Fists were pumping, tables were being danced upon and DayGlo plastic mugs were being raised into the air. May 8 was mug night at Jake’s Nightclub and, despite the fact that most students had left Bloomington for summer break the week before, the room was packed with people assembled to see six musicians perform the hits of Guns N’ Roses, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard, Poison and others. In a pause between songs, Hairbangers Ball frontman Tyler Holcomb (aka "Tyler Steven") addressed the crowd.
"Tonight’s about havin’ a fuckin’ good time!" he said. "Tonight’s about drinkin’ way too much! Tonight’s about celebratin’ the greatest era in rock ‘n’ roll: ’80s hair metal!"
The crowd roared in agreement.
For years, Chicago’s Hairbangers Ball has been a frequent and popular draw in Bloomington, but it is just one of many bands that entertain local crowds by recreating the sounds of much-loved, but often unavailable, groups. Throughout the year, Jake’s and The Bluebird play host to both acts that cover songs selected from across an entire genre (such as hair metal, hip-hop or funk), and tribute bands recreating the signature sounds of such bands as Led Zeppelin, Journey, Sublime and Pearl Jam.
"It’s a good way to entertain college crowds, with these famous names," Bluebird promotions director Ari Solomon said. "I’d have to say that a lot of the cover bands can put on as exciting of a show as a nationally traveling (non-covers) act can." While they do not necessarily attract larger crowds to the Bluebird than nationally traveling acts (although Hairbangers can, Solomon said), cover and tribute bands tend to attract more local crowds that reflect a broader cross section of the Bloomington community. They also tend to command a lower fee. Solomon commended the cheaper cost because it gives the Bluebird a chance to provide appealing entertainment to students on a weekly basis.
At the May 8 Hairbangers Ball show, fan and Ivy Tech student Phil Resler supported this view.
"There’s always a good vibe going on," Resler said. "Whenever they’re playing, everyone’s in a good mood, everyone’s happy, everyone’s dancing." Despite not being into ’80s music per se, Resler said he returns time and again for the thrill of the live show.
"It’s happy music, it’s fun-loving party music, anything goes music," Hairbangers Ball keyboardist and vocalist Jennifer Remis (aka "Polly Pantz") said. "It’s all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll … and fun."
Remis and guitarist Jeff Jackson originally formed the band as a hobby, performing with friends and acquaintances brought together by a love of hair metal. (Remis declined to say how long ago they formed, but, at the time, they were in other bands covering acts like Limp Bizkit, Kid Rock and Alice in Chains.) Hairbangers has since become a full-time career, touring across the country and traveling abroad to perform for U.S. armed forces personnel stationed in places like Honduras and Puerto Rico.
But while Hairbangers Ball selects songs from a variety of artists based on factors like their hooks, choruses or appearance in television shows or commercials, other bands strive to reproduce the sound and feel of a single group as accurately as possible. Such is the case with Led Zeppelin tribute band ZoSo.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1995, ZoSo was assembled by singer Matt Jernigan and bassist Adam Sandling upon the recommendation of an agency management company. Choosing each member of the band on the basis of his talent for playing in Led Zeppelin’s style and performing on authentic instruments and amps, ZoSo seeks to recreate the experience of seeing the legendary band for audiences who will almost certainly never get the opportunity.
"There should only be tributes to bands who … have created a body of work that really matters," Jernigan said. "Somebody who has become more iconic and basically no longer exists or it’s very, very, very rare that you’ll ever get to see them."
With a show that seeks to do justice to the range of Led Zeppelin’s music while giving audience members less familiar with the band the hits they want to hear, ZoSo tours extensively, doing an average of 170 shows annually, and only canceling once in 13 years (due to a death in a band member’s family).
For Jernigan, the demands of ZoSo are even higher than when he was performing in non-tribute bands.
"The expectations of this are way higher than what (they) are if you’re just doing your own thing and people have never heard it before," he said. "This is already a proven thing, and you’ve got shoes to step into."
ZoSo might come as close to being ’70s Led Zeppelin as possible, but for Jeremey Hunsicker of the Journey tribute band Frontiers, the line blurred when Journey members Jonathan Cain and Neal Schon asked him to audition to become the band’s new lead singer. Declining the succeeding offer to instead spend time with his first child, he nevertheless ended up co-writing one of the songs on Journey’s upcoming album.
"As an entertainer, you want to be able to perform in front of as many people as possible, and enjoy what you do," Hunsicker said. "Being in a tribute band affords us some great opportunities that