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Under the Covers

SLC musicians' album tributes

By Austen Diamond
Posted // February 2,2012 -

After countless listens, I know “Loving Cup” inside and out; I love that song. But hearing it on the radio while driving or seeing a band do a rendition amid their set is far from the real Rolling Stones deal. Hell, the real deal wouldn’t even be the real deal, because the song is—for a lover of albums—out of context when not wedged between “Sweet Black Angel” and “Happy” within the masterpiece Exile on Main St.

That’s why hearing that song, and sharing the experience with someone, while a band—albeit not the Rolling Stones—covered the album at the KRCL Polar Jubilee in December 2011 was such a meaningful musical moment. The idea of a collective of local musicians and friends convening to cover a classic album is certainly not a new one, but outside of three special collaborations from late 2010 through December 2011, it seems a fairly foreign notion in Salt Lake City.

The idea for this article began as an opinion piece, a kind of call to action: Guitar players, go practice your licks to play Paranoid, and singers, raise your gravelly croon to cover Springsteen’s Born to Run ... the people have spoken, we want this. But it’s not that simple, obviously.

I’m certainly not trying to elicit an ’80s-theme party band or a crop of wedding singers—there are enough of those—but for talented groups of local musicians to come together for a limited engagement to cover a classic album.

“It’s celebrating our musical past, but it’s doing it in a way that engages the local music community. It’s a creative union,” says Dan Thomas, the leader of the 10-piece “supergroup” that covered The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars at the Polar Jubilee. The other band that evening, the Exile project, was led by Greg Midgley, part of local rock stalwarts The Rubes. The third band in this album-cover vein was the Abbey Road Show, led by Paul Jacobsen with a cast of mainly Utah County musicians who played the classic Beatles’ album Abbey Road at Provo’s Rooftop Concert Series during the summer.

The idea of covering an album, rather than hosting a tribute, is enticing, “especially in this era of singles,” Thomas says. “We’re old enough to say we grew up in the era of the album. Part of that is celebrating the album as a commodity and as a piece of art.”

“I’m kind of a record nerd. Focusing things around the concept of an album is a more appealing idea,” Midgley says, adding that he’d potentially be interested in covering The Stooges’ Fun House, Love’s Forever Changes, or something by the Flying Burrito Brothers down the road. And Thomas would love to do The Clash’s London Calling, anything by The Pixies or Dr. Dre’s classic The Chronic. Jacobsen, however, is content with just the one, possibly his favorite album of all time.

“My entire life, I thought about how cool it would be to run Abbey Road down. At that point, I finally had enough talented friends that we could pull it off,” Jacobsen says.

None of the three would have wanted to try the album unless it was going to be an artistic and creative rendition of the original. None of the three cared to be a jukebox, playing songs just so people can sing along. They all wanted to create an experience—for the audience, as well as for themselves.

“The two hurdles in doing something like this are that it’s hard and, usually, the final result is lame when you are working with the ultimate classics,” Thomas says. “When I hear a band play Led Zeppelin, they just never do it justice.

“You wonder what the real motives were,” Thomas adds. “That’s what makes it even cooler when you pull it off. There’s a precedence. It’s that much more rewarding.”

And getting to that point where it isn’t lame is the biggest obstacle and, possibly, why these occasions are so rare. Jacobsen says he spent more time rehearsing for the Abbey Road show in two months than he spends with his band, Paul Jacobsen & the Madison Arm, in a given year.

“It feels like it’s worth it to do a one-time special thing,” Thomas says. “To do something like this regularly would be a part-time job.”

“It’s more a labor of love,” Midgley says.

And there is a fine line between loving it and loving it long-term. There’s something magical in knowing it’s a limited engagement—for both the audience and the musicians—although it would be alluring to have more “limited engagements” periodically around town.

But since it’s so much effort for bands to fully immerse themselves into a body of work, to wrangle 10-plus musicians to rehearsal and then play one to a few gigs, what is the payoff?

“For once, I got to be that guy on the stage,” Jacobsen says. “I got to experience a tiny molecule of what Paul McCartney feels every night.

“I’m hoping to have more experiences with my own music like with the Abbey Road Show. I don’t feel like my music is any lesser ... I am a bigger Beatles fan than a Paul Jacobson fan,” Jacobsen adds with a laugh.

For Thomas, it was about delving into the historical context of David Bowie circa Spiders from Mars. “That was so much fun. Especially with an artist like Bowie, who would change his persona each year. It’s this very specific moment in his career,” he says, adding that it was also a special exercise as a player to learn someone else’s material thoroughly.

Which brings up the point of originality versus authenticity. Do you create a faithful production, or do you allow yourself artistic freedom with a classic album, one that many people will know note for note?

“In the artistic world, there’s a lot of stress on originality,” Jacobsen says. “If you get right down to it, there aren’t a ton of truly original musicians ... maybe Bjork. Authenticity is what matters. That’s one thing we stressed. We realized we couldn’t be perfect with every guitar tone and every note. We were trying to make it as musically close as we could.”

“When you’re 22, it’s all about originality,” Thomas says. “There’s this phobia in covering songs. The older you get, there’s this nostalgia kicking in. It seems like, for me, it’s changing with age, that this becomes more acceptable, enjoyable even. “

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