entire band was leading up to that.
I’ve played music my whole life, and disdained cover bands, and this was truly special. Standing on stage, in a group hug with a robot, a zombie slayer and a nun in front of a room full of drunken zombies, dressed as a Lego. Not something I could have foreseen.
I’ve got a lot of memories from this year, but this one is gonna stick. We were Fistful of Datas.
But lest you think this is goodbye… Fistful of Datas isn’t over. A parting gift to us from Cris was an introduction to another singer, Mike, who will no doubt be amazing as well. But I think it’s safe to say that Chapter 1 of the story of the band is written, Chapter 2 is just starting, and I no longer hate cover bands. At least, not this one.