SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. - It's not every day you see the lead singer of a rock band apply ice to his privates on stage (through his shorts) after a bit of a microphone mishap while singing "99 Red Balloons" midway through the third set.
But it's not every day - wait, in the summer, it is practically every day - that you can see legendary cover band Mr. Greengenes and its comically exuberant front man Bryen O'Boyle playing songs you know ("Hey, I know this song!") in a bar near a beach near you.
Where else would it make perfect sense to segue from Green Day ("I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies!") into hilariously unironic Hall and Oates ("You can rely on the old man's money!"). Or to have one band end its set with an earnest double shot of the progressive metal band Tool, only to have another band sheepishly jump in with "You make me want to shout!" from the other side of the bar.
And whether it makes you roll your eyes or join in the group banging on the rafters of the Ocean Drive bar in Sea Isle (in Dewey, they pump their fists, forearm forward, don't ask why, it's just the way it is, the Dewey fist pump), this is a true fact: Nothing says Jersey Shore like a cover band. Mr. Greengenes has played 22 shows since Memorial Day weekend; the band has 41 more booked between now and September.
"Put your drinks up, Ocean Drive," yells the ever-so-slightly mocking O'Boyle right before the inevitable playing of "Tainted Love" (a song so ubiquitous in cover band circles that it is actually the name of a West Coast cover band). "You've got nothing else to do!"
After 14 years, an unusual cover band longevity attributable in part to the fact that its five members still look adorably twentysomething even though they're closer to 40, Mr. Greengenes can lay claim to pretty much ruling the scene, with apologies to the ever-so-slightly-faded deans, Love Seed Mama Jump.
They ask as much as $7,500 a gig and gross $1 million annually, so don't knock it.
"After being really surprised by it, we're laughing to ourselves," says John McGee, bassist and chief philosopher, about cover band reality. "We're basically party hosts."
"It's all kind of weird," says the mohawked O'Boyle, 36, who a decade ago taught music to Ridley Township second graders, which means the little tykes are now old enough to show up at his shows (Hi, Mr. O'Boyle!).
O'Boyle is a force, part teasing, part camp-counselor sing-along, part helping the boys and girls get lucky. Saturday night, he spent much of the performance standing on top of the subwoofers at the foot of the stage, which accomplished two things: (1) enabled him to reach those rafters upon which - by force of custom - he must bang in Sea Isle, and (2) put him crotch-high to the faces of the baby-doll-tanked and jeaned women crushed in front, none of whom flinched.
A cover band is nothing if not out to please. This is an easy A.
But if you think there's not a science to the cover band magic, spend one night watching O'Boyle work from an inventory of 330 songs (a high percentage from that cover- band glory decade, the '80s) to scribble the 13-song set list into his composition book at the last minute for each of three 50-minute sets. (His shorthand for one set list: funky-before-nirvana-ps-4mem-gig-small-judith-pot-el-rat-streets-up.)
"I have my own method to my madness," says O'Boyle. "It's different in every town. It's even different here than down the street in Avalon. I would play a specific U2 song here, but not at Jack's Place in Avalon."
Long ago, other band members gave up any thought of doing the set lists themselves. Needless to say.
"The thing that's funky is all these cover bands play the same range of music, the same 30 tunes every night, Fall Out Boy, the same Weezer songs, same standard bar one-hit wonders, the no-brainers," says O'Boyle.
There are other considerations. "The staff is a variable," says McGee. "They send napkins up with requests, like to play a U2 song. We'll play the wrong U2 song and then we'll get another napkin."
Mr. Greengenes does try to put its own spin on things, though. "You sound just like them" is always meant as the ultimate compliment.
"Greengenes will almost bury themselves, getting the crowd higher, higher, higher," says manager Rick Greene, who opened the Tower Theater as a concert venue and now manages five cover bands. "Once you play a song they don't know, you go right back to the bottom again and have to start them over again."
Mr. Greengenes does a popular hard-rock version of Toto's "Africa" that fans have asked them to record. To their slight annoyance, it has been copied by other cover bands.
Which leads to the question: Is it cool to cover a cover band's cover? "It's an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp, but we try to be an original cover band," says McGee.
But stray too far from the formula, and you can immediately feel the crowd's attention slipping. Around 2 a.m. Sunday, after yet another Tool song - Tool was playing Boardwalk Hall that night, O'Boyle had friends calling from the show, there were requests - O'Boyle assured everyone: "From now until the end of the night you will know every song we play."
The night before the same song would finish off Tony Soprano, the strains of cover band Chorduroy doing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" reach O'Boyle backstage at the Ocean Drive.
"Oh, good, they're playing Journey, so we don't have to play it," he says. The dressing-room curtain is pulled back, and McGee sticks his head in: "Cool, we don't have to do it!"
Well, good luck crossing Journey off your set list anytime soon. But really, how much can a cover band control its creative destiny? "For me, personally, it gets a little draggy," says O'Boyle.
Once, Mr. Greengenes aspired to more. McGee wrote his own songs - the band made 3 EPs in the late '90s - and they dreamed of arenas. But then, they didn't anymore. And so they made their peace playing the music of others, which pretty much is all you've got in beach bars from Maine to Maryland, apparently all the sunburned, looped crowd can handle.
They're on the road all but three weeks a year and all but one of them are the original band members (their original keyboard player left a few years ago to try out normal life. Only one band member is a father; none are married).
On their Web site, McGee writes that the band's fan base makes up for "the trash talk we've endured for being 'a stupid cover band.' "
"The way I see it, thousands and thousands of people . . . come to our show, after working their a– off all week, and left our show feeling a little lighter on their feet."
Mr. Greengenes is now toying with marketing itself as a tribute band, in this case U2, a concept that has caught on with a ticket-buying public. (In the hierarchy of these things, tribute trumps cover.)
Musically, they make the best of even the low points. "We had to learn 'Footloose,' " says McGee. "I was like, that is cheesy. But it turned out to be a demanding guitar part."
When they began, in the era of Nirvana, alternative music was all over the radio, and bands raced to be the first to cover a new song. Now, the current hits are of less interest to O'Boyle, which may be a function of the state of radio or age or both.
But O'Boyle still takes pride in having brought local bands early exposure. "We were the first band to do G Love," he says. "We definitely brought G Love's music to the world by playing it early."
For a cover band, that may be as good as it gets.
For a slide show of photographs from a Mr. Greengenes show, visit go.philly.com/greengenes.
Contact staff writer Amy Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.