High Plains Drifters
Asheville musician Joshua Phillips, shown here, and fellow musicians Philo Reitzel, Elijah Cramer, Casey Cramer, Oso Rey, and Patrick Armitage have a popular Beastie Boys tribute band called High Plains Drifters. They’ll be playing at the Salvage Station on Friday./ photo by Katherine Powell via High Plains Drifters

Take a quick gander at Clubland or Asheville Music Guide and you will probably notice a trend. Bands with names like Dirty Dead, Dirty Logic, High Plains Drifters, Phuncle Sam, Yellow Submarine and others seem to be filling the headlining slots at venues across town.

While the concept of “tribute” or “cover” bands (we will distinguish between these later) is nothing new, interest in these acts around Asheville remains high, leaving many fans of original, live music wondering what exactly happened.

The reality is that in a world that is inundated and oversaturated with “the next big thing,” it’s difficult to make the deep connections with music that many of us made as children. Nostalgia is real, and as much fun as it is to hear some prodigy like Taz Niederhaur or Billy Strings, many of us, when given the choice, would rather listen something we can sing along to.

But how does this affect the music scene as a whole? When nearly 45 percent of the bands playing in Asheville are official tribute or cover bands on a given weekend, what does this mean for the original musicians trying to make it in what is already a tough industry? Are we playing into the Boomer-brewery-tourist vibe of the town at the expense of some of our best talent?

Nuance is beautiful and infuriating. Spoiler alert: there is no clear line in the sand. Like everything else in this whole wide world the answers to the above questions are all written in varying shades of grey. Still, this piece will try to take a moment to present the pros and cons, and, at the very least, force those on both sides of the aisle to think about it from a different perspective.

What is a “Tribute” or “Cover” Band?

Tribute bands and cover bands, while similar in nature are actually categorized as two separate entities. The most basic difference between the two is that cover bands simply play the music of the band they are emulating, while tribute bands also try to create the look and feel of the band whose music they are playing.

For instance, for a nationally touring tribute such as Yellow Submarine, the musicians in the band not only play The Beatle’s music, but they also dress like, look like, and gear up like the original thing. Wigs and costumes are key, as well as finding instruments and amps that match what the original band would have had on stage with them.

Cover bands are less theatrical, choosing to perform the songs of another band without actually going to the lengths of looking like or attempting to sound exactly like the band they are covering. The musicians have more freedom to take chances and to make the songs their own and the final product is often more about the community it brings together than the music itself.

Either way though, cover or tribute, the demand is growing. A solid tribute band such as Jumping Jack Flash out of southern California can sell between 5,000 and 20,000 tickets a night touring year round, and all of the numbers point to this trend continuing to grow. So why are so many musicians putting their hard creative work into playing other’s music? There is no single answer to that question, but you know what they say, the quickest way to get to the bottom of something is to follow the money.

Money, Money, Money

I’m a journalist. I’m a poet. I cover live events and interview doers and tell stories that allow others to learn about or experience something they couldn’t be at in the first person. Of course, it’s not like writing concert reviews is paying all of the bills. I recently spent an hour writing a website description for a locksmith company and  edited a crappy, “scholarly” take on the corn industry.

Of course, I could just work a restaurant job and make that money there, but if the choice is flipping burgers or using my words it seems like an easy decision.

So what does this have to do with cover bands in Asheville and the price of sushi in Tokyo? The fact is that original bands with big-time intentions can’t play in town every week. That just isn’t a sustainable business model. But that doesn’t mean those musicians want to supplement their income with desk jobs.

For artists like Joshua Phillips (High Plains Drifters, Josh Phillips Feel Good, formerly of Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band) this leads to the inevitability that you can make money on your off nights by playing your favorite songs with your best friends.

“I think the people that are musicians in this town, they just want to be playing music,” Phillips says. “Look at Patrick (Armitage), he is in like four or five bands and doesn’t care if it’s cover or original. He just wants to play.”

Even for musicians who don’t have full time original bands, cover and tribute gigs can represent a lucrative (by musician standards) way to play out on a regular basis.

“You don’t have to be a writer to be a musician,” Jessie Barry (Jessie Barry and the Jam, Dirty Logic) explains. “Creativity can come from all sorts of inspirations.”

Still, while some musicians embrace the opportunity to make more money playing their hero’s music, others are not so sure.

“I love to throw one or two covers into my original sets,” a well-known musician from Asheville told me on the condition of anonymity as he did not want to upset his friends in the community, “but even pulling together one or two covers with my band always feels like it takes time away from doing something original. I’ve been approached by several friends about joining their cover projects, but at the end of the day I would rather spend that time working on my original music, and I wish the venues in town had the same priorities when it came to booking.”

Which raises an interesting point. With so many songwriters and original musicians in WNC, how does it affect their ability to make a living when original music becomes hit or miss and cover bands are selling out venues across town? Are the original artists who use cover work as a stop-gap or income-enhancement actively writing their own epitaphs for original music in Asheville? Or are they just following market trends and making savvy choices that allow them to pay their bills? Peggy Ratusz, whose contributions to the WNC music scene have spanned decades, explained it to me this way.

“I used to live in Austin, and even when I left in 2002, if you were in a cover band, no one would talk to you. I wanted to buy a house and have an investment and I wasn’t a terrific writer back then.”

The thing of it is, at it’s very most basic status, music is music. If you can shake your hips and have a good time, then it’s working the way it’s supposed to. What does it matter whether someone is playing the same songs over and over again or writing new things?

Innovation or Imitation?

While putting this piece together I had the privilege of spending a little time chatting with Toubab Krewe’s Justin Perkins. While not all of the conversation was fit for print due to the utter transparency and honesty with which he carries himself, he provided a bit of a different take.

“I have nothing but love and respect for everybody that plays, but it’s beyond me to think that as an artist you would devote all of your time to playing somebody else’s music,” Perkins delineates.

“It basically boils down to innovation versus imitation. And to be fair, at the end of the day, if you are having a good time, if it makes you happy, then voila. But again, as an artist why are your trying to recreate some shit that has already been done and is done better than you’re gonna do it?”

He raises an interesting question. In a town like Asheville that prides itself on being on the cutting edge, is this cover band craze giving in to our less cultured selves? Does Asheville really want to be known as a town for breweries and tribute acts, or is it trying to be something else altogether? Is the music scene going to cater to tourism and easy interaction like the rest of the town is, or is there a way it can stand alone in continued creativity?

It’s hard to peg any cover band, no matter how talented, well-rehearsed, or engaging, as innovators versus imitators. Not that imitation is, in itself, a bad thing. I’ve typed poems and stories and novels written by my favorite authors, just to see how it felt rolling off the tip of my fingers. Still, no number of Grateful Dead or Steely Dan or Radiohead tributes is going to break any new ground sonically. For that you need new music.

What is Art? 

“Spotify has taken away my ability to develop relationships with bands. Rather, it allows me to develop a relationship with genres,” Patrick Armitage of Dirty Logic and High Plains Drifters (and formerly of two extremely original bands, Jon Stickley Trio and Atmosphere) tells me.

“I do the same thing with my phone every time, like, this song is really cool now let me go to radio and listen to 50 other bands that sound exactly the same as this. You used to be on a road trip with a new CD listening to it over and over and over, but now I have so many choices that it’s impossible to fall in love.”

“You can print this if you want,” Armitage half-chuckles, half-hesitates over the other end of the line.

“I do think it (the cover scene) is taking away from the amount of good, awesome, creative stuff that is coming out, but how much creativity is coming out because of it? How many bands in this town are rehearsing and creating something badass? And the bands that are doing that, people are going to see them so, maybe I’m not sure there is enough really awesome original music. When I was in Minneapolis I could play west, then south side, the uptown and actually do original music every week, but Asheville is a small town. You don’t want to overextend yourself, but if you play in a Dead cover band you can play every week and people will come out to see it.”

From Free Dead Friday to the Ton Of Hay, he has a point. There is money to be made and music to be played in the cover scene, and there are, perhaps, not enough original talents in this town to fill all of the venues.

On the other hand though, there are nights where Dirty Dead, Phuncle Sam, JGBCB, Grass is Dead, and other Grateful cover bands all play on the same night. There are nights where literally all of the best stages in town are taken up with bands playing someone else’s music.

The society we live in has trained us to have a knee-jerk reaction to everything. To condemn or condone, to give or take. Perhaps the baseline for all of this is for Asheville to stand behind the belief systems that we so proudly and vocally espouse. To say that art is art, and we are a town that supports the arts, and we are a town that doesn’t judge what kind of art you like or what kind of music you listen to or what kind of sex you like to have To say we aren’t going to judge you for wanting to hear some Allman Brothers tunes with your friends on a Friday night. To say come here, be safe, have fun.

Jessie Barry summed it up far better than I could however, when she told me:

“Asheville as a town is just a bunch of people trying to get by. I don’t see music in this town as a competition, and I never have. There are enough people to appreciate it all.”

The High Plains Drifters w/ JBOT and Bowie play Friday at Salvage Station.

Dirty Logic – A Steely Dan Tribute at Ambrose West in West Asheville is set for June 14. Dirty Logic’s all-star cast of characters features members of national and regional acts such as: Yo Mama’s Big Fat Booty Band, Empire Strikes Brass, Grammy Award Winning Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, The Travers Brothership, The Business, Jesse Barry and the Jam and more.

Second Take – Roberta Flack Retrospective at Ambrose West in West Asheville is set for June 20. It will feature local musicians including Kendra Penland, Derrick Johnson, Patrick Armitage, Caromia Tiller, Marisa Blake and more.

Caleb Calhoun is an author, poet and journalist who resides in West Asheville with his mermaid Dr. Gonzo and a calvacade of problematic roommates. You can reach him at Caleb.Calhoun@gmail.com.

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