Music » Soundcheck



"Am I rambling too much?" asks Cobra Verde singer-guitarist John Petkovic as he finishes an answer to a question about his influences that includes references to Roxy Music, Captain Beefheart, and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

Well, yeah, Petkovic is rambling, but that's just his style. A columnist for The Plain Dealer (he's one of the few staff writers there who's not out of touch), Petkovic plays both the role of rock scribe and star. Over the course of his career (Petkovic helmed Death of Samantha in the '80s), he has witnessed shows by seminal rock acts (he recalls seeing the Minutemen play in the basement of a local restaurant) and toured with the volatile Dayton-based band Guided by Voices. He still takes frequent trips to Eastern Europe (where he has filed reports on the NATO bombings — his relatives' home in Yugoslavia was destroyed), hosts a weekly radio show, publishes an online magazine, and continues to tour and record with Cobra Verde, whose latest release, Nightlife, is scheduled for a September 28 release. He doesn't, however, see his various commitments as any more taxing than those of his bandmates.

"All of us are juggling; it's not just me," he says over dinner at Bo Loong, just before leaving for New York to play a showcase at CBGB's as part of the College Music Journal (CMJ) festival. "We just try to compartmentalize everything. I guess at some point your brain becomes so fried that nothing is linear anymore."

The other members of the band lead lives that are just as frenetic. Theremin player Chas Smith teaches at Cleveland State University and plays (with Petkovic) in a band called Einstein's Secret Orchestra; guitarist Frank Vazzano plays in Quazi Modo; bassist Dave Hill composed the theme for the HBO show Reverb and plays in the band Uptown Sinclair, and drummer Mark Klein plays in a group called Ether Net.

"I've developed a real liking for schizophrenic behavior — it's kind of fun in a way, because things get to be routine and boring otherwise," says Petkovic, who once took an early morning flight from Amsterdam (where he was on tour with Guided by Voices) to make it to work at The Plain Dealer that same morning.

On Nightlife, Cobra Verde plays up its glam side, sounding like Here Come the Warm Jets-era Brian Eno in "One Step Away From Myself." Petkovic also evokes David Bowie's warbling vocals in tracks like "Conflict" and "Crashing in a Plane," a song that features a blistering sax solo by Akron native Ralph Carney. Petkovic concedes having an affinity for glam's aesthetic.

"I personally don't think it's necessarily a glam-rock record, but I can see how people hear that," he says. "I do think that glam rock was trying to create a larger sound by taking various sounds from all over the place. Rock and roll in the past was ambitious and had big ideas, much like American films in the past had big ideas. The ascent of indie rock has made for marginal prophets, marginal music, and marginal ambition. In the '80s, there was no profit motive and no machinery involved. It was really a grassroots thing. I don't believe in indie rock, because it's a convention based on the notion that suddenly music is good because it's small."

With another album slated to be recorded before the year is up, Cobra Verde is likely to be more prolific than it has been in the past (its last album, Vintage Crime, came out three years ago). Still, Petkovic remains realistic about the band's potential for success.

"We just have a lot of fun together," he says. "Everyone loves to play music and has been playing for a while, but that's not to say that this is like bowling night or playing on a softball team. If this could make money and we could all leave our jobs, that would be great — not because I don't like my job — but because we all have a general philosophical aversion to work."

Cabaret singer Melissa Barber, who grew up in Middleburg Heights, will be returning to town for a series of shows to celebrate the release of her debut You Heard It Here First, an album of show tunes and pop songs written by Cleveland songwriters. Barber, who got her start when she was ten with Cleveland's Singing Angels, performs in off-Broadway productions and does a Cleveland-themed cabaret show in Manhattan, where she has worked as a publicist for the past three years.

"I do cover tunes and songs by famous theatrical composers — as everyone else does — but I wanted to do something different with this CD," she says. "Everyone has done the Gershwin album and the Sondheim tribute, and I wanted to do something totally unique. I had the opportunity to work with some people from Cleveland who are great writers. I figured, "Cleveland has talent. I'm from Cleveland. Let's just do a whole package that promotes Cleveland and its writers and musicians.'"

Some of the songwriters on the disc include Dennis Chandler, bandleader for the Stratophonics; Leonard DiCosimo, vocalist for Cleveland and Pittsburgh opera companies; and Michael Mazur, a fellow Singing Angels alumnus. Initially, Soundbites was suspicious of how much "fun" this show would be, but given that Barber does medleys of songs by Devo and the Pretenders, it sounds like it will be more lighthearted than the material on her album.

"We want to highlight that people from Cleveland do make it," she says. "They make it big, and hopefully the writers on my CD are the next ones. In the show, we'll do a little "Moon Over Parma' and have some fun with that. It can be very serious and dramatic, but I am also a little wacky sometimes."

Barber plays at 7:30 p.m. on September 23, 24, and 25 at Hickerson's at the Hanna (1422 Euclid Avenue). Tickets are $20.

The Beatles' tribute band Hard Day's Night took advantage of Continental Airlines' new direct flights to London last month when it flew, courtesy of the airlines, to England to perform at the Cavern (a club owned by fifth Beatle Pete Best) as part of a celebration for the release of Best's new book.

"There were throngs of people at the show," says Glenn Birney (a.k.a. Ringo Starr), adding that his group can play about sixty Beatles songs (mostly from '62-'66). "Best was there signing autographs, and they presented a birthday cake to him. We got to take our picture with him. He thought it was great we were carrying on the Beatles' tradition, but he was basically there to push his book."

Along with Frank Muratore (Paul McCartney), Mike Brumm (George Harrison), and Rick Smith (John Lennon), Birney formed Hard Day's Night three years ago as a way to get out of playing bars (the group plays mostly at benefits). And Birney has no qualms about playing for Continental Airlines.

"As long as we can duplicate what the Beatles did, we're happy," says Birney, who works in sales at Ameritech. "Without Continental behind us, we couldn't have gone to England."

The band plays at 7 p.m. on September 23 at the Nautica Stage in the Flats as part of a benefit for United Way and a promotional event for Continental Airlines. Tickets are $5.

The name game continues — this time, it appears that there are two Typhoid Marys: one that formed in Akron in 1988 and has since relocated to St. Louis, and another that has started playing shows in the Northeast Ohio area. — Jeff Niesel

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Cleveland Scene works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Cleveland and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Cleveland's true free press free.