By Gary Wien
There's something interesting going on in the world of New Jersey cover bands. Several of the most popular groups are taking a break from performing Bon Jovi classics in front of their usual throngs of fans. Instead, they're finding themselves in clubs where a couple dozen people could be called a good night. In other words, they're taking a stab at the original music scene.
Two of the major players in this movement include the popular bands Big Orange Cone and The Benjamins. The former currently has front man Dennis Zimmer touring under his own name in support of his debut CD as well as members playing in the band Full Out Freak. The latter has decided to mix original music shows within the band's schedule.
Historically, fans of NJ cover bands have not show support for local original music. Dennis Zimmer hopes to slowly change that, and in fact, at his early shows there are signs that he's making some inroads. His performances at venues like Stingers (Long Branch) and the Stone Pony (Asbury Park) won over new fans and led to return bookings. I talked with Dennis before a show in Asbury Park about going the original route.
You're used to playing in front of hundreds and thousands of people, why take a chance at playing to dozens?
Desire, just desire. It's the challenge. I want to breathe a little bit and have some fun. I've had plenty of fun and still am having fun with Big Orange Cone, but it's just desire. During the day I have a lot of time to write, so I've been sitting down in that basement and spending a lot of time creating music. It's fun.
There's a vision that I've had. I'm a huge Black Crows fan, huge Stones fan, Lenny Kravitz - I just always loved the way a rock and roll band with a couple of girls in the back looked. And to have this vision and watch it come together. It felt so good to have this picture in my mind out there.
For a while it's going to fall on some deaf ears, but I think it'll turn around.
What was it like during that first show at Stinger's? You're used to seeing that flood of people in front of you. What was it like to play again for a dozen or so?
It felt great! I was so excited about it. It's a new challenge.
Is that how you felt about making your debut album?
Yeah, every step in the process of getting it out there is exciting. It's exciting despite these small crowds. And I'm definitely coming out at a tough time. The first show was in the middle of November; the second show was the end of November; the third show is two weeks before Christmas. It's a tough time to launch. I think some of those Cone people will get on it eventually. They'll come check it out - out of curiousity.
Can you build on the Cone audience or do you think that they're two separate audiences?
I'll have a few curiousity seekers and some die hards that will be interested. There definitely will be a small infiltration of Cone people, but I'm not expecting the masses to come over because they want to hear us play Bon Jovi and Blink 182. I'll get some, but I'm not expecting the masses.
But let's call a spade a spade. If Big Orange Cone was playing a Wednesday night at the Stone Pony in the middle of a freezing night two weeks before Christmas, I don't think we'd be doing all that great anyway. And that's another reason it's tough because I have to do it on the nights that people don't like to go out. But I have no choice, the Cone takes precedent right now.
So will you be doing Cone shows while trying to squeeze in original shows here and there?
Yeah, well that's my plan - pursue them side by side. I know what I have with the Cone and I'm not going to screw that up. It's a great thing we've built.
Like Big Orange Cone, another big cover band in the Benjamins have started doing original shows now. Is there any particular reason why this is happening now? Or is it just coincidence?
That's a great question. I don't know. Maybe it's just a gut feeling.
Sort of like maybe the time is right?
The ship may turn because in the early 90s it was all about girls flocking to original bands now they flock to cover bands.
Now the Benjamins are going out as the Benjamins. The only confusion they're going to run into is if they say The Benjamins at the Stone Pony; people may come here hoping to hear them play Bon Jovi perhaps. I've gone completely separate. Big Orange Cone / Dennis Zimmer - one's cover and one's original. The Benjamins may draw but people may be wondering where the Bon Jovi songs are. They have to really specify that this is an original show.
I guess it's just gut. It seems that lately the gut tells us to get on it... to get something going.
You can hear tracks from Dennis Zimmer's debut record, In My Head, and see where he's playing at his official website www.denniszimmer.com
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.