Cover bands get no respect. They get paid, generally a lot more than the average local band playing original music, but no one remembers them the next morning. No one buys their records, if they even bother to make one, or wears their T-shirts. But in our special Music Issue, we at last pay tribute to the cover band, profiling four local standouts: the Pop Rox, Same as It Ever Was, the Invaders, and the Quorum.
The Band: The Quorum
Who: Jason Ellis (vocals, guitar), Jason Watson (guitar), Brad Clemmer (bass), Wes Wright (drums)
What They Play: Classic rock, '80s hits, and '90s alternative
Where They Play: Two Doors Down (Maryville), Ray's ESG, Quaker Steak and Lube, Smoky Mountain Brewery, Paul's Oasis
It's a frigid Friday night, but that weather might be why Two Doors Down in downtown Maryville is hopping, as people seek a cure for their winter cabin fever in cold beer and loud music.
Really, really loud music.
"We're the Quorum! We're going to have a lot of fun tonight!" shouts singer and guitarist Jason Ellis as the band takes the stage. Seconds later, in a nod to the arctic temperatures, the group launches into what has to be the loudest, most metal cover of Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" this town has ever heard. An equally heavy cover of Steve Earle's "Copperhead Road" follows. Then Seven Mary Three. Then Van Halen. Then Kansas, Journey, ZZ Top, Green Day, AC/DC, Whitesnake, Guns N' Roses, Rush, the Police, Sublime.
All remarkably faithful covers. All balls-out R-O-C-K.
By the end of the Quorum's first two-hour set of the night, a lot of the bar patrons are dancing along with the band. Like Dyan Perez, a woman in her early 40s, who says she's seen the band "like, 20 times."
"They're so good, aren't they?" she says, shouting to make herself heard. "And what's so good is that all of them can sing."
Perez is right. All four members of the band—Ellis, guitarist Jason Watson, bassist Brad Clemmer, and drummer Wes Wright—trade off on vocal duties, depending on the song they're covering. For the most part, they nail it; only "Don't Stop Believin'" and "Sweet Child O' Mine" sound less than optimal vocally, optimal being as close to the original as one can get. (Of course, does anyone sound like Steve Perry or Axl Rose?)
But after five years of playing together almost every weekend, all over Knoxville and the surrounding area, it's no surprise the Quorum nails it. Five years is hundreds of shows, hundreds of practices.
"In the life of a cover band, that's a long time," Watson says. "But we're lucky, we stay busy."
Watson, Wright and Clemmer met in the mid-1990s while taking music classes at Pellissippi State. The Quorum isn't their first band together, but it's their most successful one—because, they say, it is a cover band.
"It's all about the money. It's the only way to get paid in this town," Wright says.
"You can either be a musician or a working musician," Watson adds.
It's true that they might not have set out to make the Quorum solely a cover band. But between the time constraints of having families and working full-time jobs, combined with turnover in the position Ellis currently holds (he's been in the band just a year), writing their own songs fell through the cracks. But that doesn't mean they don't like the songs they cover.
"We're addicted to playing," Clemmer says.
Watson says the band's niche, such as it is, is covering a broad spectrum of rock songs—'70s classics, '80s hits, '90s alternative, contemporary hard rock. Songs they grew up loving, songs they fell in love to, songs they love now. Songs that are the personal soundtrack, in one way or another, of most Americans in their mid- to late-30s, simply because they were inescapable during those days when radio did rule. And while the band might at times sound like a live version of a classic rock station, there's thought behind their set lists, like a carefully curated jukebox: Squeeze in enough crowd favorites at the beginning, and by the end of the night, no one will mind when you slip in some deep cuts.
But the Quorum is nothing if not professional. They have a neon green logo painted on their black trailer; their logo wristbands are green with a black logo. They refuse to take shit from bar owners who try to screw them over, which they say is one of the worst parts of being in a cover band, along with moving their own equipment and a lack of free drinks.
That, and those nights where the crowd just really isn't into it.
"We like for them to get up and go crazy," Clemmer says.
"But if we know we did a good job, we're fine with it," Watson chimes in.
"If we don't play good and don't sound good, I'm miserable," Clemmer replies.
"Which is rare!" Watson exclaims. "We always sound good! But I'm biased, I guess."
"Did you just say you're bisexual? What?" Clemmer asks.
"No! Biased," Watson yells. The table cracks up. Because as professional as they are, as seriously as they take their music, the Quorum is at heart just a group of friends who really enjoy spending time together.
It's barely been half an hour since they stopping playing, but with their beers now finished, it's time for the band to return to the stage. They'll play another two-hour set, until the bar closes. It's rare to see any band play for two hours straight, much less four hours, but stamina isn't a problem. Clemmer says if they're going to bother to spend the night away from their families, they might as well be productive.
"There's nothing to do but play music," he says. "What else are we gonna do?"
The four walk away and pick up their instruments. There's a discussion over what song to play next; Journey, maybe, then Cheap Trick? And the show goes on, again.