Oct. 25 2018 12:03 AM

The biggest stars in the bar: Lansing musicians keep taverns rocking


Shut up and play the hits. And play the hits they do. Any barhopper accustomed to Lansing’s scene will be familiar with the numerous bands that perform anywhere from the Green Door to the Unicorn. Some groups blend originals with covers, and others are full blown tribute acts — either to a single famous outfit or a particular era.

And people love them. For many musicians, the bar band gig is a surefire way to get people dancing and make some well-deserved dough on the side.

Kathy Ford, an accomplished Lansing musician and teacher who’s reached been-there-done-that status with every nearly facet of the industry, still finds comfort in the familiar bar gig.

Her group, the eponymous Kathy Ford Band, regularly performs popular country, blues and rock songs across the region, as its done for more than 25 years.

“A bar gets its income from people staying there and spending money. My focus, generally, is to get people to come there in the first place, and keep them there by entertaining them,” Ford said. “You ask the crowd what they want to hear, and you keep them dancing.”

Having already made a name for herself long ago with her original material, Ford has no worries of a dogging, negative stigma sometimes perpetuated by fellow musicians who vehemently dismiss the notion of performing covers for bar patrons.

“People try to put stigmas on music all the time. You get called a ‘bar band,’ or a ‘wedding band,’ and it seems to be a negative thing. But I’ve done it all. And I’m still doing it all,” Ford said. “It makes you a better musician if you’re able to play in all these different areas. If you’re playing around town, playing bars — you’re still a playing musician and that’s the important thing.”

Lansing-based musician Christopher Baratono ventures between two musical worlds. In one, he’s an original songwriter who’s performed in several indie rock bands, such as Narc Out the Reds and the Hat Madder. In the other he’s “Bartimus Skeaze,” an ‘80s rock caricature who plays bass à la Mötley Crüe’s Nikki Sixx with the cover band Glämhämmer. Baratono’s wife Whitney Spotts also plays in a similar cover band, Starfarm.

“I never thought that I was going to be in a cover band ever again — it’s a situation with age. You realize, ‘I don’t have much, my audience is shrinking.’” Baratono said. “My wife and I have always played in bands our whole life. I saw it as an opportunity to play, to not just sit around the house watching TV, and actually make some cash.”

But Baratono, who’s proudly ground it out with his own tunes for a couple of decades, can’t help but feel certain reservations. Making more cash and receiving extra fanfare for covers doesn’t always feel overwhelmingly rewarding.

“Seeing the response I get from playing other peoples’ music I realize, ‘This has nothing to do with me.’ It’s about this song that’s transporting the audience to something specific they remember,” Baratono said. “It’s really hard to do that with your own music. When you’re really affecting somebody with what you’ve done — nothing replaces that feeling.”

Though Baratono was candid about the “element of fatalism” of performing in a cover band, he still finds creative avenues to enjoy himself with Glämhämmer’s blunt pastiche of flamboyant hair metal.

“The other part of Glämhämmer is trying to be funnier.

I like dressing in drag, so it was an opportunity to dress up like a girl again,” Baratono laughed.

But with all that said, Baratono and the rest of Glämhämmer are hanging up the wigs and platform boots once 2019 hits.

Sara Cruz, vocalist for Lansing barroom staples the Hot Mess, has a similar narrative to Baratono. Before getting the contemporary cover band together she had several indie rock projects of her own. She describes a noticeable distinction between the two separate realms.

“Being an original band is a lot of fun, but you get a little discouraged when no one comes to your shows,” Cruz said. “Being in a cover band is really fun, because people know the music and they always have a good time. It’s just fun. I mean, that’s really the only way I can explain it — just a great time.”

Lansing legend Steve “Frog” Forgey, a prodigal guitarist who — for most locals — requires no introduction, is in, as he calls it, an “enviable” position. As well-established as Forgey is, most of the material people want to hear from his group, Frog & the Beeftones, is entirely his own.

Regardless, he has no problem playing comfortable standards for the drinking crowd at his band’s usual Old Town haunt the Unicorn.

“Sometimes you’re the center of attention and sometimes you’re literally the human jukebox,” Forgey said. “But I’d rather be playing than sitting at home eating popcorn. If I’m playing, I’m playing. I’m doing something I like to do and I’m lucky that somebody is going to pay me to do it.”

Nikki “Dee” Fuller sings with Psychotic Paradise, a Flint-based tribute act to popular ‘80s hard rock band Tesla. Psychotic Paradise belongs with a common classification of bar bands that appeal to nostalgia for a certain time and place in music. The group has performed at the Green Door several times to a fond reception.

“I like it; I think it’s cool. I come from the ‘80s where everything was really rocking, and now it’s just coming back around with cover bands,” said Psychotic Paradise's bassist, who goes by the stage name Zap. “We picked Tesla and we got Frank Hannon’s approval.”

Realistically, as hair metal fell out of vogue three decades ago, one of the only ways to get an adequate taste of the trademark sleazy vocals and searing, reverb drenched guitar leads is to see a group like Psychotic Paradise. The band’s vocalist, Nikki "Dee" Fuller mentioned her band attracts more than nostalgia seekers.

“A lot of these ‘80s bands are getting audiences ranging from kids to people older than us,” Fuller said.

The certainty to be learned is that the unifying passion for music, whether in a bar, in a concert hall, written by the performing musicians or several decades ago by an icon, will always be evident.

Or, as it’s put bluntly by Forgey: “If they weren’t enjoying what they were doing, they’d probably be doing something else.”