Cover bands, small groups and small venues prevail, but change is in the wind
Music-loving Delawareans old enough to remember can gleefully recount stories of the times Springsteen played Newark’s Stone Balloon back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when national acts were common sights there and at the Talley Ho on Concord Pike. Tony Cappella, a local bassist who plays with several local acts, most notably Montana Wildaxe, remembers the era fondly as a time when packed houses were the rule, not the exception.
“When we played those venues, you typically played Tuesday through Saturday,” says Cappella. “Same went for rooms like Prime Times, Reflections and so many others. Montana Wildaxe used to play at the Logan House the last weekend of every month and pack the place.”
Rob Zinn, a local jazz musician who’s been performing since the early ‘80s, confirms Cappella’s memories of the large venues. “Stone Balloon, 4&1 Club, Prime Times, Tally Ho, Big Kahuna and Garfields all come to mind,” says Zinn. “It was common to be booked at some of these rooms for four or five days in a row, with big bands every night of the week.”
But those times didn’t last. It wasn’t long before that era’s temples of great rock ‘n’ roll started to shut their doors.
Joe Trainor, another major name in the Wilmington music scene, remembers the early ‘90s into the early 2000s, when things started to shift. “In Wilmington alone, we watched bar after bar close due to the waning interest in live music,” he says. “You knew things were concerning when places like The Stone Balloon, The Buggy Tavern and The Barn Door closed.”
That’s one of the big differences between today’s music scene and the period when Cappella, Zinn and Trainor first emerged: large groups used to have plenty of places to showcase their talents. But when venues began to struggle financially, they ditched the traditional cover charge (the thing that made those large acts possible) in an attempt to entice the more casual, curious fan who might stick around for a few drinks.
It worked, in a way. Venues now book at least in part based on bar activity during the act. “I think the hardest thing is finding bands that are not only good, but also good at keeping the crowd at the bar,” says Joe Mujica, who’s been helping to book acts at Logan House since December.
Cover Bands Prevail
On paper and in practice, it makes sense. A restaurant or bar can’t get away with selling tickets.
Their product is the food and drink, and a live band is a draw they use to sell more of both. They can’t afford to be overly experimental and must provide entertainment that won’t alienate anyone.
That means time-tested, crowd-pleasing cover songs. Acts aren’t discouraged from playing their own material, but if a band wants to play, say, the Logan House, they’d be well advised to build a solid base of songs the audience already knows.
“The covers usually keep the people interested,” says Mujica. “Then you throw a few originals in there and the crowd seems to really like it.”
Lee Mikles, owner of Grain, follows much the same formula at his locations (Newark, Summit North Marina and Kennett Square). “We are looking for acts that can bring a mix of originals and covers in the artist’s unique style,” he says. That’s typically the blend that can keep an audience interested enough that they’ll drive the sales Grain needs to keep booking live music.
But, as venues and musicians alike soon found out, getting crowds to stay in one place and buy more drinks didn’t do enough to replace the economic assurance of the cover charge. Talking about the loss of the cover, Zinn says, “I believe that has impacted the ability to bring in bigger and more expensive bands.”
So, even if today’s musicians are playing well-worn songs from popular bands, they’re doing so in significantly smaller groups. “Gigs nowadays are more trio and duo acts,” says Cappella.
Typical of smaller venues is Oddity Bar, on Greenhill Avenue in Wilmington. “We book keeping the space in mind,” says Andrea McCauley, who owns the bar along with Pat McCutcheon. “So it’s all about what’s comfortable for our customers.”
She cites the genre that’s most popular at the bar, an alt rock-leaning style, versus her own musical roots, a heavier punk type. She’d like to book more punk shows, but those are better suited to bars where crowds have room to spread out and dance, as opposed to the more intimate setting of Oddity Bar.
Cappella and Trainor adapted well to the new prevalence of smaller places and smaller groups. “I play several styles of music, so some bands I play with can play large electric type venues like the Queen,” Cappella says. “Other acts are trios and duos that work smaller rooms like the Bellefonte Cafe, Kid Shelleen’s and Tonic.”
Trainor created his own solution by founding The Joe Trainor Trio and streamlining the group’s songwriting style, eventually building a larger audience than what his earlier, more experimental groups played to.
Zinn, on the other hand, is a musician who is at a bit of a disadvantage in a scene that favors smaller groups. Certain instruments, like, say, Zinn’s trumpet, don’t adapt well to duos and trios. “Being a trumpet player, I’m shut out from any of these types of [smaller] venues, unless I want to play along with tracks,” he says. “As for the new Queen, I’d love to be a part of any show with [the Rob Zinn Group], but I’m not sure if they are interested in original jazz/funk type bands.”
Despite this, Zinn hasn’t lacked for success—which he finds a little surprising. Plenty of the local spots support his preferred style of music. Says Zinn, “The Nomad, Ubon Thai Cuisine, World Cafe Live [now The Queen] and Tonic bring me in regularly; more recently, Kennett Brewing Co.”
So it seems that, even if there is a preference for cover songs, Wilmington isn’t devoid of emerging styles and opportunities to play original work. The fact that Zinn is getting consistent gigs hints that the city is ready for new music.
He also is getting support from other musicians. “I happen to love jazz,” says Cappella. “Thanks to people like Rob Zinn, Tony Cimorrossi and the Nomad bar, because they are putting it back in Delaware again.”
One group that has successfully transitioned is The Susquehanna Floods. It started as a cover band, but the group didn’t find widespread success until they switched to original music. “After almost five years of being in a cover band, I think we’d all gotten a bit burnt out,” says Zachary Crouch, Floods lead guitarist. “We all showed up to rehearse and agreed the only way we’d want to continue making music is if we focused on writing our own.”
Since their switch, the band’s amount of Facebook exposure has doubled, it won the 10th Musikarmageddon, got better treatment in venues, and attracted crowds that were much more receptive to and supportive of their original creations. “The crowds at these venues are super responsive and it’s clear that they bring out fans that are active in the original music scene,” says Crouch. Cover bands may have ruled the scene in the early 2000s, but the Floods are proof that the city is ready for more original tunes.
Some musicians and venue bookers even see opportunities that aren’t being fully developed. “I think there’s a market out there for good hip-hop, especially in Wilmington,” says Trainor. “Richard Raw seems to be the only artist making a real name for himself, and you’d think hip-hop would have a stronger voice in the city than it does.”
Rob Matera, who’s been booking in Arden since 2011, says it’s time to expand a different genre. “In North Wilmington, there’s a strong roots and Americana fan base that not many local original bands have exploited,” he says.
New Acts at Shady Grove
Matera makes sure his bookings at Shady Grove reflect his desire for more original music. “I personally like bringing new acts to our audience,” he says. “I think it has become something of an expectation that when you come to Shady Grove, you’re going to see new bands.” This year, of the nine shows planned for Shady Grove, eight are acts appearing there for the first time.
Another place original music comes first is, not surprisingly, also in Arden—Gild Hall. “We actually prefer not to repeat acts very often,” says Ron Ozer, the man in charge of bookings. There are some crowd- and venue-favorite musicians who return every so often, but for the most part, Gild Hall acts are fresh, original bands.
Both Arden venues provide plenty of bookings, with Gild Hall hosting close to 20 shows a year, along with Shady Grove’s nine. For volunteer-run venues, 30 shows represent an admirable offering.
If any organization is plugged into the opportunities for every genre, it’s Gable Music Ventures. To Gable, that soft reliance on cover songs is finally starting to give way, allowing local, original acts, like those from the ‘70s and ‘80s, to retake the scene. Says Gayle Dillman, who, along with Jeremy Hebbel, owns Gable: “We are thankfully seeing more of a trend towards original music, something we’ve been encouraging since we started.”
Through Gable’s efforts, original music is reclaiming large venues. Attendance for The Ladybug Festival, the all-female-led music event in Wilmington, has skyrocketed, allowing Gable to experiment with lineups. “We are able to focus less on how many people an artist can bring to the event,” says Dillman. “[Instead, we] can focus more on achieving our goal of having a diverse lineup of tremendous artists covering as many genres as we can.”
Besides Ladybug, Gable is bringing diversification to Smyrna at Night, events for the City of Newark, Wilmington University, The Sugar Bowl Series, Grainfest and the New Castle County Ice Cream Festival. That’s in addition to the daily gigs the company plans.
Similarly, McCauley and McCutcheon are using the popularity of Oddity Bar and its regular acts to introduce new groups to the scene. McCauley says they like to use a few slots in their Friday and Saturday night lineups to mix in new bands with the more consistently popular acts. Says McCauley, “Some bands we know well will get the [other] bands who play the whole night.” In other words, McCauley and McCutcheon will occasionally trust Oddity’s regular bands to fill Friday and Saturday nights with unknown acts that the regulars think will fit in well. It’s rare that it happens, but when it does, it’s a great opportunity for the older players to pull acts they enjoy out of obscurity.
Ultimately, the Wilmington music scene is one in recovery, but it’s recovering well. Coming off the glut of cover bands, venues are slowly beginning to experiment with original acts again, and they’re finding crowds that are receptive. There are still hurdles, but there is an ever-increasing number of capable people and companies to overcome them.