When it comes to controlling the behavior of revelers at a wedding fest -- or rather, rolling with the behavior of revelers at a wedding fest -- a live band can adapt far better than the average DJ.
Remember the profanity-laced version of Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that the wedding band did in “Old School”? I think I have a story that can top it.
At my cousin’s wedding over the recent Labor Day weekend (that's in September, stateside), I witnessed a number of unconventional things: a toast done with Car Bombs instead of champagne, photos of the bride and groom in various states of intoxication and undress, men in skirts (OK, they were my Scottish cousins). But they were all overshadowed by the performance of one groomsman – a longtime friend of my cousin’s who’s been blessed with a great voice. Early in the evening, he stepped up to deliver an impressive version of The Jeff Healey Band’s “Angel Eyes” for the happy couple’s first dance. Later, though, was when he really showed off his pipes, with a groom-requested rendition of everyone’s favorite party song: "Chocolate Salty Balls" (aka Chef's song from "South Park").
Let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen the looks on the faces of your parents and extended family members as they hear lines like “Say everybody have you seen my balls?...” Well, look it up. I’ve never seen so many jaws drop at once.
I tell this story not just as a cautionary tale about six-hour open bars. I also present it as Exhibit A in the argument for having a band preside over your wedding (or other large social event), rather than a DJ. Half the fun of this impromptu performance was watching the band playing along with the joke – unpredictable events like this aren’t common when a DJ is controlling the show.
See, throughout the party, my girlfriend and I had a little debate going about which form of entertainment was superior. We had to start planning – after all, Angela did have a bouquet thrown at her.
The arguments on the DJ side are pretty solid. First, you can have any song you want, not just the ones that the band knows how to/will play. You can also hear those songs performed by the original artists, instead of some random dude who probably spends his days in an office cubicle. You can pretty much control the sequence of the evening, and choose the whole playlist yourselves – at which point an iPod hooked up to a sound system is probably the way to go. In any case, having a DJ is all about predictability.
A band, on the other hand, is a little more volatile. No matter how many audition videos you watch, you never quite know what you’re going to get on a given night. Maybe the lead singer went on a cigarette binge the night before, or the drummer had one too many free vodka-tonics. Having talked to people who play or have played in wedding bands, I know that this isn’t exactly their first choice of gig, despite the fact that the pay is good – they’re usually stuck playing covers that they’ve played hundreds of times before for a decidedly un-hip audience. Not exactly an artist’s dream. So you may not get the knock-down, drag-out performance of “Livin’ On A Prayer” you were hoping for.
Unpredictability can be a good thing, though – at my brother’s wedding, for instance, I was impressed to hear the band do several hip-hop covers that brought the crowd to its feet. This, to my mind, is the top selling point of bands: they know how to get a party started, even with a crowd that doesn’t necessarily share musical tastes. For example, my uncle’s not likely to get his groove on with a 50 Cent song pumping through the speakers – but when a band does its live take on “In Da Club,” it somehow seems more inviting.
I’m not saying that a DJ can’t adapt his act to a diverse crowd. As evidenced by the photos from my bar mitzvah party (which made an unfortunate appearance, along with several embarrassing bathtub shots, during the weekend), they can sometimes do just that. Of course, the entertainer during that evening was no ordinary DJ – this was EJ the DJ, who came prepared with costumes, prizes and a few backup dancers who were drooled over by my then 16-year-old brother – who is still bitter about getting stuck with a band for his party a few years earlier.
A DJ is certainly going to be better for a party aimed at the young’uns – which is why, after my brother’s main wedding party, there was a shorter after-party with a DJ (by contrast, the “afterparty” at my cousin’s recent wedding involved two coolers of beer and several inebriated Scotsmen alternately breaking into song and exhorting me to kill an Englishman). This was where the songs got a little more contemporary, the dancing got a little more risqué, and the bottles of wine got a little more…stolen.
But if you can’t have it both ways, I say go for the band for this reason: You only have so many chances to throw a party with a live band, despite what all those high-school movies suggest. Let’s face it: You’re not going to willingly choose to listen to crowd-pleasers like “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” or select long-gone hits like The Barenaked Ladies’ “The Old Apartment” for your playlist. But when they pop up during your party, you’re going to enjoy them. And if, by some strange twist of fate, your best friend decides to take a turn at the mic – well, you just might get a great story to tell, too.