NoVA’s cover band scene is more than borrowed lyrics and perfected riffs.
By Sharon Reed
Photography by Erick Gibson
NoVA’S COVER BAND SCENE IS MORE THAN BORROWED LYRICS AND PERFECTED RIFFS.
Lining up for a recent show in Northern Virginia, crowd members chatted happily in anticipation before seeing the performance. They were waiting to see their favorite cover band perform renditions of songs by top musical artists of today and yesteryear. Teeming with professional musicians who wow their audiences with their performances, Northern Virginia’s top cover bands, JunkFood, Gonzo’s Nose, The Reflex, Partners in Crime, Flow in the Dark and The Fuzz, have loyal fans that follow them from show to show.
Work/life balance seems to be an art form in and of itself with these performers. Most work full time during the day, some for the government or military, and others in private business or education.
These bands are not autonomous. The members of the six bands, along with some other bands in the area, are interconnected and often know one another. It isn’t really “six degrees of separation” in the interlocking area cover band scene, but one or two degrees of separation—friends or friends-of-friends—and some of the performers formerly played in each other’s bands.
At a recent Sterling gig for The Reflex, Cathy DiToro, a lead singer from Partners in Crime (formerly The Congress), unexpectedly jumped on stage and sang several impromptu songs. DiToro was watching the show when Martha Krabill, The Reflex’s lead singer, spotted her in the audience and invited her to sing with the band. The audience cheered in appreciation. DiToro’s guest appearance is not unusual. At another recent show in Clarendon, Mike Webb, lead singer in the band Gonzo’s Nose, sang a few songs with The Fuzz. Members of many area cover bands can be often be seen watching, and sometimes singing or playing an instrument, with another band on a night off.
“It’s always fun to pull someone on stage with you if they make it out to a show. The local scene is a pretty incestuous little group.” says Mandi Meros, lead singer in Blue Label Band and former lead singer in both The Fuzz and The Reflex.
“There is a remarkable professional comradery,” comments Gary Corpuz, a photographer from Ashburn who frequently goes to see area cover bands perform at area venues. “There doesn’t seem to be any competition, but friendship between many of the performers in the local cover bands. If a singer or instrument player happens to be there, the hosting band may ask if they want to sing and/or play one or two songs. They usually do.”
Isn’t junk…but top quality entertainment
We all know that eating junk food isn’t good for you, but watching the band JunkFood perform is good plain fun. With one foot as a band that performs its own original rock music and the other in the local cover band scene, JunkFood regularly draws big audiences at their performances in the region and at major venues along the East Coast.
And not only have they commanded the local scene, JunkFood’s sound garnered them a national audience of the famous set, sharing the stage with The Fray, the Dave Matthews Band, the Plain White T’s, Jimmy Buffett and many others.
Lead singer/guitarist Bart Harris has toured as a guest with Bret Michaels of the band Poison many times, including at a show in May at Merriweather Post Pavilion. He played the bass and sang harmonies with the Bret Michaels Band during a 10-day tour in Canada this past December. And, he sang background vocals along with pop star Miley Cyrus in the Bret Michaels’ song “Nothing to Lose”.
Playing backup and belting out cover greats isn’t the only thing on their current agenda, though. The band is currently working on their fourth full-length CD. Their CD “Mighty”was released in 2008, “Below the Charm” in 2006 and “No Space” in 2003. Some of JunkFood’s most popular original songs include: “Toast, Perfume & Vodka”, “Dear Lonely”, “Wristband”, and “Color TV”, which are “very hokey pop songs with a rock edge,” Harris says. But the four-man band still plays to the hearts of its fans sharing their playlist with high energy cover songs that range from Neil Diamond to Nickelback. Katy Perry, Blink-182, Elvis, Green Day, One Direction, Bob Marley, Bruno Mars’ songs also make the playlist.
Dwayne Corbin, of Ashburn, an audience member at a recent performance, says, “JunkFood has a strong rock sensibility by use of two guitars along with the traditional bass and drums. They can take an original pop-oriented radio song and apply it seamlessly into a rock groove or rhythm, by which a potential first time listener may think it was indeed originally a rock song. Also, JunkFood’s harmonized vocal melodies add another layer to their overall sound. … Traditional rock fans will not be disappointed.”
The connection with fans through the music isn’t the only link JunkFood is hoping to attain at each one of their performances. Harris provides funny and engaging banter with the audience while performing, trying to get on a more casual, friendly level. “We are not pretentious and really create a ‘family’ vibe with our friends, fans,” Harris says. “It’s about that night. Not the night before or the next night. We want people to come escape from the real world for a few hours. We try to help that out.”
Started up in 2000, Harris is the only original member of the band. He previously played in bands that include Odd Reason, The Fifth and The Willys. The current line-up also consists of Dan Anderson (lead guitar, vocals), Van Swanson (bass) and Jeff Essex (drums, vocals).
Anderson who raps/sings songs by bands such as Eminem and REM, is the newest player, having joined in 2011. Anderson and Mike Leverone, lead singer of The Fuzz, were founding members of a cover band called ThatGuy from 2003-2007. After the band split up, Anderson went on to play with two other area cover bands. He subbed with JunkFood many times before joining the band full time. Leverone pursued original music and solo acoustic music. JunkFood and The Fuzz continue to have a close connection, and Anderson sometimes fills in as a guitarist for The Fuzz.
Along with his brother Robbie, Anderson co-owns a sound company, Anderson Pro Audio, LLC, and says they have run sound for every band in this article. “They’re a great band (I’m in the band and I still talk about them as if I’m a fan.) and I’m absolutely honored to be a part of it,” Anderson says.
Despite maintaining a busy performance and rehearsal schedule, the band members still have full-time day jobs that need their attention. Harris works full-time in his family automobile business, Anderson is a government contractor, and Essex works as a graphic designer.
Harris says “being in a band for me is truly like therapy. … The vulnerability of playing live is truly a unique, special and sometime overwhelming experience. Nothing in my lifetime has ever made me feel that way. Music is absolutely my escape from the negativity of the real world.”
JunkFood plans to continue to perform both original music and cover tunes in the future, according to Harris. “Originals are very rewarding, but it really does not matter as long as the crowd is engaged with us. That is an indescribable feeling.”
Rockin’ out with
Whether Mike Webb is singing a song from the Black Eyed Peas or Billy Idol, or Jennifer Prell is singing a Lady GaGa or Joan Jett song, the audience at Gonzo’s Nose shows are always rocking out—dancing, jumping with their arms in the air, and singing along.
The two lead vocalists sing high-energy cover songs from the ’80s until today. Webb, lead vocalist, also plays the guitar and keyboards, and Prell, other lead vocalist, plays the keyboards. They are joined on stage by Adam Kamber (lead guitar), Andreas Holmstrom (bass) and Steve Spishak (drums). Founded in 1996, Spishak is the only original member of the band.
Gonzo’s Nose is known for its massive set list, with approximately 235 songs in heavy rotation—equivalent to 15 continuous hours of music—and often adds new songs to their set, according to Webb.
Remarkably the band has never cancelled a gig over the past 16 years, and has played more than 800 shows. “Gonzo’s prides itself on its commitment to what it does, and treats the band like a business, not a hobby,” Webb explains.
The band has sometimes made superhuman efforts to perform. Spishak has performed with kidney stones; Prell with a broken back; and various other injuries and ailments. In 2011, Prell broke her back while horseback riding and was on stage in a brace just four days later.
Gonzo’s Nose has also taken their act across seas, touring in Bosnia and Kosovo as part of the Armed Forces Entertainment tour in 2000, playing for U.S. and NATO troops. And closer to home, but still on a larger stage, in 2009 and 2013, the band performed at the Virginia Democratic Party’s Inaugural Balls, and also at the 2013 Illinois Inaugrual Ball.
Although they are all classically trained musicians, the band members are employed full time in addition to playing in Gonzo’s Nose, with the exception of Holmstrom, who is a full-time musician. A native of Sweden, Holmstrom studied at the Stockholm Conservatory of Music and the Berlee College of Music in Boston. Prell is a self-employed corporate tax accountant, and Spishak works in account/project management and also owns a web development business. Kamber works for the federal government. Webb is a full-time member of the U.S. Navy Band as a bass vocalist for the Sea Chanters, the Navy’s official chorus. Webb has a bachelor’s of music degree in vocal performance from James Madison University.
Webb says that he met some of the members of the local bands while in college at JMU, most notably Blue Label’s Meros. Webb is also friends with (and work the same day job) Michael Belinke, lead vocalist of The Reflex. Additionally, another Navy Band singer, Casey Elliot, used to sing with The Congress.
Webb says that being in Gonzo’s Nose “challenges me musically to perform all types of songs, including sharpening my skills on guitar and keys. … The fun songs, great crowds and musical attention-to-detail we pursue make it an overwhelmingly satisfying experience.”
time traveling with
Put on some Jordache jeans, leg warmers, and stick some shoulder pads in your shirts, ladies; and while you are at it, tease your hair up a storm and pile on some blue eye shadow. If you are a guy, wear some parachute pants, a sleeveless shirt to show off those muscles, and wear a gold chain, or two, and put on some electric neon sunglasses. Dress like that and you won’t stick out at all in the audience that flocks to performances given by The Reflex, an ’80s tribute band.
Established in 2001, The Reflex band members dress up in ’80s retro style and are known for their outrageous outfits, often changing them between sets and for different shows. Michael Belinkie and Martha Krabill are the lead vocalists and both play the keyboards. The Reflex’s roster also includes: Marco Gonzalez (guitars, vocals), Marc Taylor (drums, vocals) and Darron Morfino (bass).
“One of the most unique things about The Reflex is that we always dress in ’80s attire,” Krabill says. “We perform songs from the era and do our best to make sure they are performed the same way the original artist performed/recorded them to the best of our ability. We do our best to pay tribute to the ’80s through our music and style.”
Transporting the audience back in time, The Reflex plays songs from the heavy hitters of the era, from Madonna to Prince. “For anyone who hasn’t heard The Reflex we like to say close your eyes and you might feel you’re at a Prince or Flock of Seagulls concert,” Gonzalez says. “We want to do the music justice without taking ourselves too seriously, hence the clothing. We have a good group of people that genuinely like performing together and that at times does the genre better than some of the original artists. What more could we ask for,” Gonzalez adds. It’s “fun, energetic unassuming music.”
Despite their demanding performance and practice schedule, the band members have full-time jobs. Lead vocalists Belinkie and Krabill are both in the military. Krabill also teaches dance to adults with disabilities. Belinkie, along with Mike Webb, a lead vocalist in Gonzo’s Nose and Casey Elliot, a former singer for The Reflex and The Congress, is a musician in the U.S. Navy and a member of the Sea Chanters, the Navy’s official chorus. Taylor is an educator, and Morfino owns a company that makes high quality basses. Gonzalez is a sales and marketing director.
Gonzalez has played in many area bands, and appeared performing 12-string guitar on two Bret Michaels albums: in the song “Start Again” on the ”Rock of Love” album and in the new yet-to-be released “Bret Michaels and Friends” album on a remake of “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” a duet Michaels did with Loretta Lynn. Playing on it aside from Gonzalez was Joe Perry from Aerosmith and Hugh McDonald from Bon Jovi.
Krabill says that the members of The Reflex always have fun performing together. “The best part about my performing with The Reflex is hanging out with the band members,” Krabill says. “I am very fortunate to be a in a group with these talented musicians.”
“And, in my opinion ’80s music is the best music ever recorded,” she adds.
rapping out with
PARTNERS IN CRIME
When Cathy DiToro, the lead singer and a rapper for Partners in Crime, sings and raps to the song Superbass by pop singer Nicki Minaj, the crow sings/raps along in appreciation. DiToro, who sings a wide range of songs from Lady GaGa to Ke$ha, also plays the keyboards and guitar; It is difficult to imagine that she is a Fairfax County high school guidance counselor by day.
DiToro, previously the lead singer for The Congress, which dis-banded in May 2013, teamed with John Hardwick, the Congress’s drummer, to form the new band, Partners in Crime. Partners in Crime is still in the same style as The Congress that wowed area audiences. The band plays to DiToro’s strengths in rapping/dance/pop/hip-hop, with some rock. Vocalist Billy Andrews from American Giant joined the new band and Girard Ordway, formerly of Cheap Date, rounds out the group on bass. Hardwick previously played in American Giant.
“We pride ourselves on medleys to try and keep people on the dance floor. We stay really current, and super high-energy. That is our best quality and the feedback we get constantly “you’re energy as a band was so great, contagious,” DiToro says.
“We are a pretty close-knit community and have many friends we like to help out,” DiToro adds. “Everyone in the band has subbed for other cover bands including The Fuzz, The Reflex and Down Under. … We also have friends sub from various bands including Gonzo’s Nose, That Guy Mike, The Fuzz and American Giant.”
All four band members have full-time jobs, except Andrews, who is a full-time musician. Ordway is a web developer. Hardwick works for a non-profit trade association that supports the audio-video industry, and owns his own sound company, and like Andrews, supports local artists and venues by helping to run sound and production for live shows.
In addition to performing, DiToro writes her own songs and is presently producing her first original album which will be released later this year. She is in an acoustic duo with Flow in the Dark’s Carter Pennell.
Partners in Crime isn’t just a band, we are a family,” DiToro says. “Our strong bond provides us with the dynamics we need to put on a high-energy show every time. We are all passionate about performing and keeping the crowd on the dance floor all night.”
FLOW IN THE DARK
Fun, like a barrel of monkeys
Hip-hop band Flow in the Dark claims to be “so much fun … like a barrel of monkeys” and they live up to the promise when they perform. Playing primarily hip-hop and some pop, rock and reggae cover songs, the band’s four singers play their music to flow as if from a DJ, connecting one song to another throughout a set.
“The two aspects of Flow in the Dark that set us apart from other cover bands are our multiple lead vocalists and our mash-up style song arrangements,” says Adam Lee, the band’s drummer. “We have four singers who all take turns singing lead and background vocals, which provide a good amount of variety for the audience, not just in how we sound, but visually as well.”
“We also perform a lot of mash-up songs, where we combine familiar elements of multiple songs into one ‘frankensong’ to make something original. It’s a lot of fun to challenge ourselves to create something new and unique from songs the audience already know and love,” Lee continues.
“We’re a live hiphop/party band that sounds like a DJ, in that we keep music flowing with quick transitions, lots of medleys, and four singers so there’s a lot of variety,” Lee explains. “We each bring to the table a lot of different influences, which is a big part of why the mashups tend to work so well,” he adds.
In addition to Lee, the band’s roster includes: Jabarie Brown (vocals, MC), Connie Chen (vocals), Danny Tilman (bass/vocals/trumpet) and Carter Pennell (guitar/vocals/talkbox/keys).
Each of the five singers has a day job outside of playing in the band. Brown is the host/creator of the Jabarie Brown Podcast Internet Radio Show; Tilman is a teacher in Fairfax County; Pennell is a financial adviser for a private investment firm; and Lee is a financial analyst for a small government contractor. Through the Armed Forces Entertainment program, Lee has also traveled with a previous band throughout Asia and Europe entertaining the troops.
Both Tilman and Pennell have subbed in with The Fuzz, “We have made a lot of friends in the local music scene and help each other out when the opportunity presents itself,” Lee says about the noncompetitive spirit of the local scene.
Lee says his favorite part of performing in the Flow in the Dark: “getting the crowd to react to us. … Our show is designed to get people to come out and dance, and when we can get the whole place moving we know we’re doing a good job.”
Energy is always in motion, and so is
Back in grade school science class you learned about energy always being in motion. If you see Mike Leverone, the lead singer of The Fuzz, perform then you won’t doubt it. With a seemingly non-stop amount of high-energy, exuberance and enthusiasm, Leverone sings, jumps and dances while performing throughout the show; sometimes singing into his microphone while on top of a man’s shoulders in the audience.
Songs that gets the most enthusiastic response from the audience include songs by the Toadies, Green Day and Eve 6. According to Leverone, these songs and “some ’90s staples never fail to deliver.”
Established in 2009, The Fuzz is a modern rock/top 40 cover band that plays hits that span the last 50 years with an emphasis on 1990s to the present day music. Leverone describes the band’s style as “edgy pop.” “We do some of the staples, but in general I think the most important thing next to talent and professionalism is simple—try and look like you’re having a good time. At the end of the day I want the band to be respected for its talent and work ethic, but enjoyed because we’re obviously having a lot of fun.”
Lead singer, guitarist, keyboardist Leverone is a full-time musician. In addition to performing with The Fuzz, he is a solo acoustic performer at venues throughout the area. His former projects include ThatGuy and he was a past member of Liquid A and Scott’s New Band. Kara Davis, another lead singer, who plays the guitar and keyboards, also does solo acoustic performances and does voice-over work for commercials and phone systems. Drummer Jack Loercher is full time with the band and gives vocal lessons privately and at an area School of Rock. He was previously with the band High or Hellwater in Los Angeles and 3Fifths and Jamtastical Freedom Enterprise. Lead guitar player and lead vocalist Oren Polak also performs solo acoustic basis. He was previously of the band The Karma Issue and teaches music privately. Rounding out the band is bass player and vocalist Will Rzad, who has played with Polak in Karma Issue. A graduate of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Rzad teaches at an area Bach to Rock school.
“We’re combining the freshest hits with proven gang-bustersin new and fun ways. People don’t come back because the songs you play, they come back because of the experience they had,” says Leverone.