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Off Key: Cover Me

 by Ben Horowitz
 published on Thursday, April 20, 2006



I had kind of a prejudice against acoustic music when I was a kid - acoustic guitars called to mind a monochromatic spectrum of performers singing ballads about life in the country, feminists singing about the cruel oppression of middle-class existence, or, worse, overwrought, angst-ridden twenty-somethings singing quasi-poetic lyrics about former girlfriends to crowds of screaming pre-teen girls.

This contrasted sharply, of course, with the electric bands I favored, who chose instead to scream about the oppression of middle-class existence while pre-teen boys smashed into each other below.

As I grew older, I began to appreciate the subtleties of acoustic music. I realized there was a broad range of music being created, and classifying it all simply by the use of instrumentation would be like saying all power trios sound the same. Last Saturday, I had the good fortune of being at the Trunk Space in downtown Phoenix for a show featuring some of Phoenix's finest acoustic bands.

If you aren't familiar with the Trunk Space, it's a performance space and gallery downtown that specializes in bands that typically march to the beat of a different drummer -- in a good way. The entire atmosphere of the place seems charged with the good nature of its owners, and bands you may have seen dozens of times before have their performances somehow colored by the spirit of the walls they play within.

Aside from Andrew Jackson Jihad and French Quarter, bands that I've been lucky to see several times before, the stage was graced by Renee Sabo and The Liars Handshake. Sabo played some charming songs on a keyboard, and all of the bands' performances were worth the price of admission alone. But it was The Liars Handshake that made me think.

The Liars Handshake features an acoustic guitarist, a stand up bassist, two fiddlers and a very intoxicated lead singer. The band quickly got the crowd into an entertaining banter, and, more impressively, got everyone clapping and singing along to all of their songs, despite the fact that it was the first time many of them had seen the band.

They did it by playing covers. Classic songs, like The Pogues' "Dirty Old Town," were replayed as acoustic numbers. With the bass thumping simple rhythms to keep time and the guitarist turning classic punk songs into drunken sing-a-longs (and sometimes playing out and out drinking songs), the room was transformed into one big musical group hug.

It's impossible to say what solidly plants some songs into our collective unconscious. Why is it that Celine Dion's "Titanic" theme song comes readily to mind when I can barely remember what I had for breakfast two days ago? And why is it that even though I can't stand to listen to the "Dirty Dancing" soundtrack for more than 30 seconds, but when a bunch of my friends randomly start singing "I'm having the time of my life..." I can't help but respond with "and I've never felt this way before!" with as much gusto as I can muster?

It seems that covering songs used to be common fare, too. Johnny Cash covered Bob Dylan, both covered classic folk singer Woody Guthrie, who in turn covered dozens of songs by unknown backwoods storytellers. They were all fairly faithful to the originals, but managed to add their own spins.

Now, it seems like we've turned the cover song into an oddity - "Punk Goes Acoustic" offer little more than re-hashed versions of the same chords we've heard before played faster than we're used to.

Saturday night, though, it was good to be able to sing along, and for half an hour feel like I'd known everyone in the room my entire life.

Ben Horowitz prefers Leatherface's version of "Message in a Bottle" to the Police's, and doesn't care if you think that's musical sacrilege. E -mail him at

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