Uncovered

As local band Conversing with Zookeepers finished playing Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android,” lead singer and guitarist Joe Mintz looked out at the crowd of around 50 fans in front of him and spoke with modest honesty.

“That song was hard,” Mintz said. “The goal of every cover is to do the song better than the original artist. Sadly, I don’t think we’ve done that yet.”

The art of picking cover songs was on display when a group of local bands took to the stage for KRUA’s Undercover, a two-night concert event in the Student Union March 4 and 5. The opening night line-up featured Josh Fryfogle and the Getogether, Sarah Jo Wells, Hawkins Wright and Woodrow. To close things out the Zookeepers were joined by Yesman, Syran and the Moon Knights.

Mintz was being a bit hard on his band with his post-Radiohead cover assessment. More important than outperforming Thom Yorke was picking cover songs that both the band and the fans would enjoy. Judging by the reaction of the small but attentive crowd, Conversing with Zookeepers succeeded.

Mintz said the band had pre-selected “Android” and “Time is Running Out” by Muse but due to potential conflict each member got to pick a song to round out the set.

“We’re all really terrible decision makers and we could have spent days arguing about it,” he said.

Local fans often compare the Zookeepers sound to Muse, a Brit band just now making a mainstream splash in the U.S. That assessment doesn’t always flatter the band especially when it overshadows original material.

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“People come over and say, ‘Hey, you guys played a good show and that Muse cover, that was good,’” Mintz said. “But it’s funny because when we go do shows, that’s like the depressing part afterwards because, you know, we didn’t write it.”

Mintz and the other bands didn’t have to worry about praise for their own songs but they did have to face scrutiny if their cover picks didn’t measure up.

“We try to choose songs that we either can do better or in a completely different way,” Lester Smiley of the Moon Knights said. “We kind of have a policy against covers in our usual sets but this was really a chance to mess around and do something silly.”

The Moon Knights certainly embraced the chance to do things in their own way when they literally “toyed” with a Tom Waits cover.

During the chorus, keyboardist Julie Schnyder sang into the Voice Mutator, a megaphone-like toy with three settings that garbled her voice into indecipherable noise while emitting flashing light from the front.

“We got that from a garage sale,” Smiley said. “It’s made appearances with us since the very beginning of the Moon Knights. But we haven’t used it in awhile.”

When Schnyder sang into the Mutator, Smiley went into theatrical convulsions on the stage while pounding away on his guitar.

“It has that effect on various people,” he said after the show.

The chance to hear crazy covers like those by the Moon Knights are part of what Emily Dalsfoist, the lead singer of Syran, liked most about the concert.

Dalsfoist and Syran, along with many of the other bands, joined the KRUA gig late in the game. Most folks in the Anchorage music scene were making plans to head to Fairbanks to see a show by Portland-based indies the Decemberists. But the show was cancelled March 1. That allowed Dalsfoist and her bandmates little time to pick new covers after signing on to play.

“I don’t know very many covers,” Dalsfoist said. “So these were pretty much all I know and they’re my favorites.”

If Decemberists fans were bummed by the cancellation, Smiley had planned on giving them covers of two of the bands songs but shelved them because he felt he couldn’t equal the quality of lead singer Colin Meloy’s voice.

“I didn’t think I could do them justice,” he said.

So instead of paying homage to one of his favorite bands, Smiley and his band mates attempted to make the poppy teen punk of Avril Lavigne actually sound punk with droning keyboards and chaotic guitar work. The result left audience members scratching their heads during the opening verse of “I’m With You” but had everyone in attendance head banging along when the Knights launched into “Sk8er Boi.”

“It was totally fun,” Smiley said. “Despite how repulsive her music is there, is something about those songs that is kind of compelling in a car-wreck sort of way.”

Regardless of how much radio play the songs got, Smiley spent a good portion of the performance reading lyrics he had written down and laid on the stage. Nobody cared that he didn’t know the songs by heart.

“I totally had some cheat sheets,” he said.