The first time I saw The Fidgets they were playing to a crowd of 15 at the Badlander and wearing Daisy Dukes. The local trio stood at the edge of the stage, Tyson Roth and Ricky Drake clutching acoustic guitars and Travis Yost with a snare drum strapped around his chest like a drummer boy. With striking confidence and clean execution they belted out one cover after the other: Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades,” Van Halen’s “Panama,” Lucinda Williams’ “Essence” and the Ghostbusters theme song. They mixed in a few other obscure covers as well as a few originals written by Drake, including “Six String Baby” and “Hey.”
But the covers resonated. Maybe it was because each member took turns scatting the guitar solo in “Ace of Spades,” turning it from a gritty biker anthem to a jollier, more hilarious rendition. Or maybe it was because they didn’t try to emulate Lucinda Williams, but played “Essence” with feeling and made it their own.
“It’s a weird art playing cover songs,” says Yost. “We decided to do the non-ironic cover. We play each song as if it’s the greatest song in history. We play ‘Ghostbusters’ as if this song kicks so much ass, like, ‘The first time I listened to that song I cried, I got my period, we have to play that song now!’ That kind of feeling.”
It’s really all Bon Jovi’s fault. When The Fidgets formed in June 2008 they didn’t consider themselves a cover band. But during their first few shows, they played “Wanted Dead or Alive” reggae-style, and the audience loved it.
“That song lived because during those first shows we played half originals, half covers,” says Yost. “But the audience only gave a shit about Bon Jovi. And that was it. We were like, ‘Oh no!’”
So The Fidgets did the only thing they could do: They embraced their cover band status.
How do you become a cover band and still keep your street cred? That was the trio’s dilemma. After all, they had already proven themselves to be legitimate musicians by playing together in two other bands, Catrabbit and the Trillionaires (with Larry Hirshberg). And Yost is probably best known as the drummer for local Americana favorites Tom Catmull and the Clerics.
“All I ever did was sit around with the Clerics and say, ‘This [cover] band sucks, that band sucks. Original music is the only way to go,’” says Yost. “And every time Tom Catmull will go, ‘What do you do in The Fidgets then?’”
To make themselves not just another cover band playing “Brown-Eyed Girl,” the group found ways to make playing covers creative and challenging. They set a goal of learning at least one new song an hour before their shows. They started playing classic favorites then added more B-sides.
“I like the idea of coming up with some obscure covers that if you weren’t a really huge music fan of all genres you might attribute to being an original,” says Roth.
The Fidgets have also learned the trick of drawing in a crowd with classic covers and then blindsiding them with one of Drake’s originals. The ploy works, too. Drake’s “Six String Baby” and “Douchebags We Hate” are as catchy as any cover, but when those songs follow Cher’s “Believe” or a Beatles medley, the audience is already paying more attention than they might with a band playing all originals.
The Fidgets also say that a good cover band should have strong stage presence. Every show they wear a different costume. They have themes for their stage banter and entertain themselves by ribbing the audience.
When they cover Led Zeppelin songs, for instance, they introduce it as a band they found on MySpace. “We’ll be like, ‘You really need to check these guys out,’” says Yost. “And nine times out of 10 I get two people coming up to me after the show going, ‘What was that band again? Led Zeppelin? Where are they from?’”
Yost has a particular reputation for bantering with and loudly chiding the audience.
“On stage I feel so cynical and entitled to an audience,” he laughs. “I’m all like, ‘Look. Look at me! Look at the show. We worked for an hour on this. You paid five dollars. Get over here!’”
Drake adds, “I like when you single someone out who looks like they’re sneaking out and you yell, ‘Unacceptable!’”
With a cover band, too, it’s harder to pedal merch without it coming off a bit cheesy. The Fidgets remedied that awkward situation by having a merch box full of things like Kleenex, candy bars, umbrellas, potato chips and socks (they’ve sold three pairs). They picked up the idea inspired by another local band, Bacon & Egg, who once sold silverware and other “bling” spray painted gold.
The last lesson learned for being in a cover band is, obviously, not to take things too seriously. The Fidgets say there isn’t a song in the world they’d be too embarrassed to cover. And, at a show, if they miss a note or three, or Yost forgets the lyrics (which he claims to do often), it’s no big deal.
This week marks The Fidgets’ last show for a while since Roth is moving to Bozeman to do a Knowles course. But the band says they’re not ready to give up on fine-tuning the cover band niche.
“You can’t make it famous this way…but I do think in a local sense I want to be the greatest cover band there ever is,” Yost says. “I love the fact that we’re going to learn to play Rod Stewart tonight—and I hate that song. I hate ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.’ But when I listen to it and I think of the three of us up there covering it, it’s perfect.”
The Fidgets play the Badlander Friday, May 29, at 9 PM, with Pluto’s a Planet and The Racquet. $5.