Rhythm is a dancer
MUSIC:Party bands are back, says Kevin Courtney, and it’s 1990s nostalgia that fills the dancefloor
IT’S SATURDAY NIGHT, and you’re in the mood to party. You check the gig listings: a post-rock band with an unpronounceable name; a clapped-out rocker wheezing out his 1970s hits; a hyped-up rapper charging 80 yo yos to shout “Yo!”. There must be something more entertaining. Well, yes, thankfully there is. The live circuit has been energised by a different breed of musical act – the party band. Forget your tribute bands: why pay to see a band that slavishly imitates a famous popstar, when you can see a band that slavishly imitates 20 different popstars in one night?
Party bands usually embrace an entire genre or decade in music. Are you a 1990s child? Then the band Smash Hits will zero-in on the techno, rap and eurobeat sounds you grew up with and learned to love – dodgy lyrics and all. Do 1980s power ballads fill you with glee? Then get your leggings on and check out Spring Break.
If, however, you wince every time you hear the AOR strains of Foreigner’s I Want To Know What Love Is, maybe you should stay at home washing your mullet when Spring Break roll into town. And if the eurocheese whiff of Culture Beat’s Mr Vainmakes your toes curl, then you’d might want to move to Belgium to avoid Smash Hits.
“Some of it is pretty cheesy, I must admit,” says Dec Quinn, aka ELF, keyboard player with Smash Hits, whose setlist includes such 1990s dancefloor classics as Rhythm Is A Dancer, Pump Up The Jam, Ice Ice Babyand I Like To Move It. “People in their 30s or 40s might cringe at it but there’s a whole generation of college kids who grew up with these ’90s tunes. The ’90s is now the new ’80s, and after 10 or 15 years of ’80s nostalgia, people are ready to remember the ’90s.” ELF, guitarist Jo Maxi Priest and singer Crystal Maize left Republic of Loose in 2009 to follow their dream of creating “like so totally the ultimate ’90s band”. They teamed up with singer/rapper Dr All-Bran, bassist MC Spanner and drummer Culchie Beat.
“We got a gig at the Sugar Club , and within five minutes we knew we were on to a winner. The crowd just completely lost their minds,” says ELF.
Smash Hits were quickly ushered on to the bill at Oxegen and Electric Picnic, and played a sold-out residency at Tripod. Their dance diary is full for the foreseeable future, and Dr All-Bran reckons the 1990s revival is only beginning.
“This music is the soundtrack to your teens,” he says. “You don’t hear these songs on the radio anymore, so it’s a real novelty to hear a band playing Culture Beat, Ace Of Base, Faithless and The Prodigy. When it starts to drive home towards the end of the gig, the punters go absolutely wild. People are just losing it and you’re totally in the vibe with them.”
“We long ago stopped predicting when the ’80s revival would end,” says Jan Van Couver, lead singer with Spring Break, who deliver big American rock anthems from the decade that irony forgot. Power ballads by Foreigner, Starship and Toto are on the setlist, along with solid gold rockers by Huey Lewis, Bob Seger and Bruce Springsteen, and tunes from such classic 1980s flicks as Footlooseand Dirty Dancing.
“There’s no room for anything that doesn’t pack a large punch,” says Van Couver. “We’ve built a set that has all the greats in there. I wouldn’t call them earworms, but they do stick with you.”
The success of Gleehas driven more music fans in the direction of the 1980s – and made Spring Break seem right on the zeitgeist. “The big one is Don’t Stop Believingby Journey – that song has taken over the world. We’d be lynched if we didn’t play that one.”
The party band pedigree goes right back to the showband era and the likes of Gina, Dale Haze the Champions, who pumped out the latest pop hits for the dancehall set. Over the past decade, the Sugar Club has been the natural home of acts such as Holly The Go-Lights (swing), Gregory Spade the Love Tailors (funk/soul), Cantaloupe (salsa/latino) and The Camembert Quartet (everything from death metal to jungle to easy listening). In the Celtic Tiger years, party bands could count on corporate bookings to keep them busy, but these days the corporate gigs have dried up. Bands are now competing on the increasingly crowded wedding circuit, and they have to offer something new for couples celebrating their big day.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re just doing covers – you have to jump up on stage with the right attitude,” says Eamo Griffin, aka Zamo Riffman from party band Déjà Boo. “You have to put on a show. If you want to be a party band, you can either get a niche for yourself and do it really well, or you can get great musicians and a wide and varied set, and do it with passion.”
Déjà Boo have a secret weapon – their singer, Niamh Collins, aka Eve Debris, a soul-shaking bundle of dynamite who has performed at the O2, Oxegen, on The Late Late Showand at the Meteor Awards, backing Rod Stewart, Enrique Iglesias, Lulu and Michael Bolton.
“A sense of fun is essential for playing in a party band,” says guitarist Mark Levins of the Moog 69s, who have been performing soul, disco, pop and rock covers at festivals, venues, weddings and big dos over the past few years. “You have to really enjoy yourself, and that sense of fun has to be infectious and pass over to the crowd.”
The Party Kings do a varied set that ranges from the 1950s to the noughties, and they’re old hands at getting the party started, having made their mark on the dancefloor as Boogie Nights. They’re fronted by the queen of the party bands, singer and model Una Gibney, aka Nikki Sinclair. “You have to do tunes you like,” says guitarist Ed O’Leary, aka Norris Barkley. “And you have to put on a show. The sad thing is that many couples don’t know how to book a band for their wedding – they hire a band without even going to see them, and then end up with a bunch of bored-looking guys in black who look like they’d rather be at home watching Emmerdale. If your band are clearly enjoying themselves, your guests will enjoy themselves too.”
Spring Break play Tripod, Dublin next Saturday; Smash Hits play Tripod on June 18th, see tripod.ie; Déjà Boo play the Odessa, Dublin next Friday (free), and the Taste of Dublin Festival at Iveagh Gardens on June 12th and 13th; The Moog 69s play at Bloom in Phoenix Park on June 5th, 6th and 7th