So it was last month, beneath the gleaming ornate ceilings of the restaurant Gilt, at the Palace Hotel in New York, where Jane Danziger and Jonathan Spiegel were about to celebrate their new union. Brigades of black-clad servers glided through the three wood-paneled rooms, applying final polish to the silver, floating green cymbidium orchids and candles in shallow bowls of water. The four-tier wedding cake sat chilling in a walk-in fridge, like a spoiled headliner in his dressing room.
And when the music started, it’s a fair bet you would have recognized the cast of characters: The roving female vigilantes, beckoning nondancers with their demanding, accusing fingers; the normally buttoned-down guys whose wild moves were perhaps not as surprising as at the last wedding; the middle-age couples who’ve somehow lost the connection between their upper and lower bodies and can only dance with one or the other at a time.
And then, of course, there was the wedding band with their … hold on. Something wasn’t quite right on the stage set up under pink marble columns in the Madison Room. First of all, there wasn’t a tuxedo in sight, just dark suits and skinny ties. Nobody was doing any cheesy patter. There was no horn section, no back-up singers, no creepy vocalist singing “Wonderful World.” Instead, there was a floppy-haired lead singer working his way through Rolling Stones tunes; another singer, big and bearded, belting out 80s hits; and a killer rhythm section.
This wasn’t some band doing sterile imitations; this was a rock band. The kind that made you think, ‘Man, I’d forgotten what a great song ‘American Girl was.’ Or, better yet, ‘Man, I never knew what a great song “Take on Me” was, but I do now.’
Weddings, of course, have been the secret sustainer of the music world since time immemorial. But for just as long, wedding bands have been a source of embarrassment for those forced to play in them. The Dexter Lake Club Band has neatly subverted this construction by the simple expediency of creating a band that actually rocks. In the process, they’ve become one of New York’s premier wedding bands for people who would never dream of hiring a wedding band. New York magazine called the band one of the “top 10 reasons to get married in New York,” and it has played for high-profile brides like the actresses Olivia Wilde and Amanda Peet. (“I am an old lady and I was pregnant, and I still danced up a storm,” Ms. Peet says by e-mail message.)
If you are an American male, there is coded somewhere in your DNA the desire to be young and onstage with a guitar; to count in the song by clacking the drumsticks; to sullenly pump out the bass line; to hold the mike out to the crowd and hear them roar. The Dexter Lake Club Band does this every weekend. For money. In front of girls going crazy. That they happen to do it at weddings is purely incidental.
Like all great rock ’n’ roll bands, the Dexter Lake Club Band exhibits a classic tension between commercialism and rebellion, virtuosity and feeling, head and heart. Think Lennon vs. McCartney, Richards vs. Jagger, Chuck D vs. Flavor Flav.
Matthew Stinchcomb, in this cosmology, is the hipper, looser side of the band. Meticulously rumpled, compulsively flirtatious with man, woman and beast alike, he sings lead on the classic rock and soul numbers and plays rhythm guitar with sloppy panache. He toured for many years with indy rock’s French Kicks, though he has since left the road to become vice president of Etsy.com. Now married, Mr. Stinchcomb was once notorious for enjoying the benefits of being a handsome, single man with a guitar, surrounded by bridesmaids. Once, after a wedding, he woke up in a closet, wearing only leather pants, his guitar abandoned outside on the gravel driveway.
If Mr. Stinchcomb looks like he has spent hours cultivating the appearance of having just rolled out of bed, the band’s second lead singer, Tim Ruedeman, looks as if he is still asleep in one. A native of Babylon, N.Y., Mr. Ruedeman is a devotee of ’80s pop and soft rock, a classical saxophonist and a most improbable vessel for a voice that can perfectly channel everybody from Steve Perry to Axl Rose. If you’ve ever doubted that, say, “My Sharona,” is part of the Great American Songbook, he may change your mind.
As the bassist Jamie Krents puts it, “He sings ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ ” as though he wrote ‘Don’t Stop Believin’.’ ”
Put it this way: If the Dexter Lake Club Band were to put out a self-titled album, Mr. Stinchcomb’s cover design would be the band’s name scrawled on a brick wall. Mr. Ruedeman’s would have the initials DLCB floating three-dimensionally above a windswept moonscape.
Mr. Krents, meanwhile, is the all important third part of the band: a great bassist, but also the designated dealmaker, disciplinarian, driver and worrier. The others call him “the general.”
Around this core are assembled the rest of the band: On lead guitar, there is Oscar Albis Rodriguez, the shreddingist vegan you’re ever likely to meet. On drums, tall, lank-haired Gunnar Olsen, who could be clutching a marriage license in one hand and a bride in the other and would still clearly be with the band. And behind the keyboards, silent, enigmatic Christian Oates, who rides in the van wearing a pink Billy Idol bandana and reading back issues of The Economist. For his first gig with DLCB, he took his own smoke machine.
The three principle members of DLCB met in 1995 at Oberlin College. There, Mr. Ruedeman recruited Mr. Stinchcomb and Mr. Krents to play in an 80’s cover band called T-Money and the Change. (The ’80s were at this point only a few years gone, making a cover band the equivalent of Sha-Na-Na’s appearance at Woodstock.) Within a few performances, T-Money and the Change had broken Oberlin’s concert attendance record, previously held by a noncover band called the Pixies.
After college, Mr. Krents and Mr. Stinchcomb moved to New York and joined the French Kicks. Then, in 1997, they were asked to play at a friend’s wedding in Virginia. “They offered us something like $300 per person to get drunk, play Rolling Stones covers and fool around with girls,” says Mr. Stinchcomb, summarizing the eternal rock credo.
Wedding led to wedding until, entirely by word of mouth, they found themselves making a living as New York’s antiwedding band wedding band. “At the beginning, we were like the A-Team: You had to be able to find us to employ us,” Mr. Ruedeman says. “It was like going to the bar with no sign outside. People felt cool and we felt cool and it was cool.”
The band members are aware of the stigma that goes along with playing weddings.
But they also know the indignities of playing in “real” bands: cramped vans, empty crowds, scant compensation. (At $8,000 and up a gig, plus travel and expenses, weddings pay better than almost any other gig.)
Mr. Krents points out that, as nonsongwriting members of the French Kicks, he and Mr. Stinchcomb were still playing someone else’s songs. “At least now we’re playing some of the best songs ever written,” he says.
AND, Mr. Olsen says, playing with DLCB feels the way playing with a band should feel.
“I feel like I can glance at these guys and know what they’re going to do,” he says. “I used to cringe at the idea of playing in a wedding band. But if I was going to start a rock band, these are they guys I’d choose.”By now, the band has seen pretty much every flavor of nuptials. It has played horas, polkas and Irish jigs. At a Chinese ceremony in Flushing, Queens, the band made the mistake of agreeing to play the vamp to “Eye of the Tiger” through the introduction of the happy couple’s family, not realizing it would take 45 minutes. “I think I got carpal tunnel syndrome,” Mr. Krents says.
Mr. Kents has grown adept at respectfully declining to add such songs as “Celebration” or “Y.M.C.A.” to the playlist. At the same time, no commercial art is without its compromises.
Recently a special request for a song by the MTV darlings Snow Patrol inspired near mutiny. “I told them, ‘Guys, the money’s green,’ ” Mr. Ruedeman says. “Ultimately, I’d rather play Snow Patrol than go into an office every day. If you’re not comfortable with that, you don’t play in a wedding band.”
Special requests are only one element that goes into the Level of Brutality, or L.O.B., a highly sensitive index the band developed to assess each wedding. “An L.O.B. of eight is pretty brutal,” Mr. Stinchcomb says. “An L.O.B. of 10 is, like, somebody dies.”
Many factors can swing the L.O.B. Food is high on the list. Ideally, the band eats what the guests eat. In high-L.O.B. situations, they get somewhat less. “Wraps are a brutal food,” Mr. Stinchcomb says.
The band learned early on to include a clause in its contract ensuring access to the bar. Mr. Ruedeman has occasionally been compelled to enforce that provision with overzealous wedding planners — who are often single-handedly responsible for vertiginous L.O.B. elevation.
Another rule of the L.O.B. is that it tends to fall in inverse proportion to the amount of alcohol being consumed by the guests and to rise along with the involvement of the M.O.B.: Mother of the Bride.
The crowd at a high-L.O.B. wedding may find themselves hearing songs from the DLCB’s alter ego — a band they call Selfish. Unlike DLCB, Selfish doesn’t care about wedding guests having a good time. Van Halen’s “Panama” is on the Selfish playlist, as is anything by Led Zeppelin.
It is last October and Emma Creighton and Ben Hopson are celebrating their own (low-L.O.B.) wedding at the Mandarin Oriental, Grand Ballroom A, in Washington. The cake is double-chocolate with Bavarian cream; the flowers, calla lilies and orchids. And, the reception has followed a certain predictable arc. There has already been the first wave of dancing: the old folks, the more impatient girls, the children.
As usual, the Dexter Lake Club Band starts with some easier numbers, the kind everyone likes: “Beast of Burden,” “I Saw You Standing There,” “American Girl.”
On a break, the band relaxes in a green room, snacking from steam trays of pasta and salmon. They agree that, from a musical standpoint, something is a bit awry with the pacing of the evening. Every time they work up a good head of steam, the party breaks for one reason or another: toasts, speeches, dinner. The affair is suffering from danceus interruptus. And the bride’s stepmother, attending to the acoustic requirements of some of the older guests, has passed the band a note: Too Loud.
“What if we start with ‘Living on a Prayer,’ ” says Mr. Krents, trying to map out a strategy for the next set.
Mr. Ruedeman puts down his plate of stuffed shells.
“Jamie, Jamie,” he says, shaking his head sadly. “That’s like saying to a girl, ‘Why don’t we have sex and then maybe we can kiss later.’ ”
“I hadn’t thought of it quite like that before,” Mr. Krents says. “ ‘Hot Blooded’?”
“There you go! Now you’re making love.”
Back in the ballroom, the partygoers are lolling in a double-chocolate Bavarian-cream stupor. After a few numbers, Mr. Krents and Mr. Ruedeman exchange glances and make a decision. Out comes the big gun, the one song that never fails to electrify whatever gig DLCB plays.
Mr. Oates plays the intro on the keyboard, a lilting Irish fiddle tune. Then Mr. Krents and Mr. Olsen begin pumping the vamp.
“Poor old Johnny Ray,” Mr. Ruedeman belts. “Sounded sad upon the radio/ He moved a million hearts in mono.”
There’s some stirring in the back of the room but not enough. It seems as if the band has fired the bullet too soon. Then comes the bridge:
“Come on, Eileen taloo-rye-aye.
All of a sudden there are people streaming down the aisles, pushing tables aside, running for the dance floor. The entire crowd is pogo-sticking up and down as the beat builds toward the chorus.
“I said too-ra-loo-ra-too-ra-loo-rye-AYE”
THE place explodes. And from here, it’s a cakewalk: “I Want You to Want Me,” “Living on a Prayer,” a mini Journey medley in which “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” goes straight into “Anyway You Want It.”
Mr. Rodriguez is effortlessly wailing away on lead. Mr. Olsen is in full, eyes-rolling-back drummer-ecstasy mode while the women kick their shoes into a pile, stamp their feet and clutch each other like little girls reunited at summer camp.
This is it: the great, dreamed-of rock ’n’ roll communion — between band member and band member, and band and audience. Say what you will about art versus commerce, integrity versus selling out — there are far more ignoble compromises than making this many people this happy, ever.
Orchids are arcing through the air, peppering the stage. The band kicks into “Welcome to the Jungle” and Mr. Ruedeman, red-faced and in full-throat leans into the crowd, cradling the mike-stand, howling:
“Do you know where you are? You’re in the Mandarin Oriental, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiiiiiie!!!”
And then, with a groan from the crowd and a whoosh of spent energy, the lights come up and the party’s over. As people file out, the bride’s father and stepmother walk up to the stage.
“I’ve got to say,” he begins.
“That was …” she stammers.
“This is the first wedding we’ve ever paid for.”
“That was …”
“And the best wedding we’ve ever been to.”
“That was — amazing!”
Next to the stage, by his keyboards, Mr. Oates finally speaks.
“When I was playing in real bands, I hated it,” he says. “I didn’t even know why I was playing music any more. This band makes me remember. The funny thing is, when I go home at night and put on music, I listen to us.”