The next best thing: Greensboro musicians resurrect their favorite bands for charity

by Amy Kingsley

Michael Joncas – having just pushed his pick past the final bass note of “Drank Like a River,” uttered his “thank you” and stepped back from the microphone – turns to share a few words with his drummer Austin Anthony. Anthony, at all of 14 years old, isn’t exactly your typical Flying Anvil performer.

But he finds himself onstage tonight by virtue of the kind of cosmic musical serendipity that so often fertilizes the Greensboro cultural scene. A tutor by day, Joncas met Anthony’s father Eric while playing acoustic guitar with some of his younger students and made an impression. The elder Anthony (also a guitarist) invited Joncas to jam with him, his son and keyboard player Tom Vincent. “Drank Like a River” was among several Whiskeytown songs the ensemble learned during their brief three-month existence.

Still, the multigenerational quartet might never have had the opportunity to line up across the big stage if it weren’t for another idiosyncrasy of Gate City rock ‘n’ roll – Joe Garrigan’s annual (sometimes semi-annual) Cover Band Explosion.

For 10 years the event, which brings together about a half dozen hastily assembled bands drawn from the ranks of Greensboro’s indie rock elite, has functioned as a sort of alterna-debutante ball. Seasoned performers team up with bedroom savants; lonely freshmen bond over obscure records; fathers introduce their sons to old favorites; and wallflowers pick up tambourines. It is a musical coming-out attended by plenty of rock ‘n’ roll back-patting, an unimpeded flow of cheap draft domestics, a measure of instrumental showboating and an abundance of theater.

The crowd is up to their elbows in all of that tonight when “Whiskeytown” finishes their set. The younger Anthony has little time to bask in the spotlight. Under the direction of sound guy Jeff Irving the transition between bands runs as efficiently as a military maneuver. Offstage come the electrical Hammond organ, Fender Twin Reverbs, boxed Telecasters and red-lacquered four-string. Members of the next group, the “Rolling Stones”, push on Marshall half-stacks, a pair of Gibson SGs and a towering bass cabinet. The drum kit is shared.

After a brief, bar-clogged interlude, the music starts back up.

“Ladies and gents, welcome to the breakfast show,” says guitarist Jeff Gredlein in fake cockney.

The band proceeds to rip into “Jumping Jack Flash.”

Joe Garrigan started hosting cover band shows when he ran the old-school Greensboro rock club the Onion Cellar in 1996. The venue occupied a slot on Grove Street in Glenwood between storefront churches, near streetcorners settled by drug dealers and crackheads.

It started informally as an excuse to party, pay homage to influential bands and sing along at the top of your lungs. There’s still a lot of that, but in addition to adding a spring installment this year, Garrigan has legitimized the endeavor by turning it into an engine for fundraising. Recipients of cover show funds have included the Guilford County Animal Shelter, Hurricane Katrina refugees, the Greensboro Food Bank and World Can’t Wait.

Members of the latter group, a left-wing political organization opposed to President Bush’s administration, are doing more than simply accepting the fruits of Garrigan’s labor. Tonight they set up a folding table inside the Flying Anvil and spread butcher paper on the floor; they’re painting World AIDS Day posters – red condoms captioned with the words “Wear It.”

The “Rolling Stones” are playing in the background, and after a few songs the protest sign makers have ditched their crafts session in favor of some serious booty shaking. Greensboro’s version of the Stones features a leaner lineup than their English counterpart: The foursome’s two guitarists, rhythmist Gredlein and lead Josh Wyrick, trade vocal duties.

“This is always a fun show to play because we get to come up here and pretend we’re idols and shit,” says Wyrick.

Unlike some of the other musicians, this version of the Stones sticks strictly to musical facsimile. Jeans stand in for leather low riders, and none resemble Mick Jagger’s Nancified sartorial sensibility.

The performance incites dervish-like devotion from the World Can’t Wait gang and, in a glimpse of Altamont, fits of crowd agitation. A visibly intoxicated audience member, gangly and heading past his prime, stumbles onstage during “Dead Flowers,” grabs Wyrick’s microphone and sings along. An empty Pabst Blue Ribbon can aimed at the interloper overshoots its mark and hits Wyrick in the chest.

Wyrick is unfazed, and the guest vocalist leaves the stage after a single verse. The lead guitarist, who usually plays in the local band Stickboy, delivers Keith Richards-worthy solos in spite of his onstage proclamations of drunkenness.

The two guitarists are cover show veterans. Wyrick fronted a Who cover band last year, in the same show Gredlein lent his talents to “REM”. By the time the “Rolling Stones” start their final song, “Brown Sugar,” they’ve been joined onstage by a dancing couple.

“Doing the Stones,” Gredlein says, “That was just fun.”

The fall 2006 installment of the Joe Garrigan Cover Band Explosion opened with a solo performance by Joel Shaw as Ben Folds. Hours before he started, Garrigan circulated through the Flying Anvil tacking schedules onto open wall space.

The lineup included regional cult favorites alongside platinum-minted acts:

Ben Folds 9 – 9:30

George Harrison 9:45 – 10:15

Whiskeytown 10:30 – 11:00

Rolling Stones 11:15 – 11:30

Velvet Underground 11:45 – 12:15

The Cure 12:30 – 1:00

Shaw settled on Ben Folds after his friends bailed on an Elvis Costello cover band project. Folds, the piano-playing pop sensation born in Winston-Salem, earned a healthy following in the 1990s before breaking big with the single “Brick.” Better known as a member of the group Ben Folds Five, the pianist has also released a number of solo albums.

Shaw has played piano for 27 years and takes the stage bathed in the warm glow of a single rose stage light. He sits behind an electric piano perpendicular to the crowd and runs through a set of Folds’ early material. Audience members chime in on the choruses of songs like “Kate” and “Jackson Cannery.”

“There have been many wrong notes played tonight,” Shaw says self-deprecatingly. “This last one will hopefully hide them.”

After “Ben Folds,” Garrigan’s brothers step onstage to resurrect George Harrison on the fifth anniversary of his death. Jay and Mike Garrigan (older and younger than Joe respectively) play tunes from the Beatles and Harrison’s solo era.

“I’m fine,” Joe says as he watches his brothers. “People are here. I think a lot more people are on the way.” It’s almost 10 p.m., and the line at the door is twenty couples deep.

Jay Garrigan places a stack of lyric sheets on his keyboard. During “Something in the Way she Moves” he rolls up onto the balls of his feet. A couple yards away Mike works a bank of foot pedals, leaning on the Wah during “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

The crowd is into the music, swaying and singing along in spite of the fact that it’s a rather somber opening to what is usually a raucous night. After the set the Garrigan brothers gather for a photograph. Joe, dressed nattily in an embroidered blue button-up, poses between his shaggy-haired older brother and similarly shave-headed younger brother.

Besides both being middle children, Joe and I also have in common a moment under the hot stage lights. In the fall of 2003, about a month after I moved from Greensboro to Carrboro, we played together in a Bruce Springsteen cover band.

That year the show happened at Ace’s Basement, a shady space wedged underneath an even shadier motel on High Point Road. Our “E Street Band” consisted of an unwieldy trio of guitarists, a saxophone player, the singer and the rhythm section – Joe and me.

By the time I arrived the rest of the band looked like they’d barely survived an acid-wash and bandana cluster bombing. I grumbled about getting into costume before grudgingly tying a scarf around my hair.

But that night was one of the highlights of my musical career. The crowd cheered, especially when our saxophone player Andrew Carlisle lit into a solo, and Joe and I managed to execute a particularly tough “Born to Run” breakdown in spite of a complete guitar section meltdown.

We headlined that show – I think – playing after “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” “Elvis Costello” and, in a self-referential fit, a deconstructed Kudzu Wish courtesy of electronic wunderkinds Mike Shepherd and Anthony Lowe.

The night was a shot in the arm, for sure, but at the time I was not aware that what I was participating in was a Greensboro institution. Although I’d been playing bass with Dawn Chorus for a year and a half, the cover show really represented an entry into the fold of rock music intelligentsia.

The best one-off cover bands often adhere to a formula. They mix one part influential artist (usually rock) with another of street cred and top the mixture with a liberal dash of popular appeal.

The first element is the easiest to isolate. But the last two often run at cross-purposes. Cover band participation often favors the aficionado, the fan with every B-side collection and European release. But the crowd demands anthems. What’s a band to do?

Five members of “the Cure” gathered in Garrigan’s house, a cottage-style number set toward the back of a lot off Wendover Avenue. Garrigan set up his drums at the far end of the living room, in front of the fireplace. The quintet, comprised of seasoned musicians from around the Triad, is still puzzling over whether to add a hit to their repertoire.

They’ve pulled generously from the band’s early discography, including a couple of songs from Pornography widely hailed by hardcore fans as the seminal 1980s Goth album.

Lee Wallace, a member of the now-defunct Taija Rae, is playing a muted Robert Smith, sitting on the couch and holding a broken microphone. Several of the band members are fighting colds; keyboardist Jamie Miyares pours a curative – spiced whiskey – from a Thermos. In their street clothes, mostly jeans and T-shirts, the band bears little physical resemblance to the notoriously black-clad Cure.

“I guess if we need to we could play ‘Just like Heaven,'” says bass player Diego Diaz. “That is the hit.”

They run through a set that includes “A Strange Day,” “Primary,” “The Hanging Garden,” “A Forest” and “All I Want.” The songs are dense, layered and dark. Miyares is still tweaking her keyboard settings and putting the finishing touches on the arrangement.

Diaz, a victim of driving bass lines, displays his bleeding wrist to the rest of the band – friction from the body of the bass has worked open a blister near his picking hand.

“I love that lyric ‘I want to hold you like a dog,'” someone says.

We’re gonna have a real good time together

We’re gonna have a real good time together

We’re gonna have a real good time together

We’re gonna dance and bawl and shout together

Members of local band Health have traded their usual slackerish attire for the midnight hues and indoor shades of Warhol Factory icons the Velvet Underground. Lead singer Jonathan Moore is channeling Lou Reed and Anna Murray as Nico donned a long blonde wig to cover her usual black tresses.

The drunk who sang along with the “Rolling Stones” sits with his beer on the side of the stage. He nods off during the second song, “White Light, White Heat.” The Velvets, who never got their due during their brief late sixties existence, are getting it now.

Oh’… I’m beginning to see the liiiight

Fans soaked in beer or sweat shout along. Fists pump during the rock songs; shoulders sway in the ballads. “Pale Blue Eyes” fades out and the band, sparing few words, starts “What Goes On.”

“Jonathan Moore is Greensboro’s Lou Reed!”

And Murray is its Nico. For the final song she emerges from behind her keyboard, dressed in white knee socks, short-sleeve blouse and herringbone pencil skirt. She stands stiffly in front of the microphone, just like the notoriously aloof model-turned-singer would have, and breathes the lyrics.

A blackened shroud, a hand-me-down gown

Of rags and silks, a costume

Fit for one who sits and cries

For all tomorrow’s parties

Tales of sadness and tears are, of course, an improbably appropriate lead-in to tonight’s headliner, “the Cure.”

Guitarist Jason Kennedy, Wallace and Diaz ready themselves backstage with plastic cups of amber liquid. This time the liquor is not consumed for its curative powers.

Wallace, his hair molded into the high, arching spikes his character Robert Smith made de rigueur for a generation of Goth kids, has lined his eyes and, in startling attention to detail, even painted his fingernails black.

The rest of the band is dressed head-to-toe in black, too. Even Garrigan, known for drumming shirtless, wears a black tank top for the occasion.

In the end, the band gears their set toward the serious Cure fan. After opening with “Pornography,” they offer only one real pop song: “In Between Days.”

In the middle of their set Wallace brings out a silver tray set with a decanter and a bottle of suspiciously green liquid. He sets a sugar cube on a slotted spoon over the pitcher, fills it part way with the absinthe, then finishes it with ice water. The cocktail glows an incandescent green as Wallace pours it into a chalice and sips.

Kennedy follows, and then passes the drink around the stage. An eager fan pushes her way to the edge of the stage, takes a swig and runs outside to light a cigarette.

“Is everybody happy?” Wallace sneers. “Is anyone extremely sad?”

Reverb coats his voice and his hair, melted under the stage lights, sticks to his forehead.

Tonight I’m screaming like an animal

Tonight I’m losing control

Each cover band show permits a momentary public glimpse into the collective mind of the Greensboro rock community. The Minutemen, New Order, Spinal Tap, the Replacements and Minor Threat are just a handful of the dozens of bands glimpsed over the years swimming in that hypothetical gray matter.

As they’ve moved from the Onion Cellar to Ace’s Basement, Greene Street and the Flying Anvil, so too traveled the spiritual center of the scene. Each installment combines the past, present and future of original music in this town, and then nods to its philosophical predecessors. It’s a chance to experiment with a little inter-band, even inter-scene alchemy.

“It’s a chance to learn other people’s music and grow as a musician,” Garrigan says.

Bands reconnect with their influences and often bring what they’ve learned back to their regular bands.

But it’s also about the party. And despite Wallace’s best efforts, the crowd looks anything but glum when he unleashes the final lyrics in “All I Want.”

And all I want is to be with you again

And all I want is to hold you like a dog

It’s past two and the house lights ignite. People drop empty bottles into trashcans and stagger out the door. Cricket, the bartender, wipes down the tables and sets stools on top while a large group at the pool table, oblivious to the lights, racks up and sets the cue ball.

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