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Aural Report

Noble variations on a theme
Hiding under the covers
by Kurt Dahlke

ural Report has often sought out the working-class musicians – for whom the light of stardom either doesn't beckon or never would.

But even in such a seemingly broad category, the numbers are quite slim. Said musicians are those lucky enough to find places that will let them play original compositions – and are lucky enough (sometimes) to find an audience of any size that appreciates what they do.

Growing on trees: percussion proliferates in P-town.

For the vast majority of musicians in Portland (it's often said that if you want a drummer here, you need only shake a tree) the playing field is liberally scattered, nay, covered, with cover tunes and cover bands.

Club owners daring enough to book live music often want only the broadest appeal and most palatable music. That's why if you randomly select a club and night, your chances of finding a blues band, a cover band or a one-in-the-same band are pretty good ...

... It happened to be a mid-November Thursday at Portland's Buffalo Gap. It could have been any day of any month in Anytown, U.S.A. The cover band was Slow Burn. And God bless them, because there are few enough places even wanting to risk any kind of live band.

Witness the proliferation of DJ dance nights, where all the nasty variables are reduced to one fader knob. Or karaoke, where the nasty variables are just plain nasty.

So what does your average cover band look like? Dare I say four white guys between 27 and 50, with a few infrequent variations for variety? Slow Burn seems to fit the bill.

I may be mistaken but likely their true provenance is a basement or garage somewhere in suburban Portland, where they meet weekly to hash out the standards and try an original or two. Though they spend far too much time at it as far as their wives are concerned, playing those tunes – playing anything – is their lifeblood and salvation from the day-to-day.

Just grab another beer, fella: it very well might be the common denominator.

Maybe I'm taking too many liberties, but what else can you say about a band that will trot out a cover so crusty, it's more recognized for its myriad bastardized TV-commercial uses, such as "Rescue Me" by Fontella Bass, then immediately turn in a nearly unrecognizable version of Willie Dixon's "Back Door Man"?

Just grab another beer, fella.

Up next is "The Ballad Of John And Yoko," sung as if by Julian Cope's Astoria-born-and-raised brother.

Actually, the unique voicing and stylistic adjustments given to some of these tunes indeed rescue them from the clutches of sonic wallpaper territory. If you can't tell what the cover you are listening to actually is, you're more apt to approach it with an open mind.

Another saving grace for Slow Burn (and pretty much standard equipment in any cover band) is a good soloist on guitar.

Saving grace: solos can acquit a cover band.

While the other guys acquit themselves mostly with the ability to simply play the songs, the lead guitarist delivers something for the apathetic, drunken patrons (e.g. me and my friend) to focus in on between bouts of job-related vitriol.

That said, it might have been the beer or the dude's Gibson, but I thought I detected a bit of Robert Fripp inspiration in the nimble, loopy solos – which might as well be twice as long within the cover-song context.

Because that's the territory you tread in a cover band, whether standing before a dozen dancing teens or 13 boozed-up clock-punchers. People want something on which to zone out. Maybe they're trying to hold a conversation and wish the music could fade into the back of their minds.

Or maybe they're out there just because they want to see music, any kind of music, and they're not too picky, and noble variations on a theme are all they really need.

E-mail Kurt at orangeandorange@msn.com, and don't miss his previous reports.

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