Bay area band learning to Cope

A Bay area jam band reaches a new level

click to enlarge Dave, Kenny, Dennis and Juan of COPE headline a show at Skipper's Smokehouse this Friday night. - Phil Bardi
Phil Bardi
Dave, Kenny, Dennis and Juan of COPE headline a show at Skipper's Smokehouse this Friday night.

A solid jam-rock outfit that's been gigging around the Bay area for the past several years, Cope has only recently found a lineup that fits. Now, they're ready to get serious.

"We've finally reached a sound we're proud of," guitarist/vocalist Dennis Stadelman told me a few weeks ago when I sat down with him and his bass-playing brother Kenny to discuss their official "coming out" show this Friday.

The Stadelmans have the best sort of sibling rivalry, one that forces them to grow and mature as artists together or else run the risk of one or the other losing creative face. After more than 15 years of performing — they started their first band at ages 15 and 16, along with their 14-year-old cousin, guitarist Roger Pinkerton — they've gotten pretty good at complementing each other, experimenting with new ideas and sounds, and challenging each other to improve and evolve.

Cope's current lineup solidified last year: The brothers are joined by drummer Dave Gerulat (who was enlisted in '03) and new player, saxophonist/keyboardist Juan Montero, who replaced Pinkerton in September.

In its early incarnation, Cope was a hard rock band that played fast and loud; over time, they turned down their amps, played slower and with an increased focus on melody, and generally gave the music more breathing room.

I first became familiar with Cope in '05 when I was covering a North Florida music festival. The late Ted Freed — who ran a promotion and managing company called Rising Jupiter — had pretty much funded the fest all on his own as a way to provide exposure and sit-in opportunities for the Bay area acts he represented and so passionately believed in.

The festival is where Cope met Montero, a musician who'd been making the Tampa rounds for a more than a decade. "After the fest was over, we were all sitting by the pool having a musicians and staff party, and Ted was playing some of his songs and telling stories," Juan told me about the day he and Dennis met. At some point, Dennis picked up a guitar and joined in, and Juan was immediately impressed.

From then on, Montero made the occasional guest appearance with Cope, and Dennis played with Montero's Juanjamon Band, a temporary post that became permanent more than a year ago. Then, last September, when Montero found out Pinkerton was leaving Cope, it only seemed natural that he fill the vacancy — so natural that, Montero says, "I just sorta hired myself. I was like, 'I'm the newest member.' They just smiled in agreement and we've been having a great time ever since."

Montero brought formidable experience to Cope. His former group, Grin, did a lot of touring in the late '90s. They were discovered by the Batiste brothers of New Orleans and hired as the backup band for several different Batiste outfits, performed at a few NOLA Jazz & Heritage Festivals, and even supported a Yellowman tour.

About his role in Cope, Montero says, "I want to throw my two cents to a dollar into everything. I'm very directorial." It helps that he and Dennis share that special musicians' ability to hear a song and play it back after a single listen, a memory for music that also includes breaking down a song's basic structure and figuring out everyone's instrumental contribution. "That's the only way you can improve your own parts, knowing what every part is supposed to sound like," Montero says. "So when someone does something wrong, you know immediately."

Cope rehearses once a week in a tiny box of a room in Audio Lab Studios off Hillsborough Avenue. When I dropped by one Tuesday night, the four displayed an easy chemistry, trading ideas back and forth, launching into a song, then stopping several times to execute this or that part differently, or to work out a smoother transition here or there. A few minutes later, they blasted through it again, the new and improved transitions leading into a sizzling funked-out jam that had me grinning from one ear to the other.

It's apparent that Cope has reached the next level. Their musicianship and vocal harmonies have improved; they are more relaxed with each other and have a good working chemistry; the instrumental sections are tighter and lack the aimless noodling that gives jam bands a bad rap; and their sound overall is funkier, with a nice bit of fuzz and crunch mixed into the Southern-fried rock.

What does the future hold for Cope? This music writer's crystal ball shows them playing to a packed house at Skipper's on Friday night, and a bright future of packed houses to follow.

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