In a 2004 interview, independent film icon and director Jim Jarmusch offered an interesting take on the role of inspiration in the creative process, maintaining that “[n]othing is original” before urging creators of all stripes to “[s]teal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination.” After listing all of the many places to steal inspiration from (books, architecture, even clouds), he finishes his impassioned plea with a caution (“select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul”) before condensing his view on the link between inspiration and creativity into a pithy, almost slogan-worthy mantra: “if you do [steal from works that speak to your soul], your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.”
Whether you agree with the particulars of Mr. Jarmusch’s philosophy, the essence of his idea seems to influence much of modern music. Case in point: sampling. In the 80’s, Afrika Bambaataa took a pair of Kraftwerk songs and used the past to create futuristic sounds. In the year 2000, the Avalanches created an entire (incredible) album almost exclusively out of samples, and the practice has been a fundamental pillar of the work by the Louis Vuitton Don himself, Kanye West.
Cover songs also illustrate this point nicely (albeit in a sort “on-the-nose” kind of way). An artist finds something that speaks to them in the work of another, something they identify with, something that inspires them. They start playing it and eventually make it their own. This process of admiration and transformation has long been common in roots and jazz/Black American Music and now is an accepted practice in many, if not most genres. The appeal of covers is pretty intuitive: audience’s often want to hear “the hits” and musicians enjoy playing the songs that inspire them. On a deeper level, the process of covering someone else’s work epitomizes how we learn and grow: an artist discovers a song, they figure out how to imitate it and eventually, after some blood, sweat and tears, they make it their own. We learn through emulation and are, in part, that which influences us. The process of covering a song allows an artist to trace the lineage of their creative process, to honor that which inspires them to create and to (re)live the joy that got them started (or maybe sustained them) down the path of creation.
In this way, the 28th Annual Great Cover Up is a celebration not just of music but of learning and growth, of creativity and the vital role that inspiration plays in the creative process. And on a human level, it shines a bright light on the vibrant music scene in our community and all the incredible musicians from Champaign-Urbana who uses their gifts to bring the rest of us joy through song and dance.
The idea behind the Great Cover Up is damn near genius. Each night (this year, there are five nights of shows), a lineup of seven local bands perform short, 20-30 minute sets of songs that cover the work of another artist. Upon arrival, the audience is “in the dark” as to which bands will be covered and, as such, each performance begins with a surprise reveal. Each night, palpably enthusiastic performers (often in costumed in homage to their artists they’re covering) play their hearts out in front of friends, family, fans, other bands and those in the C-U community who have been to one of the previous iterations of this great event (because attendance at one night of the Great Cover Up is usually all it takes to reel you back in again.
The Data Waves as Grover Washington Jr.
This year, the first night of shows kicked off with a grooving performance by local instrumental funk group, the Data Waves who covered the soul-jazz compositions of Grover Washington Jr. Kevin King’s wailing, tenor sax stylings set the tone for a high energy evening and the infectious smiles that spread across the group’s faces as they nodded along with their rendition of “Just The Two if Us” welcomed the audience and invited them to kick back, relax and enjoy the show. Next, the group Mid-October (performing on short notice due to a last minute change in line-up) brought it back to the turn of the century with an earnest performance of hits by Matchbox Twenty, transporting me back to the sweet awkwardness of dances in my high school gym.
Mid-October as Matchbox Twenty
After a quick set break, a group of bearded, beer swilling men decked out in flannel, jeans and cowboy hats took the stage. In the bright light, the lead singer looked a little like that raw-voiced, Texas legend, Townes Van Zandt. And sure enough, the group, Neoga Blacksmith, took the crowd through a short anthology of wry and melancholic tracks by the folk and country legend. With twangy telecaster and sweetly wheezing accordion accompanying the plaintive vocals on songs like, “For the Sake of the Song”, their performance left the audience to nurse their drinks and ponder the mysteries of life and love.
Neoga Blacksmith as Townes Van Zandt
This contemplative pause lasted all of a set break before Dearie took the stage and blasted through a high energy set of songs by Chicago alt-rockers, Veruca Salt. Electric vocals, pulsing basslines, and visceral drumming on songs like “Volcano Girls” drew in and invigorated the crowd, garnered raucous applause and left the next band with some mighty loud shoes to fill. Thankfully, Grand Ambassador were up to the challenge (and then some!) with their set of tunes by Irish rockers, Thin Lizzy. Their performance was a masterpiece of face-melting guitar shredding and 70s-inspired, hirsute machismo. Visibly enjoying themselves as they fed off the audience energy like rock gods, their rendition of “The Boys Are Back in Town” brought down the house. Almost literally: there was smoke hanging in the rafters, ears were ringing and the audience was beside themselves screaming... but for joy! This was a rare instance of seriously good musicians seriously enjoying themselves.
Airacobra as Lyndyrd Skynyrd
The first night ended with two more high energy performances. Self-described “Luciferian rock n’rollers” Airacobra treated us to a set of classic Lynryd Skynrd tunes, including (of-course-but-also-thank-you) a frantic take on “Freebird” and a laid back performance of “Tuesday’s Gone” during which the lead singer took a break from swaggering and sauntering, called his girlfriend up on stage, got down on one knee and proposed (!). She said yes and the crowd cheered on their brand new engagement.
To close the evening, local rapper Truth AKA Trouble absolutely crushed a set of Ludacris classics like “Southern Hospitality” and “Roll Out”, channeling his inner Chris Bridges to get a crowd that had witnessed over four hours of music up on its feet to dance, sing and end the night with fluid merrymaking.
Truth aka Trouble as Ludacris
Kittens Incorporated as the Go-Go's
Needless to say, night two had a hard act to follow. Thankfully, the bands on the bill were not to be outdone. Saturday’s show kicked off with the New Wave pop of Kittens Incorporated’s take on The Go-Go’s, an upbeat performance complete with popped collars and side ponytails. Soulful harmonies and powerful drumming defined a set of Toto classics (including a cover of “Africa” so good that it "would make Weezer Cry”) as interpreted by Ryan Byfield & Nuclei.
Ryan Byfield and Nuclei as Toto
Boneyard Brass Band as Here Come The Mummies
A special highlight of the night (and of the shows through the first weekend) was the Boneyard Brass Band’s take on Here Come the Mummies. Though wrapped from head-to-toe in gauze, this nine person parade exuded bonhomie and made the proposition of dancing all but irresistible. I am sucker for a horn section, especially one that replaces a bass with a tuba and I will admit that, just like Betsy Ross, this performance had me letting my freak flag fly.
Chase Baby as Mac Miller
Local MC Chase Baby, wearing a “Self Care” hoodie and sunglasses, invoked rapper Mac Miller with a skillful tribute to the late musician’s body of work. From the Ellington and Coltrane infused “Diablo” to the swelling strings and vulnerability of “2009”, Chase Baby brought truth and love to the memory of the gone-too-soon Miller. After another set break, this one feeling almost like a respectful pause, DeShawnMusic, covering Bell Biv Devoe, brought the audience back from contemplation to revelry, charming the crowd with roses, synchronized dance moves and an absolutely bonkers cover of “Poison” that brought people running in droves to the dance floor.
DeShawnMusic as Bell Biv Devoe
Night two ended with two very different performances. C-U scene veteran and recently elected county board member Mike Ingram channeled his inner “Boss” and bared a little bit of his soul in a stripped down set of mostly solo acoustic Springsteen covers. Thankfully, Mr. Ingram doesn’t need much more than a guitar and a mic to enliven a room. Of special note was his cover of “Born in the U.S.A.” during which he was joined on stage by a wide swath of C-U community members who, while dancing and singing along, illustrated just how diverse this community of ours actually is. Music as political advocacy that unites. It was unexpected but did not feel forced and underscored the power of art to bring us together (in this case, behind a message of peace, solidarity and mutual understanding).
Mike Ingram as Bruce Springsteen
To cap off night two, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Los Guapos featuring Brandon T. Washington delivered a commanding performance of Talking Heads tunes. It was all rhythm, synths and Mr. Washington’s effervescent joie de vivre as they covered classics like “Pyscho Killer” and “Girlfriend is Better”. While the crowd needed no reason greater than Los Guapos pulsing beats to get up and dance, the lead singer’s capable impressions of David Byrne’s idiosyncratic dance all but ensured that even the weariest among the crowd lacked an excuse powerful enough not to get up and dance.
Los Guapos feat. Brandon T Washington as Talking Heads
Just in case you weren’t keeping track, in two nights at the Great Cover Up, I saw 14 different local bands capably (in some cases, expertly) cover the music of 14 iconic groups. In one night, I heard Townes Van Zandt and Ludacris. During the next, Here Come the Mummies and Talking Heads. This is not an event to be taken for granted, so I implore anyone reading this to go check out one of the final three nights of this year’s Cover Up.
If you like good music and want to see and support local bands and the vibrant local music scene here in C-U, go to one of the final three shows of this year’s installment of the Great Cover Up. If you like living in Champaign-Urbana and want to support the community by donating money to good causes such as the C-U One-To-One Mentoring program, the Matthew C. Farrell Memorial (scholarship) Fund, and the Urbana Middle School Bands program, come to one of the final three shows of this year’s Great Cover Up (the proceeds benefit these programs). If you want to have a fun night out with friends, come to one of the final three shows of this year’s Great Cover Up. Come out and be part of something that unites our community and is somehow able to showcase the individual strengths of our more musically inclined members while also illustrating that together we are more than the sum of our parts.
The Great Cover Up continues this coming weekend, February 15th, 16th, and 17th, at the City Center in Champaign. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased via the City Center website as well as at the door.
All photos by Eric Frahm