Brian Kinney was on the cusp. He and his band Fairchild amassed a sizable following in the mid-’80s and recorded an album in New York City with the producer of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll.”

“We’re going to the top, baby,” Kinney recalled thinking.

But when Fairchild broke up before banking REO Speedwagon money, reality hit. Bills needed to be paid and Kinney started playing cover songs at weddings and private events.

Despite a long-held stigma among serious songwriters about joining cover bands, talented Minnesota musicians like Kinney have found lucrative, satisfying careers playing public and private gigs filled with radio hits.

“It’s humbling, you know? You’re playing your own music and then you have to go back to playing someone else’s,” Kinney said recently. “But I had to make a decision. Am I going to get out of music and get a regular job? That thought horrified me.”

It’s not exactly trashing the green room at the Roxy on Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. But weddings pay well. The 10-piece incarnation of the Brian Kinney Band commands $3,000-plus to rock your reception. Private events can pay three times more than a bar gig, says singer Chris “Mo” Mochinski of Top 40 cover band Junk FM.

Transitioning from singing her own songs to a career as a cover artist wasn’t a problem for Lisa Marie Furth. The Minneapolis singer got sick of “playing for the door” and “10 drunk people” in clubs and discovered she could make legit money playing covers. Furth now sings in three bands — diva tribute act Divas Through the Decades, country/rock group Coyote Wild and dance band Belladiva — under her Divas Entertainment company.

“I love it. It’s so funny, because there’s musicians out there who are really bitter about it. At some point you have to get over it and realize you aren’t going to be the big star,” Furth said. “There’s nothing about this that makes me feel like I sold out.”

Even musicians in hip original bands are checking their egos to play songs they love with their friends. For veteran bassist Tony Zaccardi and his once-in-awhile Guns N’ Roses tribute band Appetite for Zaccardi (which includes members of Romantica, Eleganza! and Vulgaari), it’s not about money. Their average gig pays 10 times less than Kinney’s wedding band earns, but they do it on their own terms. No, they won’t play your bar mitzvah, wear top hats or take requests.

Guitarist Brent Hedtke describes Appetite for Zaccardi as “a good palate cleanser” from the rigors of original projects.

“The best part is there’s absolutely zero pressure,” said Hedtke, who also fronts the over-the-top Metallica tribute/Gallagher parody act Metallagher. “With everything else that we all do — the writing, recording, record labels and all that — at 34 years old, it gets tedious. With this, we practice once and we know it’s going to be fun.”

Hairball explodes

While Appetite for Zaccardi shuns the typical aspects of a tribute band — dressing the part, playing all the hits — Hairball doesn’t miss a 1980s trick. Minnesota’s ubiquitous full-time tribute act is a roulette-style homage to arena rock of old — when dudes looked like ladies and Bret Michaels didn’t need reality TV to stay relevant. Costumed singers, including Bob “Rockstar Bob” Jensen, belt out hits from Bon Jovi, Kiss and Twisted Sister in a blaze of big hair and pyrotechnics.

Hairball does 150 to 200 shows per year at $20,000 to $25,000 a pop, Jensen estimates. Their gigs have ranged from state fairs to a bash thrown by NHL players. After the outdoor season, Hairball switches to holiday mode, playing corporate Christmas parties across the country. Suffice it to say, the crowds are a little different from their annual Sturgis show.

“You’re blowing off $10,000 worth of [pyrotechnics] and people are just staring at you like you’ve got three eyes,” Jensen said the morning after an Iowa financial group’s holiday soiree. “You’re wondering ‘What are we doing?’ You’re doing it right, they’re just watching a play instead of at a concert. It’s all a mental thing.”

After 13 years in Hairball and a stint in makeup with Kiss Army, Jensen knows he can’t dress up as Alice Cooper and Paul Stanley forever. Though he declined to give his age, he said that he and his bandmates treat their bodies like “athletes instead of junkie rock stars” for longevity’s sake. Jensen’s always taken an interest in the business side and hopes to move into management once his singing career ends.

“If I’m not the monkey on the box banging the cymbals together, I’ll be booking the monkey on the box,” he said, laughing.

Kinney, 58, acknowledges he’s doing a young man’s gig. While he refrains from onstage flips these days, hanging up his platform shoes for good doesn’t appear imminent.

“I’m still fit,” Kinney said. “I can rock the house, baby.”

And make his house payments.

 

Michael Rietmulder writes about beer, cocktails and nightlife.