For some couples, wedding bands are just the shiny new bling they’ll exchange at the altar. But for others, they’re the source of sounds that will ring out at their reception and fill up the dance floor. With a talent pool that pulls from the likes of New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music, Boston’s rich music scene has something to suit every couple’s tastes, from rock and R&B to swing, bluegrass and beyond. Here, some of the city’s notable wedding bands sound off on memorable gigs and first-dance favorites.
Photo Credit: Michael Brook
Call him Boston’s Best Man. Jeff Fraser, the frontman of Men in Black, has been to an estimated 1,000 weddings in a 20-year career, during which he’s sung outdoors in crashing thunderstorms, performed on the set of the Sandra Bullock movie The Proposal and even become the center of attention at the reception for one of Boston’s most famous musicians—Tim Brennan of the Dropkick Murphys.
“We tried not to make a big deal out of it and not be snapping photos,” Fraser says of the Boston Harbor Hotel gig. “I’m sure they wouldn’t want us to be all star-struck, even though I was. These guys are pretty big-time, and they pretty much let us do our thing. They didn’t give us a ton of direction—just not to play Dropkick songs—and we ran with it.”
That’s the band’s preferred MO: While they’re happy to cater to clients’ specifications, couples who’ve heard good things by word of mouth usually trust them to freestyle. “We know our tricks to get the dance floor packed the whole night,” Fraser says. “I interact, I go out into the audience, I bring my guitar out there. You win ’em over that way.”
Some other tricks? Without a doubt, “Shout” always brings a crowd to its feet, Fraser says. As for first dances, John Legend’s “All of Me” and “I Choose You” by Sara Bareilles are this year’s new favorites, and Ray LaMontagne’s “You Are the Best Thing” has taken the cake for the past five years.
But MIB’s most unique first dance was to a Rocky Horror tune. “The bride and groom met doing The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They acted out the ‘Time Warp’ with the whole cast at the Museum of Science. It was hilarious … and definitely a different venue.”
As for Fraser’s favorite places to play, he loves tents and barns, like Gibbet Hill in Groton. “Barn weddings and tent weddings are so good, but that’s probably me being selfish … People just go crazy, insane on the dance floor. I think it’s because they’re outside or something—it seems like they go crazier every time.”
Photo Credit: Kim Indresano Photography
As founders of the Boston Lindy Bomb Squad, a “street team” promoting swing dance, Kellian and Brian Pletcher had one requirement for their 1940s-themed wedding reception: They had to have a band, and it had to be Beantown Swing Orchestra. “Dancing brought us such joy, and we wanted to share that,” Kellian says of their celebration at the Peabody Essex Museum, where eight swing aficionados joined the bride and groom for their first dance, a moment she calls one of her “all-time favorite memories.”
The night was also a career highlight for the 18-piece-plus outfit, according to Beantown Swing director Frank Hsieh, who relishes a repertoire that drives all generations to the dance floor. “It’s great—the audience, whether we play weddings, concerts or dances, especially the older folks, they love seeing younger people playing the classic music that they grew up with,” Hsieh says. “What really makes us stand out among other bands is most others doing this are older people.”
At 27, Beantown’s fresh-faced Sinatra-style crooner, John Stevens, certainly brings youthful energy—and some star power to boot. He and fellow vocalists Siobhan Magnus and Erika Van Pelt were all American Idol finalists. “When we play weddings, always there’s John with the grandmas and teenage girls, all wanting to get a photo,” Hsieh says.
Reality TV isn’t the band’s only brush with fame: They were featured in the Boston-filmed Kate Hudson movie My Best Friend’s Girl. When Jason Biggs accidentally tripped and shattered his microphone stand during filming, the actor just laughed and incorporated it into the slapstick scene, Hsieh recalls.
In addition to Stevens, Beantown Swing features several other Berklee College of Music alums who agree that performing classics never gets old. “You’d think we’d get sick of ‘I’m in the Mood for Love,’ but it’s great,” Hsieh says. “ ‘My Girl,’ ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ … they’re not cheesy wedding songs; they’re really great arrangements, and we’re one of the few wedding bands that play those songs with strings, the way they were meant to be played.”
Photo Credit: Doug Levy
Goodtime Stringband founder Andy Sicard isn’t simply a multi-instrumentalist who can play a mean mandolin, upright bass and banjo—he’s also a talented arranger, capable of coaxing bluegrass rhythms from tunes as diverse as Barry White’s “You’re the First, the Last, My Everything” and Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.” “Musically, [arranging] is part of the fun … it’s what helps make the day special,” Sicard says. “Everybody wants their wedding to be remembered, and performing a song you wouldn’t imagine a string band doing can really add to that.”
The band’s fans include Jodie Giordano, who danced to a downhome rendition of “Rainbow Connection” at her recent reception: “I never dreamed about my wedding day as a kid, but I’ve known since I was little that it would be Dad’s and my song, so that meant a ton,” she explains. Having taken banjo lessons for a few years herself, she even stepped in to play an Irish waltz during the reception at Stonehurst in Waltham. Her husband, Mike, is a professional guitarist, so it was important for them to incorporate live music without overpowering the intimate estate.
That’s one of the benefits to playing bluegrass, according to Sicard—there’s little to no amplification needed. “There’s something very clean and pure about seeing musicians who aren’t attached to a bunch of cables and amps,” he says. “We’re all so connected to technology in our day-to-day lives, and for a day when you’re celebrating love, there’s a strong desire to step away from all of that and embrace what really matters to people and what is real.”
It’s one of the reasons the band loves playing “rustic” places, like barns and waterside venues. “It’s great that young couples are embracing traditional acoustic American music and seem to be more focused on the gathering than the glamour,” says vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Alley Stoetzel.
The barn wedding trend isn’t the only boon for business—artists like the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons are drawing new fans to the genre. Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel” ranks among the band’s favorite reception songs. “We refer to it as the ‘Free Bird’ of bluegrass, because it’s requested all of the time,” Stoetzel says. “Even though we’ve played it a thousand times, it’s always a blast.”
The band name Protege is an apt one for Leah Randazzo Schulman and Jeff D’Antona—after all, the vocalist and piano player met when he was teaching her the keys. They soon took the relationship from professional to romantic, tying the knot two years ago. Today they harmonize with their seven-piece band, and they say that having a married couple in Protege puts engaged couples at ease. “The reaction is always very sweet,” Schulman says. When one bride was worried the band wouldn’t fit on a small stage, she said, “ ‘Well, you can just lounge right on the piano.’ Of course, I didn’t, but it was a cute idea.”
The Fabulous Baker Boys notion wouldn’t be that off-key, as both she and Jeff have original jazz projects in the works. While some couples encourage them to play their originals, Schulman says they always enjoy performing upbeat covers. Besides “Happy” by Pharrell and “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz—which she calls the “wedding standard of our generation”—they also mix it up with ’90s R&B like Mary J. Blige, Aaliyah and Montell Jordan. “Our generation are the ones getting married right now, and they grew up with that stuff on the radio just like we did!”
Crowd-pleasers like those win Protege attention at live showcases organized by their booking agent, Wilson Stevens Productions, where engaged couples can check out bands over dinner or drinks. For their own reception, Schulman and D’Antona celebrated at Indian Hill Music Center in Littleton, where her mother is the executive director. Instead of a first dance, they did a “first song”—Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love”—and the reception turned into a giant jam session, with friends and family performing along with them. It’s a vibe Jeff and Leah have come to know well: Since they’ve known most of the members of Protege (including Jon Bean, Sturgis Cunningham, Paul Chase, John Munro and Will Stevens) for years, the wedding band itself, they say, is like an extended family.
Photo Credit: Melanie Kilim
A garden wedding ceremony with classical music may sound like the most traditional of affairs. But when the toast is raised to several newly wedded couples simultaneously—and made not with Champagne, but with Brewlywed Ale from Sam Adams—the occasion is anything but. “It’s really exciting to be a part of it… it’s this raw energy,” says Daniel Broniatowski of Maestro Musicians. “A justice of the peace comes and does the marriages, but there are also spontaneous proposals that happen while we’re playing in the hops garden.”
The string quartet counts Boston Beer Company’s “eat, drink and be married” event among their most unique gigs yet, but they’re down to play just about anything, anywhere. Maestro Musicians’ repertoire includes jazz, tango and pop songs like Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida.” “Stuff like that sounds really good with stringed instruments—people would not expect that normally,” Broniatowski says. One couple attending another’s wedding was so inspired by the Maestros’ arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that they reached out about hiring the band for their big day. The quartet is also one of the few local groups to specialize in Jewish folk and klezmer music for weddings.
Of course, with members whose pedigrees include New England Conservatory, Boston University, Oberlin and European academies, they can also help couples without musical backgrounds welcome classical sounds into their ceremony, reception or cocktail hour. “We are skilled at helping them choose the music, so it’s extra-personal and special,” Broniatowski says. “We guide them so they feel comfortable and confident, so they know the music is tailored to their personalities.”
As for the most common wedding processional—“Canon in D” by Pachelbel—Broniatowski laughs when asked if he’s sick of playing it. “It’s one of those pieces where you love it or hate it. Some musicians do, but I personally love it,” he says. “Classical music speaks strictly to the heart. It’s music that crosses all boundaries and cultures. It may sound cheesy, but it’s a life event, and we make a difference in lives through music. It’s the best form of communication possible.”