An Under Cover Weekend | 09.07-08.12

aucw-logo 75Right in our own city, there are bands that write their own songs, and are as good as, if not better than, what is normally heard on commercial radio.

 

 

Firebird, St. Louis

What are you doing the weekend of September 7–8? No. Forget that. Reschedule. Ignore your responsibilities. Call in sick. Get a babysitter. Do whatever you have to do to get yourself down to Firebird to experience what has to be one of the coolest music events in our fair city, a feather in St. Louis’s cap: An Under Cover Weekend (AUCW).

I hear those groans. “Cover bands?” you say with that world-weary tone of a true music snob. You are thinking about bad Elvis impersonators with horrible wigs and no concept of pitch. You have perhaps experienced the cultural wasteland of most Beatles/Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin cover bands. You know the ones, where you are pretty sure they wear the costumes to bed and maybe never talk to another human being about anything else, like, ever. You need to banish all those concerns from your pretty little hipster head and open yourself up to the possibilities.

For one weekend, some of the most talented musicians and beloved bands in the St. Louis area transform themselves into their musical heroes. It’s an act of love steeped in respect and fun. The participating artists are asked either to cover the artist in a way that is completely faithful to their original versions, note for note, or to interpret the songs as if they themselves had written them. It’s an opportunity not only to have a silly good time, but also to fall in love with a local band you will want to go see, again and again and again. When you think about it, that’s just good for the economy; therefore, it’s kind of your patriotic duty to attend.

I asked AUCW founder/organizer Michael Tomko a few questions about this event, now in its sixth year. Tomko is one busy fella. Not only does he take on the task of organizing this massive event each year, there’s his regular job of Production Director for The Able Few; he will be joining in on guitar as Via Dove takes on the legendary Aerosmith for AUCW – Night 2; and, to top it all off with a cherry, the man is getting married in just a few short weeks. I really appreciate him taking time to answer my queries through email.

aucw lucabrasi

Photo: Bryan Sutter

I am curious as to how the whole event started and where the idea originated. Was this something you organized on your own?

Back when my old band Gentleman Auction House was playing shows and I’d tell someone who was relatively unfamiliar with the music scene—mostly relatives, coworkers, and neighbors—that I was in a band, nine times out of 10, the first question that they’d ask me would be, “Oh, what songs do you do?” This really stuck with me, as more and more it began to seem that even the concept of “original music” was foreign to most people. And I don’t mean the age-old debate about whose fault it is that enough people don’t come to shows; I mean that there are hundreds of thousands of people, in this city alone, who are blissfully unaware that, right in their own city, there are bands that write their own songs, and are as good as, if not better than, what they normally hear on commercial radio.

Additionally, when you consider the large number of local bars that feature “live music” and the burgeoning success of more professional tribute acts like El Monstero and Celebration Day, it is no secret that St. Louis loves a good cover band. So, we came up with sort of a best-of-both-worlds approach. The idea was to assemble an amazing cast of local talent, who for one night would pay homage to heroes for anyone who would listen. A sort of icebreaker, if you will, for these bands to hopefully meet a whole new audience. We figured that if the bands had a chance to let it all out and have fun playing the songs that had shaped who they were as a musician, that the audience would be equally as relaxed, and receptive, to hearing the songs that also make them excited about music. Ultimately, it was our hope that this would lead to AUCW being an avenue for people to discover their new favorite local band—and it worked!

aucw-logo 300Was it difficult to convince bands to participate, or were you turning them away?

Each year has been a little bit different. The first few years were invitation-based, for the most part. Some bands would usually ask throughout the year and we’d couple that with who we really were hoping to have on the show, and we’d blast out a bunch of emails. For the most part, everyone we would ask would play, assuming that they were available. In the last two years we have slimmed back down to only two nights, and have opened up the submission process to anyone who wants to throw their name in the hat. And, honestly, picking the bands is the hardest part of the job.

For one, I can’t tell you how flattering it is to have had 41 bands submit for AUCW6. I also can’t even begin to tell you how difficult it is to pare that down to only 10 spots. I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily say that the selection process got harder, but more that the quality of the submissions has gone way up. But, I would say that our initial attempts to “thin the herd” only reduced things to like 22 bands. And then even after rigorous debate, and round after round of micro-changes to the lineup, we still ended up with like a nine-way tie for the 10th spot. We had to say “no, thank you” to a lot of really great bands this year—we actually even spent a few hours trying to figure out how to make this fly as a four-night event again—but in the end, I’m really proud of the lineup that we settled on for AUCW6. The energy is amazing.

For us, it ultimately comes down to bands who fit a certain profile that combines everything from how they act as people, to how well they play their instruments, to how well they draw, to how good we think their taste in music is, to how earnest their submission is, to how much effort that we know they will put into the show, and so on. That said, when it is all said and done, it is nothing more than a gut feeling, and that is something that I feel we have gotten really good at. After five previous years of AUCW, and thousands of shows booked between us, I think that we’ve truly learned what to look for in an AUCW candidate. And for me, this level of curation is one of the biggest parts of our show.

Do the bands usually have an idea right away of who they want to cover or are they open to suggestion?

Every year, bands each submit a first and second choice of who they would like to pay tribute to. And, for the most part, the bands that get chosen to play are often picked as their first choice. Our rules do stipulate that a band cannot be covered again until at least five years later, so going into this year there were 69 different bands that were ineligible as tributes. We also will sometimes ask a band that we would like to have on the show to re-submit new choices, because either they were to new or too obscure for what we typically like to feature at AUCW. Ultimately, we want the bands that play An Under Cover Weekend to be passionate about who they are covering, and we try to give these bands the opportunity to defend their reasoning behind their choices. In some cases, a simple phone call has actually completely changed our minds about a given submission because we know that the band will so much effort and love into their tribute.

Last year, I ended up calling two bands and asking them to pick something different, totally expecting it to be a tough conversation. Instead, they both reacted to it as if it was a challenge to dig deeper and to find something that would be a better fit for their bands. In the end, both of them I think picked something that were highlights of their respective nights for most people.

Anything else you’d like people to know about this year’s event?

As clichéd as this may sound, I’m actually really looking forward to both nights as a whole. I feel like this is one of our most cohesive, end-to-end pair of nights ever, and that, for me, is one of the most exciting parts of this year’s AUCW.

We also have stepped up the game in other regards this year. We put together a five-part mini-documentary—produced by the amazing Allison Babka, Kevin FitzGerald, and David Treadway—which will be released the week of the show; went truly over the top with our photo shoots with Bryan Sutter and Jason Stoff at The Thaxton Speakeasy; and also just released a mixtape, in collaboration with I Went To A Show, featuring one song from each of the 10 bands. And, if this stuff is any indication, expect things to continue to amp up in the years to come. | Janet Rhoads

aucw via-dove

Photo: Jason Stoff

Lineup for AUCW 2012 at Firebird:

Night 1 | 09.07

8:30 p.m. | Aquitaine as Oasis
9:20 p.m. | Animal Empty as PJ Harvey
10:10 p.m. | Humdrum as Beck
11 p.m. | Volcanoes as The Killers
11:50 p.m. | LucaBrasi as U2

Night 2 | 09.08

8:30 p.m. | Arthur and the Librarian as Simon & Garfunkel
9:20 p.m. | Last to Show First to Go as Neil Young
10:10 p.m. | Palace as ABBA
11 p.m. | Dots Not Feathers as Michael Jackson
11:50 p.m. | Via Dove as Aerosmith

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