The Groove Merchants
"Cover bands" have it rough. To pull off a good show, they have to play tunes originally played by the best artists in the biz and comparisons are inevitable. Just playing the "covers" isn't good enough, though. They must bring their own flavor to these time-honored favorites. They must absorb these tunes, cook them, make them their own, and turn them back out with a new spin. At the end of the day, there are lots of cover bands, but only a handful of good ones. Edmond's Groove Merchants is one of them.
A fixture in the local music scene since 2001, the Groove Merchants members are: Josh Cruise, vocalist; Scott Smelser on guitar; Chuck Moore on bass; Eric Leonard on trombone; Kyle Martin on drums; and Mike Turner on keyboard. Though the band itself is only five years old, many of the band members go way back and played in Edmond together two decades ago. They grew up in Edmond and they learned about music in Edmond. Now they want to entertain Edmond audiences.
Unless you're tone deaf, the first thing you notice about the Groove Merchants is the frictionless ease with which they move from genre to genre and artist to artist with their covers. In an average set, they might start with the Police's "Roxanne," switch to Stevie Wonder, hit the Black Crowes, and finish with a couple of Steely Dan selections. If you're really lucky, you'll see their rendition of Toto's "Rosanna," a spectacularly difficult song to cover. And it sounds every bit as soulful as the original.
"We do what we consider new stuff, such as Maroon 5, although teenagers might call it old already," said Leonard. "But the real core of why we do all these songs is that there's something in every one of them that's either jazz-influenced or funk-influenced. And the average set travels back and forth across thirty years of that music."
The background of the band is as varied as the band's offerings in any given set. Smelser is Director of Golf at Coffee Creek Golf Club. Leonard is a sales representative for Johnson & Johnson. Martin is a video producer. They have day jobs. But there's nothing about their performance that suggests this is just a simple side gig for the Groove Merchants. Their commitment to live music is very real, even when it butts up against their regular jobs.
"I get a lot of guys that, when they see us on a gig and they find out that's what I do during the day, they think I've got the two coolest jobs in the world," said Smelser. "Guitar player on the weekends and golf pro during the week, I can't really argue with that, but sometimes they don't mix well. If we've got a gig in Tulsa and I get home at 3:30 in the morning and then have run an 8:00 a.m. golf tournament, it's not easy. But I get the most out of it."
Some members of the band are lucky enough to have music for day jobs, as well. Keyboardist Turner, for instance, plays for country singer Ty England when he performs in the area. Guest performer, Chris Hicks, often joins the Groove Merchants on guitar. Hicks spent several years in Nashville, backing up Reba MacIntyre, but he, Smelser and Moore were playing in local bands together almost two decades ago.
The Groove Merchants may not have heard their favorite artists and influences play in Edmond, but they did find a lot of them in Edmond — in the halls and classrooms of U.C.O.'s Jazz Lab. Almost every member of the band is a graduate of Edmond's premier music school.
"Most everybody started out on the academic side and trained that way. After graduation they played professionally for awhile," said Leonard. "Now we're professional enough that we don't have to depend on music for a living. Actually, I don't know about professional, but we're smart!" jokes Leonard.
Another person to look for when you run into the Groove Merchants is front man, Josh Cruise, a dynamo. Every song, first to last, is marked with an energy that betrays his love of the music. But he wants the audience to love it too, to engage it. With that same energy and a wireless microphone, he moves out into the crowd like a tide, and when the tide comes back in, it brings audience members with it, depositing them on the dance floor as Cruise rejoins the band on stage.
This, says Smelser, is what the Groove Merchants are all about. "We have fun and that's what we do. We make every place we play more fun, whether it's a wedding reception or a place like Baker Street Pub, where we can really throw down. We get people dancing and keep them out there and they have a good time," he says.
For more information on upcoming performance dates or bringing the Groove Merchants to a private party, check out the band's web site at www.groovemerchantsokc.com.