There's nothing quite like being in a band, with adoring fans singing out the lyrics to rock hits -- someone else's hits
By Caitlin E. Curran, Globe Correspondent | August 18, 2006
Jeff Fraser refuses to learn any song he really loves. The Essex native and former Berklee student can play nearly any Top 40 hit from the past two decades on guitar, and his vast lyrical knowledge ranges from Journey to Jane's Addiction. Yet he refuses to sing -- or even disclose the titles of -- the tunes he holds most dear.
``Once you've played a song, it's like a magician showing you how he did a trick," Fraser says, smoking a cigarette in the alley outside Hennessey's bar. ``Some songs are just sacred ground."
Other songs, not so much. Fraser is a main player in Boston's cover band culture, which makes its primary home in the bars and clubs that pepper Faneuil Hall. It's taken him five years, but Fraser has steered his band, Spike the Punch, to the inner circle of the cover band scene. Spike the Punch is now a regular on the circuit, playing at least twice a month in the area. His formula for success? One part talent, one part stamina, and a remarkable ability to capture the essence of Bon Jovi.
The usual caravans of musicians flow into Union Street on a warm Friday evening, purging their cars of guitars, drums, and amps, and identifying themselves by gig location. Spike the Punch launches into Fuel's late- ' 90s hit ``Shimmer," but the crowd of 20-something professionals and recent college grads at the Purple Shamrock barely glance up from their rum and Diet Cokes. Three songs later, a brave, Hawaiian-shirt-clad soul proceeds to the conspicuously empty dance floor for Toto's ``Africa." He earns a few laughs but few fellow dancers.
But by the time the band closes its first set, with Journey's fraternity-party staple ``Don't Stop Believin', " the dance floor is packed and pulsing. ``Oh, Journey!" exclaims a petite blonde in pearls and pink heels, before she urgently belts out the lyrics with the rest of the sweaty crowd.
The throng has grown steadily over the course of the evening. And once people entered the bar, they were hooked. Few departed before the band's encore, which extended past the 1 a.m. closing time -- with no complaints from the staff.
For Spike the Punch and any other Faneuil Hall regular, it's a typical night. ``The first set is always mellow, but it picks up as the night goes on," says Mark Carey, over the phone the day after the show. Carey is lead singer of Dick n Jane, another regular player in Faneuil Hall's cover band scene. ``People tend to stay the whole night."
On any given night, there's a cover band playing on what Fraser calls ``the Union Street tour," that is, one of the handful of bars that dot the street: the Purple Shamrock, Bell in Hand Tavern, and Green Dragon Tavern. Given that the area invites easy barhopping, the ability for one bar to hold on to a large crowd for a whole evening is an amazing feat. Some bar owners speculate that cover bands are the reason.
Fraser has a hunch of his own. ``We don't play music, we sell booze," Fraser jokes over lobster rolls between gigs one night. No matter. For Fraser, who cites Kiss and Van Halen as his early musical influences (``Ask any cover musician in the city and they'll say they love Van Halen," he says), it's all about the music. ``I wanted to be a rock star," he says.
More or less, that's what he's become, and it doesn't stop with his Faneuil Hall gigs. Besides providing the backbone for Spike the Punch, Fraser also plays in a cover duo called Me and Julio as well as a wedding band called Men in Black.
``Cover bands mingle a wide range of musical tastes," says Noel Gentelles, communications manager for Somers Pubs, which includes Hennessey's, Paddy O's, and the Green Dragon. ``Cover bands play songs they all know, and that's conducive to a good time," he says.
For bar owners, cover bands guarantee big crowds, but for musicians there are perks as well. According to Fraser and Spike's keyboardist-vocalist Brandon Lepere, there's more money in covers -- though they wouldn't disclose how much.
Then there's the rock-star factor. As cover artists, they fulfill dreams of performing the beloved rock songs of their youth before throngs of adoring fans.
Fraser and Lepere have mastered the rock-star persona. Clad in black jeans, a tight T-shirt, and slick, dyed black hair, Fraser skips about, demanding that the audience sing along. Periodically he proudly uplifts the band's mascot, a skull. It ``harnesses our heavy metal power," he says.
Lepere, the other full-time musician in the group (he performs with Spike the Punch and Me and Julio), charms the audience as he peers from underneath his shaggy blond locks and croons ``Piano Man" to a group of swooning, slightly intoxicated women.
Spike's Todd Harvey and Tony DiPietro, who play bass and drums, respectively, are nonchalant and less conspicuous onstage, though equally energetic. For Fraser and Lepere, such gigs are their full-time jobs, but for Brooks and DiPietro, it's an escape from daily life. ``This is my night out," says Brooks, who by day develops medical software for a company in Swampscott.
It's not bad work if you can get it, but it does have its downside. Consider the reality: weekend after weekend spent slaving to the musical demands of slightly drunken patrons, performing ``Sweet Caroline" and ``Jessie's Girl" as though programmed to do so, three sets per evening, 45 minutes per set.
Yes, Fraser can reel off a long list of not-so-fantastic aspects of the job.
``The worst part is when someone spills beer on your equipment," he says. ``And also parking in Boston." Overall, the members of Spike the Punch say that the perks outweigh the drawbacks, and they'll continue to play as long as regular gigs keep them busy.
Still, Fraser's moment of Zen occurs on the drive home, when he listens to sports radio. ``Anything but music," he says.