Boogie Nights

Bring in da funk, bring in da bucks: backstage with Dr. Zhivegas, St. Louis' most popular -- and derided -- cover band

Mar 14, 2001 at 4:00 am
Dr. Zhivegas' kingpins were supposed to be renting the DeVille sedan but had to settle for the Seville. Renting a tour bus was also an option at one point, but that didn't work out. As a result, the drive to Springfield, Mo., is a bit more cramped than usual. Singer Frankie Muriel, drummer Paul Chickey and guitarist Dee Dee James must jockey for room, but the soft leather seats are perfectly sculpted for comfort; what it lacks in space, the Seville more than makes up for in luxury.

The prison van, as its passengers have tagged it, is out there somewhere, on its way down I-44 south to the same destination. It carries five other members of Dr. Zhivegas, and, although the van has plenty of elbow room, it's most certainly not a Caddy. But the travelers have adjusted to the routine: The two background vocalists, Denise Atty and Erminie Cannon, are stretched out in their own van seats; keyboard player Alonzo Lee's in the way-back, listening to Tito Puente and new British two-step music and reading books about sound production; up front, the horn section, Lew Winer and Kasimu -- the driver and navigator, respectively, of the van -- are listening to Freddie Hubbard and Art Blakey tapes, talking music.

The gear truck, its cab crammed with bassist Cubby Smith, sound man Doc Durham and lighting technician Dan "Spot" Lastovka, its cargo area filled with the equipment -- strobes, cans, fog machines, instruments and miscellaneous gear -- is probably just arriving at Remington's, a cinderblock country & western bar outside of town that, later this evening, will be sold out, jammed with 2,000 revelers singing all the words to "I Will Survive."

There's no point anymore in traveling as a minicaravan; after six years of this, the dozen involved know the deal -- where the hotel and club are, what time they perform, what their roles are -- and any problems can be quickly settled with cell phones that double as walkie-talkies. A pack of this many people can be a royal pain in the ass when you just want to grab a bite to eat or make a bathroom stop, so the vehicles and their passengers simply come and go on their own -- the Cadillac, the prison van and the truck.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when the band could squeeze into a little van; in fatter times, they'd spring for a full-size tour bus. But even that was a drag for a few members.

"Before, we used to all ride in the 15-passenger van, and they were, like, 'We need to get something separate,'" says keyboardist Lee. "Because there were 10 people -- which is true -- it's hard to gain direction and focus: 'I want to eat this. I want to eat that. I gotta go to the bathroom.'" So Zhivegas CEOs Muriel and Chickey decided to trade community for luxury, and James joined them -- a perk that comes with playing lead guitar.

"The Caddy's an old-man birthright," says Chickey.

"We've earned this," says Muriel.

"When you're pushing 35," adds Chickey, "and you want to drive a Cadillac, that's your business."

"We've gone over that with them [the other band members] before," says Muriel. "Every decision that you make has a corresponding cost. We decide that we want to eat at [classy Springfield restaurant] Clary's, because we enjoy the food, and it helps us -- it's all about whatever helps you do the best you can at show time, whatever it happens to be, whether it's being comfortable on the way to the gig, eating a good meal, having the lights and sound right. So we go to Clary's, because to me it's important to have a good meal and a good relaxing environment where you can forget about everything for a minute. Some people wouldn't do that. If you want to eat at McDonald's for $5, that's your choice, too. That's not my choice, so I don't want to go do it."

"We end up playing the babysitter," says Chickey, "and that's why we have the come-and-go-as-we-please thing. We used to have that group thing -- that 'OK, here we go ...' And it was too much of a headache, bottom line. We are who we are. We're a cover band. We play music, making a living, whatever. We're taking a Caddy. Say what you want. We've earned it."

What do you do when something you created "as a lark" explodes and proceeds to take on a life of its own? Ends up being more popular than the music you truly care about? Simple: You ride the wave, enjoy it when you can, all the while stuffing your pockets with cash and planning for the day when any spark of fun has long since fizzled.

After six years, Dr. Zhivegas works at least three gigs a week, 49 weeks a year, tossing out the classic funk and disco crowd-pleasers and the occasional obscurity. Some nights the band stretches the music so tight with energy that it nearly snaps, and you're sure this is the hardest funk band in the country; just as often, they simply go through the motions with songs they've played perhaps a few thousand times. They play club gigs a couple of times a week and augment those with the bread and butter of the cover-band circuit, corporate events and private parties. As one of the most financially successful St. Louis bands of the '90s, Dr. Zhivegas earns from a month's worth of performances what most St. Louis bands playing original music make in a year -- last year they brought in more than a half-million dollars -- and most of the nine players make their livings doing this. Anyone serious about music and his or her instrument dreams of making a living out of it; as a result, the band employs some of the most talented players in town, and the money affords them an opportunity to pursue other interests. Two of its members, drummer Chickey and singer Muriel, recently purchased the old Hot Locust/ Side Door complex on Locust and christened it Z. It contains a restaurant in front and a club -- Zhivegas' home base (kind of like Shoji Tabuchi's Branson theater) -- in back.

The original Zhivegas consisted of Chickey, Cubby Smith and Chris Krieger, all members of the alt-rock band Nerve. The fourth member, guitarist Steve Bunton, was moonlighting from his stint as guitarist for T.H.U.G.S.; he left Zhivegas a few years back. Their first show was Halloween 1995. The quartet performed disco in full regalia, with the intention of partying while making some extra cash, to both celebrate and poke fun at the music. It was also a welcome release from the oft-serious business of being a furrow-browed rock band.

"I went down to the thrift store, and I got the '70s vibe going on with the polyester shirts, polyester pants, put a big wig on," says Krieger, who left the band last spring. ("The reason I quit," he says, "was because of a bit of madness. I just couldn't play those songs anymore.") One reason for the get-up was to disguise himself from Nerve fans. "And then we realized how much fun it was to make a lot of money while we were playing music, so we abandoned the originals thing altogether. We wanted to be kitschy and cheesy, and we were just having some fun. And then, about five or six months into it, Frankie got into the fold, and he brought a lot of fanbase beyond what we had established. His own charisma that he brings to the mix I'm sure helped. A lot of guys will deny that, but he does add quite a bit."

An early photo exists of Zhivegas in full cheeser mode. It's an embarrassing snapshot of a bunch of guys -- and one female dancer -- in cheap fake Afros and polyester shirts; if Zhivegas has a reputation for pimping its art for the sake of the cash, that reputation no doubt stems from this early incarnation. Their get-ups look stupid and patronizing; they make it seem as though, more than anything, Dr. Zhivegas is the Weird Al of disco.

But even as a parody -- or perhaps because of it -- Dr. Zhivegas exploded. They'd sell out Mississippi Nights often, sell out the Galaxy on Tuesday nights, all the while embittering bands who were making music the "right way" -- performing only originals -- by getting the best slots at clubs around town. All by putting on Afro wigs and acting the fools.

Gradually, as the band grew legs, the production increased with it. Krieger says it was Muriel, who joined the band in '96 and had learned the art of performance during his days as lead singer for metal band KINGOFTHEHILL, who first saw the potential: "He knew what could be done. I'm not saying he was the savior or anything, but his knowledge was there. So we were exposed to the lighting people we could afford, and the various lighting ideas, and to me that makes a lot of difference -- that separates you from other bands. It's an investment. If you spend the money, you make that extra money by getting the extra crowd out and excite the people more. It was a gradual upward progression. Both Frank and Paul are extremely ambitious guys, hard workers, constantly thinking about that stuff."

Zhivegas inflated in its prime to an 11-piece group; it's now a nine-piece band with a lead singer, guitarist, bassist, drummer, keyboardist, two-man horn section and two backing vocalists [see sidebar]. They've refined the business of running a popular cover band down to the most minuscule details. "It's funny," explains Chickey. "You throw your stuff in the back of the van, and you just throw it up and you play and get your money at the end of the night. And then all of a sudden it's turned into this corporation. We have employees, PA and lighting equipment, and a 30-foot truck, and three or four technicians on salary, and nine guys in the band. It's an entirely different thing. It's like running a small tour. We've put ourselves on that level, and it's our position to maintain it. Sometimes people think, 'Oh, Zhivegas is just making all this money,' which, sometimes, we are." But, he says, it's turned into a dilemma: People expect the big Zhivegas production, and the band can't take a night off from all the glitz and do a quickie funk show. People now demand it; if they don't get all the Zhivegas bells and whistles, they leave unsatisfied. Dr. Zhivegas is about flashing lights, perpetual funk motion, celebration. And, of course, those songs.

"They're crap," mumbles Chickey when asked about the songs. "At this point, they're all crap." He's not saying it with venom or with pure contempt. He's saying it, it seems, with a sense of resignation, as someone who's very sick of these songs. The genuine fun of Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" has vanished, ruined by repetition.

Anyone doing the same job for six years is bound to have parts of it that he doesn't like, parts that reveal themselves for what they are: the work that you do for the paycheck and not for the pleasure. These little moments of exasperation are apparent in most of the band's members at one point or another; the only two immune to it are the two female vocalists, who seem baffled when asked whether they get sick of the music. They don't, and you believe them. Most of the others, though, seem a bit unsure about their relationship with the music they make: At times it's "just a job," but often it's something more.

However conflicted they are, the band members seldom reveal their mixed feelings about the music onstage. Zhivegas is a band of professional musicians who are smart enough to realize that what they've got is something exceptional, something bigger and better than other cover bands. There's no dead weight, no confusion about each person's role in the band, little apparent animosity. When instructed to arrive at 8:15 p.m., all arrive at 8:15 p.m. No member seems to overindulge, as musicians are wont to do; no one's ever drunk onstage, or dressed in street clothes, or anything but professional when it comes to the presentation of the Zhivegas product. This is the result of six years of refining on the part of the founders, and it's there that the creative control firmly rests. At this point, Zhivegas is obviously Chickey and Muriel's baby, and if remaining fellow founder Cub Smith is noticeably excluded from the management activities, it's because he's more the mechanic of the machine, concerned with its daily maintenance.

Dr. Zhivegas is owned and operated by a couple of people who are responsible for the band's continued success. Why shouldn't they ride in a Cadillac and eat at fancy restaurants? As the heads of the Zhivegas corporation, their position merits the fringe benefits. When they say they got sick of traveling with a dozen people in a van, that they wanted to come and go as they pleased, who's to stop them? They deserve the luxuries; they built the corporation.

Those who have never seen Zhivegas but know the name can't help but make assumptions about the band; the phrase "cover band" is a loaded one. Rock and pop bands who only perform other peoples' songs are often immediately either dismissed or placed much lower on the totem pole than those who create their own music. Cover bands are generally ignored by the music community, and when they aren't ignored, they're derided as second-class citizens. (It's important to note that jazz and classical musicians who only perform others' songs don't suffer the same fate.)

The most common assumption about Dr. Zhivegas is that they have it made, have struck gold with a simple concept: live disco and funk designed for a partygoing crowd uninterested in music as art, a crowd filled with people who simply want to be entertained. Therefore Zhivegas aren't really musicians but mere entertainers who know how to play musical instruments. People assume the band is less concerned with music than they are with providing a crowd, wallets bulging, an evening's worth of nostalgia set to a beat. They assume that every night, right before they go on, the band members bite the bullet, splash their faces with cold water and commence to cheese it up. Then they get paid and ride home in the Caddy. Even worse, people assume that Dr. Zhivegas simply doesn't care.

Some assumptions are confirmed during a virgin experience; some are immediately dispelled. One can't entirely ignore, though, the declaration by lead singer Frankie Muriel just moments before Dr. Zhivegas' sold-out Springfield show: "I want to get this over as quickly as possible."

But Dr. Zhivegas is a really good band. That truth is frequently ignored because of the kind of music the band plays. The era that Zhivegas highlights is an important one often dismissed, a moment in American music history when party music was morphing into dance music, when hard soul was discovering the beauty of deep bass and a solid groove. The bands Zhivegas covers -- Funkadelic; Earth, Wind & Fire; the Gap Band; Sly and the Family Stone -- were distilling a number of ideas into something weird and funky, and it's no accident that it's this period that has proved so fertile for the band; old and young can find common ground in funk and disco, and the well of potential audience members is deep.

Little epiphanies can happen smack-dab in the middle of a song Dr. Zhivegas has performed 1,000 times before, even on nights when members may want to "get this over as quickly as possible," and there are ways of transcending the mundane if you've got a strong enough constitution and an imaginative mind. Like any musician faced with the reality of performing the same notes repeatedly over the course of a career (and like any human being faced with any sort of repetitive action, be it a Twinkie-assembly-line worker, a meter maid or a Schnucks cashier), it's easy to get sick of the music, but the band has developed strategies to combat the tedium. These strategies capture the essence of what separates Dr. Zhivegas from your basic wedding-reception band.

"There was a time when I think [burnout] was a big factor," says Smith. "I remember being at that point a couple years ago. I would play the song again for the thousandth time and think, 'Oh, not again.' For a while, I was really frustrated. It was kind of a growing process: 'I can get through this, move on.' And so I tried to come up with other outlets, playing-wise. I'll sit down and come up with something new to play on this, or I'll relearn this song and see how I was actually playing it, try and challenge myself. I tried to make it more interesting."

"You have to make it interesting to play," echoes trumpeter Kasimu. "Four nights a week for four years, playing the same songs: I look at it as a learning experience. I always like Michael Jackson stuff for the horns, so playing some of this stuff, you learn about song forms and arrangements. It's pretty cool in that respect."

"I used to despise 'Celebration' so much," adds saxophonist Lew Winer, "because I played it back when the Cardinals were using it, back in the '80s, when it was the thing, and then in other bands. We just kept playing playing playing it. And it just wore on me so bad, like, 'I hate that song.' And now I'm over it. I've accepted it. I've mellowed out over it. But I was losing it for a while there."

In the Cadillac on the way to Springfield, Chickey, Muriel and James have a theory about Lenny Kravitz. They claim that he's a fashion thief, that he secretly admires Dee Dee James to the point that, each time Kravitz flies James to New York City for a jam session (which is a few times a year, at least), the superstar guitarist wants not only to play with James but to take mental notes on James' style. Then, once James is back in St. Louis, Lenny cops his look. The theory sounds far-fetched at first, but the three build a convincing case.

The first time James noticed Kravitz borrowing his style, James was still living in LA, playing with Bootsy Collins and doing session work. James is a vintage-car enthusiast, and his pride and joy is a classic 1965 Thunderbird Landau. Once, James was driving up to a jam that Kravitz had arranged, and the two arrived at the same time. "Kravitz saw me in that car, and he flipped, man. He was, like, 'Where'd you get that?'" The two talked about the car, says James: "Next thing I know, I'm looking through Rolling Stone, and there's Lenny Kravitz posing in front of his new car, and it's just like mine." Same thing happened with James' hair, which he wears in an Afro. Kravitz had dreadlocks forever, but immediately after another jam session, James turned on the TV to watch the Grammys. There was Lenny, playing guitar with Madonna, and he had a new haircut: an Afro. Same thing with the Wrangler shirts and jeans James wears, which Kravitz copped. And the Prada sunglasses. It's happened too often to be coincidence, they say.

Artists, of course, are always stealing somebody else's style. It's part of the game, and no creative person comes up with ideas out of thin air. But after dropping bits and pieces of others' fashion and personality and accent into your vessel, what pours back out should be transformed, made into something completely unique. At least ideally.

Zhivegas' Frankie Muriel is a fine example, a fantastic mimic. Onstage he's an actor, casually walking onto the stage as he's done countless times before, puffing out his chest and playing the part of the megalomaniacal rock star. He wraps a feather boa around his mic stand and plays it, à la James Brown or Prince. When he's singing a Prince song, he sounds like Prince (though he can't dance like Prince -- Muriel's more restrained, more relaxed). He can't grunt and groan like Brown, but he can raise three fingers to the band just like the Man, and Zhivegas will respond with three perfectly placed instrumental hits. He can get all low like Sly Stone during "Everyday People," get all sassy during Rick James' "Superfreak" and party hearty with Kool & the Gang during "Get Down on It." If he's suffering through it, which at times offstage he seems to be, Muriel doesn't let it show onstage. He's acting, and he's doing it well.

But Muriel is obviously -- and understandably -- more concerned with promoting his solo release. A few weeks later, during the final mix-down of the CD, as he sits down in front of Four Seasons Studio's massive mixing board, he says, "It's nice to be back in the saddle. I've been working too much." He makes a solid distinction between his solo art and the work he does singing for Zhivegas. The music he's making on his own is refined, funky and surprisingly R&B-oriented; it contains snippets of raw funk, slick soul ballads and rough beat-based rock. It sounds both current and retro, and you can hear the effect of all those nights playing funk and disco on his sound; there's not a trace of his hair-metal days on the Frankie Muriel CD.

Muriel may distinguish between his band job and personal work, but he'd be foolish not to harness the Zhivegas perks for the benefit of his solo career. After the Cadillac arrives at Remington's in Springfield at about 5 p.m., five hours before show time, the first order of business for him is to walk over to the mixing board and pop on the Frankie Muriel CD. Immediately the big empty room is filled with the sound of his voice, with guitarist Dee Dee James' solo, and there's enough oomph to convince even a skeptic that this Muriel guy may just have something here. He's standing in front of the empty dance floor on the G-spot of the sound system, listening to the music he created. He looks as if he's in the middle of taping a "behind the scenes" rock-band video: hours before the show, the lead singer, with his long blond locks and street clothes, lost in a little moment.

He then proceeds to layer the joint with double-sided full-color promo cards of Frankie Muriel. Each table, each flat space in the huge hall now has a picture of Muriel on it. The flier is designed to promote the CD; for him to succeed with the project, he's got to start the buzz, and to do that, he's got to harvest the fame he's cultivated as lead singer for Zhivegas by letting these people, his fans, know that he wants more.

While Muriel's working at self-promotion, elsewhere in the room, Cub, Spot and Doc are sweating to hammer out the system, setting up the drums, the amps and the lights, sound-checking, moving monitors. They seem surprised to see the Cadillac Three arrive; usually they don't show up until five minutes before show time. Later, one of the techs comments that when the trio showed up so early, it was assumed something must have been wrong.

Remington's sits right outside Springfield. It's a big room, a space similar to Mississippi Nights but with higher ceilings and a center corral designed for two-stepping to modern-day country hits. Most likely, the room was built during the Urban Cowboy craze of the early '80s; there's a mechanical bull to one side that still seems ready to buck -- though, unfortunately, no one will ride it tonight.

In the parking lot, the Cadillac arrives with roadie Joe Sturdy and Dee Dee James, Muriel at the wheel. The place is packed: Cars are backed up in the lot, and despite the fact that he's the star of tonight's show, Muriel's stuck in the traffic jam. When the Caddy finally approaches the stage door, however, Muriel makes his status clear by pulling a rock-star move: He angles in, cars still lined behind him, and parks it right there. Everyone exits. A few minutes later, Sturdy returns to move the car, and vehicles again begin to ease along.

Inside, Remington's is full, and as Chickey hits a snare to start the show, the crowd erupts. They dance, they drink, they sing along, they roar with approval. They're at Remington's for the Dr. Zhivegas experience, which is exactly what they get. They don't care that the band has played Kool & the Gang's "Jungle Boogie" 700 times before tonight, don't care that Alonzo Lee is totally sick of James Brown's "Get Up Offa That Thing." They're hearing it tonight, and then they're going home. "You play four nights a week, 49 weeks a year," says Muriel, "but you know what? Someone, somewhere, wants to hear that song. And someone, somewhere, has a response to it when you get into it. You're, like, 'Here it goes again.' But then, all of a sudden, you just might zone in on somebody who's having a good time because you're playing that -- whatever stupid, silly song it happens to be. It gives you a different perspective all of a sudden, just for a second."

Tonight's a good show; Zhivegas is on fire and all are locked in with one another. Tonight's proof that Dr. Zhivegas is something much bigger than a simple cheese band: They are a hard-and-fast funk band, with one of the best rhythm sections in town, the most over-the-top and lick-heavy lead guitarist in the city, a horn section able to pump out tight bursts of brass with pinpoint accuracy, two gospel-trained backing vocalists dancing and laughing and spinning and wailing, a keyboardist who seems to live inside the funk and can provide a chord blurt that'll blow you back a couple of feet, and a lead singer who's the consummate showman, who, like all lead singers worth anything, lives off the crowd, craves centerstage attention and loves to dress up all fancy-like.

When all nine are grooving on P-Funk's "Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off the Sucker)" or Prince's "1999" or the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," it's like a hurricane up there, with whirling lights and flashing "Dr. Z" strobes and dancing and testifying. Amid the chaos, there's also subtle keyboard-guitarist eye contact and a glimmer of a smile indicating that something special is happening, some sort of unspoken connection, the kind of moment every musician pines for. Bassist Cubby Smith seems always lost in the music, his head pumping with the rhythm he's laying down. He doesn't look like the member of a cover band; he looks like a member of the MC5. Any fan of funk willing to check their holier-than-thou 'tude at the door just might witness a revelation. It's happened more than once. It's happening tonight.

During the musical mayhem, Muriel heads sidestage to the box of fliers, grabs a stack while he's singing and proceeds to offer them to front-row women as though they're fine chocolates. He then begins to pelt the crowd with them, flinging them toward the back of the dance floor like David Letterman sailing his index cards, throwing piles of them into the air like confetti.

The next day, the entourage heads to Kansas City, to the Starlight Theatre, to perform a corporate event for Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Once again, it's every vehicle for itself, with Smith and the techs hitting the road early in the morning to set up the equipment.

The Caddy leaves later in the day. As they drive, Muriel and Chickey are no doubt constructing the setlist for the night. They go through the same process for every gig, juggling songs as though creating a mix tape of classic funk and disco.

The exchange before the Remington's show, is typical: Muriel and Chickey toss out ideas -- "Brick House," "Bad Girls," "Celebration" -- bouncing song titles back and forth. "That one's got a stop at the end," declares Chickey. "It won't work there.

"No, that one's 123," he says, referring to the beats-per-minute of another song. "It won't work going into that one -- it's 118."

"What about 'Humpin'?" asks Muriel as they pass a McDonald's 18-wheeler.

"'Humpin' is too ghetto for this crowd," responds Chickey. They wrestle a while more, submitting and retracting songs. Muriel suggests "I'm Every Woman."

"Nah, man, that's a weeknight song," interrupts James.

Before long, they've got a solid setlist together, one that consists of 32 songs -- the apparent ideal number they work toward. Those 32 songs must fall within strict parameters: dance music created in the years 1975-84. The only exception the band makes is for the occasional Frankie Muriel original.

"You gotta have this little flow," Muriel explains later of the lessons he's learned in creating a crowd-pleasing setlist. "What we used to do is, we'd come out of the gate like that and never ever slow down, wouldn't give them time to kick back, and we'd wear people out. By the end, they're just gone. So we've figured out how to dip it and bring it back up, and you create an excitement."

While Muriel and Chickey struggle with the setlist, in the prison van there's not much to do except relax. The upside of riding in the prison van is that the band members don't have to cope with all the nuts and bolts of the Zhivegas corporation; these five don't deal with many of the hassles. They come when they're asked to, play, leave when they're finished. The downside is, they don't get as big a cut of the cash and are forced to stop more often for bathroom breaks. They also must compromise when lunchtime comes around -- Clary's doesn't enter the picture. Usually, as they do today, they stop at "Fast Food Central," that occasional oasis just off the highway where each of the major franchises is represented; they split up, get the food and reconverge at the van to eat while traveling.

The ride is easy, and after a quick stop at the Starlight to set up instruments and do a sound check, the band retreats to the hotel for a few hours before heading back to the venue, where the 1,000 Enterprisers are eating buffet food and getting tipsy.

Back through the kitchen, where the caterers are working hard, a door leads to an open courtyard that leads to another building housing the Dr. Zhivegas dressing room, a huge space designed, it seems, for the entire casts of Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music and Grease. The room is painted pumpkin orange, and hanging side-by-side along all three long walls are makeup mirrors, each framed with a dozen bulbs; there are probably 50 lighted mirrors in this one room. All of them are turned on, and each and every one of the bulbs is lit -- none of the 600-odd bulbs is burned out. Muriel, Chickey and James walk in, dressed in their stage clothes: Muriel is all in white; Chickey's in red, with a headband making him look very '80s Loverboy; and James is in too-tight black leather pants punched with silver stud patterns and a loose shirt that he'll unbutton during the performance to reveal his nipple rings.

Inside the venue, the theme is "Hollywood," and caricatures of celebrities hang at regular intervals around the four walls of the room: Sylvester Stallone, Meg Ryan, Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball, Laurel and Hardy. The crowd, which seems to consist of the entire Enterprise KC team, is a wide mix of ages and social groups. Slicksters mingle with gussied-up mechanics, executive assistants dance with former bosses. Wives reek of obligation and smile tensely. There's a general sense of forced fun, an aura of stress, and that, coupled with the booze of an open bar, creates an atmosphere perfect for Zhivegas: People seem uptight, ready to let loose. Both the band and the crowd are in that gray area somewhere between leisure and work.

If last night the band was excited because 2,000 people had come to see them, tonight is different. The band is incidental -- they're the hired help -- and the performance, although still professional and high-energy, is less immediate. But, still, they get the crowd going: KC and the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man," Kool & the Gang's "Get Down on It," Rose Royce's "Car Wash," Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" and the one that always gets the ladies going, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." The younger Enterprisers flock to the dance floor, drink in one hand and date in the other, and commence to boogying. The older middle managers and senior executives stay seated -- or, if they're feeling particularly rambunctious, stand and stare at Muriel as he bellows, "I've got a lion in my pocket, and baby he's ready to roar!" Others try to sing along, even though they don't know the words, and their lips stab tentatively at the lyrics of songs that they now only hear at weddings and company Christmas parties. A couple resembling Dick and Lynne Cheney stand and bob along uncomfortably.

Lights are flashing, strobes bouncing off walls. The Enterprise logo, the same green one that's on cars all over St. Louis, is blinking and spinning around on two walls. The band pumps into James Brown's "Living in America."

This crowd isn't made up of industry tastemakers; there are no A&R people here interested in signing the band. These people probably haven't bought many new releases of late, and most of them probably couldn't tell you the difference between Funkadelic; the Gap Band; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Prince. Nonetheless, Dr. Zhivegas is working the room as they're supposed to, and despite the fact that they're wading through "Little Red Corvette" yet again, the dancers don't care.

"You always want to be validated," says Chickey later. "Even -- say you're a plumber. You're doing your job, but you still want to feel like you're doing it well. Especially as a musician. I don't consider myself a sellout or any of that. A lot of people will scoff and say, 'Yeah, you took the easy route.' I don't think so. We planned, and we work our ass off, and we've put a lot of time into this. I could be sweeping stairs making money, too, and I don't think I'm any less of a man because I do it this way rather than some other way. Would I rather be doing other music? Of course I would, but I'm not really bothered by it that much. I think, deep down, I don't have a problem with it, or we wouldn't have been able to take it to this level. We've taken it to the nines because that's part of the fun of it."