When people visit New Orleans, they expect to be exposed to the iconic cultural music for which the city is famous. The Big Easy is well-known as the birthplace of jazz – and has also been heavily influenced by zydeco and delta blues.
What’s not commonly known, however, is that there is a thriving community of musicians who cater to crowds by offering popular music. From the baby boomers to the millennials, tourists are often drawn to familiar songs that provide the soundtrack to their Nola experience. A walk up Bourbon Street from Canal to St. Peter will reveal a multitude of great rock bands.
One that stands out among the pack is a mainstay known as Rockbox.
Rockbox is a six-piece outfit that plays every Friday thru Sunday at Fat Catz on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, and has been its house band on the weekends since 2009. Although they’ve gone through several lineup changes over that time, the core members have been unchanged for the last several years – the longest they’ve gone with the same line-up.
Focusing mostly on album hits from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Rockbox delivers a show packed with songs everyone knows, but not many can pull off. And this isn’t your average three or four set cover band gig. Every Friday and Saturday, the band plays a minimum of eight sets. At 45 minutes a set, that’s six hours on stage per night!
Founders Robert Manganello and Eric Knight met back in 2000 while employed at the same local casino. Through a mutual connection, both were summoned to play in a new club on Bourbon Street. Although there were some Top 40 acts in town, the guys wanted to stay away from the staple cover band songs right from the get-go. Knight explains:
The goal for Rockbox was to make a living playing music – a nearly impossible dream for most musicians. How do you pay your bills and keep food on the table by just playing music – especially covers? Well, Manganello and Co. were determined, and they overcame many challenges to make it happen. But the essential aspect was having the vision in the first place…and then taking the appropriate actions. Listen below to Manganello and Knight reveal the secrets behind their success.
This is How It’s Done
The nature of Bourbon Street presents a challenge with keeping a crowd. Patrons don’t pay a cover charge, and are permitted to walk in and out with alcoholic beverages. With the added pressure of long nights and that type of turnstile audience, Rockbox needs to perform at top peak.
Their strategy is to play songs that will connect with the audience, and to do that they have employed some of the elite players in New Orleans. Manganello refers to the importance of gathering “like-minded people” in the clip below.
While many bands will place a level of importance on their stage attire, the fellas in Rockbox take the everyman approach.
It’s a dark and dirty club with a loud rock and roll band…and the boys keep it simple to make the crowd feel like they are just as much a part of the show.
T-shirts and jeans or even cargo shorts(!) are a given to wear for the guys in Rockbox…and it works. Listen to the clip below where singer Eric Knight details his philosophy.
While some musical purists may disagree, playing covers take a lot of work, dedication and yes…talent. Making up something new is easy in that you can create anything you want and call it original. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be good.
The successful cover bands are able to replicate songs that have already been written, and they’re all not only good songs, but they’re songs that everybody knows. In order to keep an audience, you have to come as close as you can to sounding like the original, while still making it your own.
It’s all about the song. It’s all about the music – and how you present it. Some bands stay in high energy throughout a set, but Rockbox knows how to pace a show and break things down to a single instrument and vocal to emphasize dynamics. Knight explains:
In addition to their steady French Quarter gig, Rockbox occasionally takes the show on the road as their alter ego, Bourbon Street Hitmen.
For any cover band, playing corporate gigs is striking gold. While it’s a higher pressure job compared to your corner bar, it generally pays very well, you’re provided with food and drink, and often travel and lodging expenses are covered.
Rockbox cleverly “cleaned up” the band to deliver a similar show with BSH, and put together a great promo video to demonstrate the goods. Listen to the quick clip below of Robert and Eric on BSH, and then check out their promo video.
Music is meant to be felt. The players in Rockbox understand this, because they feel it themselves.
Music is all about celebration, having a good time and enjoying life. When you have a band who is pouring this from the stage, you can’t not feel it.
It all starts with a vision, and it continues with dedication, perseverance, and love for music. Let’s hear Robert talk about it:
The players who do this for a living do this because they have to. It’s in their blood. These are the people that can’t be told what they can’t do. These are the musicians who want to share their gift. They deserve to be there.
They deserve to be compensated for their craft. The members of Rockbox are some of the most dedicated and passionate musicians you’ll ever find. If you want to learn how to make this work for you, learn from them. I’ll let Eric wrap this up:
Eric Knight – Vocals
Derek Hernandez – Vocals
Crank Sinatra – Guitar/Vocals
Robert Manganello – Bass/Vocals
Greg Torres – Keyboard/Guitar/Vocals
Tommy Drennan – Drums/Vocals
All photos courtesy of Amy Cochran Jolly
Full time bass player and owner of Cover Band Central