The moment when the screaming wouldn’t stop — that was always the best part.
The girls, the free shots, the posing for photos — none of it compared to this sweat-streaming, breath-catching moment.
Another set was ending, the band’s ninth in three days. The bar was packed with weekend vacationers buying Bud Lights out of buckets, orange Jell-O shots off trays, mixed drinks with plastic straws that would end up flattened under a mob of flip-flops. They had practically played the radio — Jay Z and Luke Bryan, Sam Smith and Third Eye Blind — while the faces looking up at them had lit up every time they realized they knew the words. The guitarists had thrown out their signature glow sticks, made just the right kind of eye contact and yelled out to “all our friends in Dewey Beach!”
Maybe the crowd hasn’t come to see a band called Go Go Gadjet. Maybe the screaming girls don’t care if their Saturday entertainment is this cover band or some other guys. Maybe, as had happened for others, the band would soon burn out or get too old for the always 20-something bar crowd.
But in this moment, the screaming felt louder, longer than normal.
“One! More! Song! One! More! Song!”
In the mornings at their Dewey Beach rental house, no one is screaming. After a late show the night before, they come down the stairs around noon, still in the T-shirts they wore on stage. They step over tangles of cords coming from the instruments that take up half their living room. Empty bottles of Sam Adams and Stella Artois are on the counter, next to a bottle of Jameson they bought to swig between sets at the only bar that doesn’t give them drinks for free.
“Coffee!” shouts Eric, the only one of the five band members still in his 20s. “I need. Coffee.”
The guys trek to their breakfast spot along Coastal Highway 1, a four-lane roadway that brings up to 30,000 people to the 400-person beach town on summer weekends. The constant flow of people from D.C., Maryland, Virginia and Delaware looking to spend a day on the sand and a night drinking with friends is what has made Dewey Beach famous for its cover band scene.
Bars want to book universal crowd-pleasers who can entertain the most valuable demographic: girls in their 20s. As one bar owner puts it, if they want to party at your place, everyone else will follow. Beach towns up and down the East Coast have similar philosophies, making it possible for bands such as Go Go Gadjet to claim Delaware as their summer home, then travel down to Ocean City and up to the Jersey Shore, performing for crowds willing to pay a $10 entrance fee to sing along.
Dragging their sandals on the sidewalk, the band passes shops selling neon T-shirts that read “I’m turnt up!” and “Hakuna Some Vodka” near the entrance to Bottle & Cork, one of the bars they play. Its sign announces Saturday’s lineup in black letters that read just “Go Go.”
Inside that bar is a wall that was once painted with a picture of a cover band called Mr. Greengenes. Until a few years ago, Greengenes was widely considered the most popular cover band on the coast. Booking them for the night cost bars more than $10,000. The guys from Gadjet idolized Greengenes, a band that had made a career out of playing covers.
This summer, the faces of Greengenes were painted over; now, the five members of Go Go Gadjet are on the wall: Jeff, the frontman; Eric, the energetic one; Nate, the bass player; Chris, the lead guitarist; and Mike, the drummer. Five white guys from Pennsylvania stoked to rock out to the Killers, dance to Katy Perry and rap to Lil Jon in front of bar crowds sometimes as large as a thousand people. Annually they play more than 200 shows — five nights a week in the summer, at least three the rest of the year — bringing in enough cash to support themselves and rent a four-bedroom house in Dewey for the season.
At their regular morning haunt, the guys order egg sandwiches and coffee from a girl behind the counter. She hasn’t taken her eyes off them since they walked through the door.
“It’s on me!” she exclaims when they pull out wallets. “I’m going to come see you guys tonight!”
She packs up their food in a brown paper bag and doesn’t touch the register.
This mini-celebrity treatment has become more common for the band each year, in Dewey and in Reading, Pa., where they live Tuesday through Thursday.
Their version of being rock stars doesn’t mean becoming a band that makes its own music; it’s being a cover band that is nationally famous for the way they play other people’s music. For the Go Go Gadjet guys, who have been performing together for nine years, it’s no longer enough to just be the best band for people who show up at bars. They want to tour the country as entertainers.
“Oh, Val, you’re the best,” Nate tells the coffee shop girl, flashing the smile he reserves for the stage.
They leave with their brown bag and cups of coffee.
Just knowing her name probably makes her day, Nate says.
Unsaid: how a girl serving coffee knowing the band’s name just made theirs.
You don’t become a nationally touring cover band by not practicing, so in the hours before their next show, the guys sprawl out among their beach rental wicker furniture and set to work — Nate with his bass in his lap, Eric with one hand on a keytar and the other holding a saxophone, Jeff hunched over two laptops that help them mimic music that is made by computers instead of instruments.
They’re constantly learning new material by ear, almost always songs that are topping the Billboard charts or playing on the radio. It doesn’t matter if they don’t like “Timber” or “Call Me Maybe” — if it’s popular, they’ll make it work. And because the venues pay music licensing fees that include rights to most anything, the band is limited only by the lyrics they can remember.
Eric holds up his saxophone to the microphone stand, a few notes of “Talk Dirty ” now filling the room.
“If anyone was sleeping, they’re not anymore,” Jeff says from the kitchen table.
A clunking noise comes from the basement stairs and one of the band’s three crew members appears in the doorway, yawning and wearing skull pajama pants.
“Yeah, not anymore.”
Everyone knows him as Freak. He has waist-length dreadlocks, full sleeve tattoos on both arms and a dime-sized gauge through his tongue. He’s been with Go Go Gadjet for three summers, watching them take their jobs more and more seriously each year. They kicked out a bass player for getting two DUIs, invested more than $100,000 in lighting equipment and built drums out of buckets to perform a “Stomp”-like routine at the end of their sets.
Most days, Freak thinks it’s possible for the band to keep getting bigger. But he’s also seen the popular cover bands before Gadjet, the bands that got fed up with the lifestyle or were pushed out by bar owners who wanted younger faces. Often, the musicians ended up on their own, playing acoustic shows or joining bands that play only weddings.
Freak listens in as the guys run through songs over and over, perfecting transitions between the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Missy Elliot, then the Beatles and Linkin Park. Jeff and Eric switch off on the singing.
“Is it worth it, let me work it, I put my thing down flip it and reverse it,” Jeff is rapping when his phone rings from the counter. The music stops.
He swipes across the screen as his 2-year-old son’s face appears.
“Hi, Mylus!” he says to the blond-haired boy playing on the floor. His wife, Danielle, is used to FaceTiming in while Jeff is on the road. She’s holding the phone up to Mylus.
“What’s that on his lip?” Jeff says. “Pudding? It looks like poop.”
While Gadjet has been pushing the limits of how famous they could become — buying more equipment, adding more venues, making more money — they’ve also been growing up. Eric and Chris got serious girlfriends. Mike got engaged. Nate got married and had a daughter. Jeff got married and had a son, with another on the way.
In between sound checks, they now talk about where to buy cheap car seats or how expensive health insurance is. The girls in the crowds with bachelorette veils and 21st birthday sashes who reach out and shout, “We love you! You’re soo hot!” are now repaid with eye contact, nothing more.
“Can you please,” Jeff says to his wife on FaceTime, “Wipe that off his lip?”
Two neighbors sit on their balcony as the guys pull up to the beach house in their eight-passenger van. Another night of playing three-hour sets is behind them. A check is in Jeff’s pocket. The other bands working in the area are invited to come over after the show.
“Ooh, the band is here!” the neighbors yell. “Glow sticks for everyone!”
Their laughter echoes down to where Eric and his girlfriend are walking into the house. Jeff follows, bringing three pizzas. Nate is already on his way back to Pennsylvania for his daughter’s baptism the next morning.
Before long, their house is crowded with musicians and crews. In the kitchen are the guys from the Rockets, a cover band that has taken to wearing costumes and performing choreographed dances on stage. Nearby is the lead singer from Blue Label, a band comprised of former members of other cover bands, including Mr. Greengenes. In the living room is the drummer from Tricky Dick and the Cover-Ups, a band from Cleveland that came to the East Coast after outgrowing the cover band scene in Ohio. The band members are being followed by a videographer making a promotional video.
The videographer also happens to work for a record label, meaning Jeff has him cornered. Over two now-empty boxes of pizza, the Go Go Gadjet frontman lays out his plan.
“This show in October, we’re going to do everything we always wanted,” he says. “There’s so much we’ve been working on.”
He booked a venue for Oct. 3. A real venue, not a bar. The audience will have bought tickets specifically to see Go Go Gadjet.
“I always look at it on the same level as Ringling Brothers Circus, like Disney on Ice or the Blue Man Group,” Jeff says.
Crowds will pay to hear music they already know, if it is entertaining, he says. So the band will do what it has been working toward — the light show, the “Stomp” drums — and add even more mini-performances. If it works in Pennsylvania, where their hometown fan base is, they can take it somewhere else. Then somewhere else. Then somewhere else.
“We’re just trying to advance us out of this current scene, because I think there’s a market for it,” Jeff says, getting closer to the videographer. “We have to get there, we have to connect with the right people.”
He starts talking faster as the videographer nods.
“We need somebody to be like, here’s $2 million,” Jeff says. “Because it’s not out of the question to have a record label back us, right?”
The rest of the band shares Jeff’s vision. It’s plan A. But none of them think about it, talk about it in the way he does. Mike might take over his parents’ ice cream shop. Chris would play in his dad’s band. Eric could play studio sessions for other artists.
They just have to finish the summer in Dewey, Jeff says, then October will come.
“Right,” the videographer says. “Well, let me know if I can help out.”
“You can help out drinking this bottle of Jameson.”
Glow sticks have been turned into hair accessories. Bouncers have thrown out people who couldn’t stand on their own. Nate is whipping his sweaty towel in circles to the sound of the crowd’s chant.
“One! More! Song!”
“You want another song?” Jeff says. “Okay, we’ll do one more song.”
Freak moves the drums from their “Stomp” routine, then brings up the keyboard and keytar.
Jeff reminds them one more time who has been entertaining them all night.
“Our name is Go Go Gadjet; we’re back here in two weeks.”
A few notes play and the bar cheers again, hearing a familiar song.
Maybe the crowd will drive up to New Jersey to see Go Go Gadjet the next night. Maybe they’ll tell their friends about the cover band they saw, and remember its name. At least, maybe they’ll like them on Facebook.
“It’s nine o’clock on a Saturday . . . ”
Jeff and Eric launch into Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Crowd swaying, bartenders serving last call, Freak smiling from the side of the stage, Mike’s fiancee in the back of the bar, Jeff crooning into the microphone.
“The manager gives me a smile, ’cause he knows that it’s me, they’ve been coming to see, to forget about life for a while.”
Go Go Gadjet performs in Dewey Beach on Friday and Saturday.