By most measures, Matt Jernigan has made it. As the frontman for his band, he’s spent the past 18 years building a name and an audience, selling out shows, and making music his full-time career. At a time when the difficulties of a modern band living on a fickle music industry income are common knowledge, Jernigan and his bandmates have found success and stability. They made it by touring relentlessly, without a recording contract, or even a record; they did it by pretending to be Led Zeppelin.
Jernigan's band is Zoso, a Led Zeppelin cover band that formed back in 1995 in Los Angeles. “Me and the drummer and the bass player were out there, trying to do our own thing and get a record deal,” Jernigan explains of his pre-Zoso days. “At the time the industry just wasn’t signing our kind of acts anymore.” He had grown up listening to Led Zeppelin, one of the bands that stood out to him the most from his childhood and influenced the classic blues rock sound he was making at the time. So, when his management suggested a tribute act to the legendary rock group he and the bandmates considered it. “At the time, the idea was completely foreign to me. My idea of it was like being an Elvis impersonator.” The band thought about it for three or four months before agreeing. When they started doing shows, the act began to take off. “It wasn’t our favorite idea, believe me, but there was something there.”
Zoso aren’t the only group out there making a good living by bringing the concert element of another band’s music to the public. Badfish, a Rhode Island-based Sublime cover band that formed in 2001, stands out as a tribute act that has reached notoriety and earned themselves a cult following. Sublime’s popularity has only grown since lead singer Bradley Nowell’s suicide in 1996 and, in the years since, Badfish have served as something of a rallying point for fans old and new as the de facto touring arm of the band continues to resonate with listeners.
Go to a Badfish or Zoso show today and it’s clear that a select handful of tribute or cover bands have the touring legs most bands can only dream of. Take Badfish’s Brooklyn Bowl show this January as an example; cover bands aren’t anything to scoff at. Playing a venue big enough to be reserved for acts as popular as Talib Kweli or a ?uestlove DJ residency, they had a full house. It was comprised of the expected mix of stoners and frat bros—cargo pants and polos were in abundance—but everyone was animated, singing their hearts out and dancing exponentially more than audience members at any typical indie show across Brooklyn. The crowd wasn’t cool, at least not by the standards I’ve been held to since sophomore year of high school, but they made up for it with uninhibited enthusiasm.
Badfish and Zoso each have passionate crowds willing to support about 120 shows a year, and that’s built on familiarity, not originality. Both bands know the music so well that neither of them even rehearse anymore. “We’re just trying to get up there and play this music that we love as best we can,” says Scott Begin, Badfish’s drummer and one of its founding members. To him, the appeal of Badfish is parallel to the legacy of Sublime; the band represented a “vibe,” and they have made it their mission to keep the spirit of the band alive. That objective is part of the reason it doesn’t bother him that the remaining original members of Sublime have reunited as Sublime With Rome and are touring, as well as recording new music. “I think keeping this music alive is a good thing, no matter who’s doing it,” Begin defers, when asked about covering a band that’s ostensibly back in existence.CONTINUE READING