They Had Me At Bel Biv Devoe (The Redz)

So last week, in a rare moment of spontaneity, my wife and I dialed up the babysitter and went out on the town without a plan. Now, “out on the town” means we went to a hookah bar five miles away from our subdivision and then kept looking at the clock because we were so tired. Yet, we felt way too lame to arrive home at 9:15 (because, you know, we’re afraid of the babysitter judging us) so we stopped at another exotic location–a bar called Sherlock’s, 1.5 miles from home.

golden tee

I convinced my wife to go in for some food. I really wanted to play Golden Tee. See, ironically or not, I hate golf but I absolutely love video game golf. Is this like hating sex but loving pornography? In any case, we were a little taken aback by the fact that the place was packed with birthday parties and the like and there was a band setting up.

We used to go see lives band a lot and my wife really didn’t want to play golden tee (even though she tricked me into going with the siren song of video golf!), so she begged me to have another beer and watch the band set up. As I surveyed the crowd I was skeptical–in the lone star state, you expect Jimmy Buffet wannabes and bad rock music at local bars. The crowd–mostly white and older–made me think that the coming band would be nothing but the same.

When they took the stage, well, I was still a bit skeptical–the song they played before starting was by Nickelback. I was sure I was breaking out in hives. But then I noticed that something else was strange–there were video screens all over the place playing the video along with the song; the bassists had a sampler and keyboard rack in front of him; the band had a guy with a computer right next to the guitarist. And the singer? A large, dreaded man with sunglasses on.

When they started playing their first notes, I thought it was a joke. But it wasn’t, the videos on the screen confirmed my suspicion…the band was playing “Poison” by Bel Biv Devoe. The Redz, a party band from Houston, had me with Bel Biv Devoe.

If you were alive when this song came out and at all conscious of the world around you, you know it. And even if you hated it, you love it now because of the world it recalls, the testament it pays to a very different time. Just look at their clothing! I love the combination of melody and anti-melody in this song. I love the rhythm. I love the memories. I actually love being reminded of standing awkwardly around at a middle school dance while other people danced.

I stole this from their FB page. Hopefully, they will forgive me

I stole this from their FB page. Hopefully, they will forgive me

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I thought that this had to be some kind of a joke, that the band was going to start playing their real music, that this “Poison” had an antidote coming. But the signs were all wrong. The bassist could rap and well. The singer had some hip-hopped vocals cords. the drummer was less human than machine. And then, when the song was over, they took at trip to Hollis Queens.

Now, one of the things about hip-hop is that it is damn hard to cover. A thing about cover songs it is that it is damn hard to do them right. So, by some bizarre law of transference and multiplication, covering hip-hop is really, really hard. I thought we were going to leave after one song, but when Run DMC came on we had to stay. See, my wife used to teach in Hollis Queens. Run DMC played at our undergraduate institution. We lived in NYC when Jam-Master Jay was shot. To leave would be an act of severe disrespect.

And yet, each song that continued gave us more reasons to stay. Who the hell successfully covers Nelly? Seriously, WHO COVERS NELLY AND WELL? The Redz.

The music, as it rolled out, struck us with a dose of nostalgia and surprise. Neither my wife or I really ever liked Nelly, but we remember mocking this song and, after years, we were mesmerized by the images from the video. (I do suspect that the two of us were thinking different things, but that is ok…) It wasn’t just that our own pasts were dredged up by each song, but each transition in the music kept us in a state of suspense. After Nelly? Some James Brown. And then? Prince. the songs were blended together, we didn’t have a moment to think. And we didn’t want to.

Each turn in the music made me consider the talent of the musicians playing (the guitarist is a little average, but the rapping bassist is phenomenal), the depth of their familiarity with the music (they wove the songs together like pros and even anticipated later songs: “Sex Machine” broke into the song before it and licks from “Thrift Shop” peppered early songs before the Macklemore video flashed on), and the way the crowd was won over. By the time they turned up the ‘jump’ for House of Pain, old white people had their hands in the air.

When I was younger, I think I was unfairly dismissive of the dedication and talent required to be a good cover band. I always viewed the art as derivative and uncreative. Yet, it is almost easier to be in an all-original band because you don’t really need to learn anything, you need to make shit up. A cover band must prove its worth by mastering something else enough to inspire memories in their audience.

Inspiring nostalgia, of course, isn’t enough. What a great cover band does is to provide a foundation of nostalgia and familiarity only to juxtapose it with uncertainty and surprise. My wife and I lasted about 10 songs before it was now too late not to go home. And, along the way, I kept trying to think of reasons to have a party to hire this band.

Another track I was happy that they played. Timely and timeless?

Of course, seeing the Redz also made me think of my brother whose band spends so much time honing and building their cover songs. At times, I think I may not have respected that effort enough, that dedication to not just the music but to the idea that the audience will enjoy the music with you, that your faithful reproduction recreates a memory within them that is one part nostalgia, one part revelation, and two parts escape. What a gift!

Oh, my brother also got a full-time job teaching this week. I know we don’t talk as much as we should because we’re busy, but I am happy for him and, as much as it is my right to be, proud. My brother, for you here’s a song The Redz didn’t play, but I bet they could.

8 comments on “They Had Me At Bel Biv Devoe (The Redz)

  1. T.A. Gerolami says:

    I secretly liked Poison when it was out…now it being played in any context with a dance floor means I am instantly up on my feet. That opening drumbeat can’t be beat. Sounds like a great cover band-the only ones I’ve loved were Little Joe Cook and the Thrillers at the Cantab in Central Square (they play all old R+B and include Cook’s own regional hits), which one date once said she wouldn’t mind seeing at a wedding…but…., and this band that was in CT in the late 90s/early 2000s, “Boogie Nights” which were less authentic, but man, was it ever fun dancing to live covers of disco songs with an enthusiastic crowd.

    • theelderj says:

      There are so many songs like “Poison” that I pretended to dread and secretly liked, or at least appreciated. Nelly’s “It’s Getting Hot in Herre” is another one. I hate the video and the gender dynamics of the song, but it is a really great piece of work.

      I never really got into any cover bands. But I know my brother loved a Talking Heads cover band in college…

    • theelderj says:

      I also think that how bad my band was at covers is a mark of how much we needed to learn or how insufficient we were. And, I think most of that stems from my limitations as a musician!

      • T.A. Gerolami says:

        I always liked your covers, but I have no idea where they rank and I think a musician’s criticism is different. I’ll be honest, too, I’m a jerk: I usually like the covers for a random band in a bar that just is there while I’m there because then I know the song. It’s why we used to have standards!

  2. theyoungerj says:

    The Redz sound great. I do feel good about our progress and our wide range of covers helps play the different rooms we play. I want to play my own music eventually and do not want to be a fifty year old dude playing Mustang Sally and Change in my pocket for the billionth time. But if it was rap covers? Lastly, Fear of Music was the Talking Heads cover band and they were amazing.

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