On a recent night, a small but rowdy crowd was packed into a bar in Toronto’s Dovercourt Park neighbourhood, watching Vanessa Dunn growl out songs like Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me. In a leather vest and biker hat, Dunn channelled more Axl Rose than Rihanna, a snarl on her lips, her body slithering to the beat. The fans sang along and cheered each time the band started a familiar tune—which was every tune, since Vag Halen is an all-women cover band that plays Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC and other male-centric rock.
It’s no accident Vag Halen is all women. Dunn and her wife, bass player Katie Ritchie, were in a bar one night a couple of years ago when Van Halen came on the jukebox. They started to brainstorm fantasy bands. Dunn grew up with brothers who loved ’80s rock and she loved it, too, but had always felt a bit excluded from that culture. An idea clicked. Ritchie was the front woman of the Vancouver indie band the Organ and Dunn was an actor. They floated the idea of an all-women cover band to their friends, and Vag Halen was born. “I don’t want to be a baby-voiced female with a pigeon-toed persona,” Dunn explained. “I want to be Freddie Mercury meets Hedwig meets Iron Maiden. I want our performances to have power.”
Not long ago, a cover band was more likely to be a group of middle-aged guys singing radio hits to a drunk crowd in a fake Irish pub. Now a generation of young artists is redefining what a cover band can be: professional performers presenting a curated variety show. P.E.I.’s the Love Junkies covers oldies and garage rock. The Toronto girl band Sheezer covers Weezer. A group of Toronto all-stars calling themselves the Best throw monthly parties called Loving in the Name Of, with an ever-evolving set list. “There are so many awesome songs out there, we never perform the same one twice,” said Christopher Sandes, a member. “We want to give our audience a great, fresh show and we want to challenge ourselves as musicians.” Sandes once spent seven hours perfecting a keyboard sound for ABBA’s SOS— a part that lasted 20 seconds onstage. The band’s attention to detail does not go unappreciated: they often fill 500-seat venues to capacity.
Vag Halen doesn’t see itself as an ironic or kitschy act. Says Dunn: “We pay respect to the song but the performance aspect, we make original”—original enough to be tapped for the Venice Biennale this year. They were handpicked by Shary Boyle, an artist representing Canada, to perform at the opening night party at the Canada pavilion. When Boyle brought her choice to those who make the joint decision—the National Gallery, the Canada Council for the Arts and private philanthropists—they bristled initially. “But I wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Boyle said. “Yes, their material is familiar in the Western music canon but it’s their presentation that’s so original. They’re empowering, subversive and skilful, like something you’d find in an underground club in New York or Berlin. It’s art.”
It’s art that’s gaining credibility. Robert Kozinets, a marketing professor at the Schulich School of Business at Toronto’s York University, said the popularity of cover bands points to a culture that has accepted reproduction as original creative work. “When Vanilla Ice sampled [Queen’s] Under Pressure in Ice Ice Baby, it was considered a rip-off,” he said. Now when performers repurpose music with a twist, it’s both a homage and a nod to their ability to curate something worthwhile. An all-women band giving macho rock songs a feminist edge? It’s an aural Warhol soup can.
“We make these songs badder and fiercer than they ever intended to be,” Dunn said. “I think we do it better than the original.”
Next month in Toronto, Dwayne Gretzky, a supergroup cover band whose former members play with Justin Bieber and Tegan and Sara, will play Rumours, Fleetwood Mac’s most popular album, in its entirety. With a quarter of available tickets sold in the first week, the night promises to be enthusiastic, and cramped. That same night at the Air Canada Centre, Fleetwood Mac will truck out their long-ago hits, a seniors’ cover band of their younger selves. Which gig will sound more rock ’n’ roll?