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Of all the rip-off artists in today’s music industry, Mount Airy, Md., quintet the Reagan Years claims to own a special place in the history of harmonious imitation.
“We pioneered the ’80s tribute,” says Andy “Sy” Seyler, who sings, plays drums, and operates an Akia sampler and a Korg synth module in the band, which has emulated the songs—and the fashion—of that era since 1996. “We cover everything from New Wave, like the B-52’s, Depeche Mode, New Order, to polished pop, like Rick Springfield’s ‘Jesse’s Girl’ or Journey or the Bangles, to hair metal, like Bon Jovi or Def Leppard.”
Seyler’s group—which also includes vocalist Michael Leigh, keyboardist Karen Ellison, bassist Lenny Everett, and guitarist Glenn Riley—plays lots of private wedding receptions and holiday parties, but it also performs for the paying public. During New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2002 and 2003, it entertained “hundreds of thousands” at Baltimore’s Harborplace Amphitheater, he says proudly. And this past March, the group packed Charm City’s normally 200-person-capacity Funk Box with a reported 333 ticketed attendees, according to concert tracker Pollstar.
From Ned Devine’s in Herndon, Va., to the Champion Billiards Sports Cafe in Frederick, Md., the Reagan Years have schlepped their mimicry schtick all over the greater Washington area.
Just not in D.C. proper. “It’s very challenging trying to find something in the District,” says Seyler, who’s also the group’s booking agent.
Seyler has tried many times to land a gig in the District, he says, but the city’s live-music venues just don’t seem interested in the Reagan Years. Seyler’s dream of one day opening for Duran Duran or some other ’80s icon at the 9:30 Club has been long deferred, he says. “It’s not really 9:30’s style to book cover bands,” explains club business manager Norm Veenstra. Besides, he adds, most acts select their own openers.
District dance clubs won’t forgo their DJs. Even retro-themed Polly Esther’s won’t return Seyler’s calls. Safeway’s National Capital Barbeque Battle also passed on the Reagan Years’ “musical tribute to the Big80s and beyond” in favor of more inventive area artists, including go-go founder Chuck Brown and poppy funksters Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. “The person booking bands was like, ‘You don’t do any originals?’” Seyler says. “They didn’t think a cover band would fit with the other bands on the bill.”
Even so, Seyler remains hopeful that his band will someday get into the groove in D.C. “I think it’s a great market that would be responsive to this type of music,” he says. “We just haven’t been able to break into it.”
He’s not alone. Despite their regular appearances in suburban settings, other ’80s-obsessed acts also struggle to find a consistent host site inside the District line.
Similar-sized cities offer plenty of stage space to their anachronistic artists. Appearing on Sept.16 at the Double Door in Charlotte, N.C., it’s hometown hacks Mighty McFly: “playing your favorite hits from the ’80s and more!” And in Austin, Texas, old school New Wavers can catch Jessica Simpson fave the Spazmatics every Wednesday night at Cedar Street Courtyard.
But as for D.C.-area ’80s enthusiasts, the nation’s capital is all out of love.
“I just don’t think they have any interest in having cover bands [here],” says Chris Leveille, vocalist for local sextet the Ballistiks. Described on its Web site as “Washington, D.C.’s own 80’s music experience!” Leveille’s band hasn’t played in D.C., either.
“The venues that exist are not cover-band-friendly,” he says. “It’s hallowed ground. I mean, they’re not just gonna let, y’know, five guys that got together in a garage and just practiced stuff that they heard on the radio step up on the same stage as all these great regional bands, or even national bands that come through.”
Are Leveille & Co. not men? To District bookers, they aren’t even Devo.
“Perhaps this seems an elitist view,” says Scott Verrastro, who schedules bands to perform at the city’s DC9 and Warehouse Next Door, “but in my opinion, ’80s-tribute bands are merely ‘party’ bands, who exist solely for nostalgic purposes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that simply does not represent my artistic vision nor the other bookers’ at the Warehouse. When there are so many amazing original acts in need of a D.C. show, why book Mr. Roboto: The Styx Tribute or Appetite for Destruction: The Guns N’ Roses Experience?”
“I don’t know anybody in D.C. that does that at all,” says Black Cat owner Dante Ferrando. “We listen to everything that comes through, but if we see a tape that is strictly cover songs, that’s pretty much the only thing that we blanketly say, ‘Look, we just don’t do cover bands. If you start doing original material, send us something in a year.’”
On rare occasions, Ferrando’s club will allow local groups to perform pseudo-sarcastic tributes to other musicians. But, he adds, “basically, the only time we go anywhere near that genre is when it’s a joke.”
Local groups that actually take their cover songs seriously find the largest like-minded audience in such places as Falls Church’s State Theatre and Arlington’s Clarendon Grill, where drummer Ben Marcheski and his band, the Reflex, played to a packed house on Aug. 24. “It was wall-to-wall ’til the bitter end,” Marcheski says.
Exceptions to the groups’ suburban relegation are few. Marcheski says the Reflex once played Lulu’s Club Mardi Gras in Foggy Bottom. Back in 2001. And Virginia octet the Legwarmers, the self-described “Ultimate 80’s Tribute Band,” somehow managed to land a spot at the 9:30 Club back in May 2004, opening up at a tribute-themed show headlined by Neil Diamond impersonators Super Diamond—a freaky aberration in local cover-band booking, at least in Leveille’s eyes. “That was a year and four months ago,” he says. “Have they been asked back to play since then? Probably not.”
Leveille suggests that the suburbs/cover-band connection is a natural one. “The people that grew up listening to that music now live in the suburbs,” he says. “They get out once a week. And they’re not gonna jump on the Metro to fight through Adams Morgan to come see their favorite band. They’d rather go somewhere where there’s parking so they can sit their SUV in a good spot. And go in and hear music that they know.
“We’re trying to get into places out in the ’burbs,” he adds, “because that’s where we know we can (a) draw a big crowd and (b) possibly put a little money in our pockets.”
For ’80s-tribute bands, it seems, selling out is just as big now as it was in their era of choice. “The original bands really are artists and wanna get their music heard, so they’ll play for the door or, y’know, next to nothing,” says More Music Group agent Diane Stagnato, who represents the Ballistiks and once booked shows for the Reagan Years. “But cover bands want to be paid.”
And paid well, she adds: “I would say for a club, a good ’80s band will get a minimum of a $1,000 to $1,200 to $1,500 in this area, where a DJ would get about $500.”
That disparity is a tough lesson in supply-side economics, but Stagnato hasn’t given up on injecting the city with a little ’80s nostalgia. “I’d love to get some of these bands in D.C.,” she says. “But where would you suggest I put them?”
Not at Club Heaven & Hell in Adams Morgan, where the nightspot’s ownership seems to have voted with its pocketbook and disc and video jockey Neal Keller’s Thursday-night ’80s Dance Party is a permanent fixture. The eschatologically monikered dance hall doesn’t do live bands anymore.
But even if it did, would city-sophisticate ’80s aficionados approve? “There was a big studio-recording thing in the ’80s, and there were a whole bunch of bands during the ’80s who didn’t play live at all,” says Keller. “The mentality was, We’ve got our synthesizers; we’ve got our drum boxes. We’ll produce it. People will play it in the clubs. We’re not playing it live.
“If it was my choice,” he adds, “I’d go for a DJ.” —Chris Shott
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Emily Flake.