That is, until "The Great Cover Up."
Three years ago Kings Barcade, a Raleigh nightclub just six months into its inaugural year, hatched the idea to let local bands cover songs from their favorite acts--in effect, becoming that band for the evening.
Musician Paul Siler, part of the trinity of owners that includes The Ashley Stove's Ben Barwick and former Polvo bassist Steve Popson, saw a similar show ("somewhere in the Midwest," adds Barwick) while on tour with his band, The Cherry Valence, and decided to adapt the concept for Kings.
Since the trio's whole reason d'être for opening Kings was to create a venue that was musician friendly--a place for rockers to both play shows and hang out--they had a huge pool of musician pals to call on when they decided to launch the cover band idea locally.
The first Great Cover Up was only a two-day event, but by the second year, due to massive interest in the project, they annexed a third day. "We had so many bands that wanted to do it. Plus, it was so much fun," says Barwick.
The kicker to the whole event is that who the bands are going to cover is a mystery right up to the moment they step onstage--often in costume. When Siler showed up the first year wearing a black turtleneck and looking like some guy from The Mod Squad, it was anybody's guess as to who The Cherry Valence were portraying: Devo, as it turned out. If you're not familiar with Estrus recording artists The Cherry Valence's m.o., they're a rock 'n' roll party band like no other. With two drummers (both whom sing) and an arsenal of tunes that conjure up everything from James Brown and Motley Crue to Queen and Judas Priest, it was stupefying to see them adopt the shtick of a quirky new wave band from Ohio.
"That was a surprise to me," says Barwick of the Valence's set. "They're such a good band you know they will bring the rock. But Devo? I mean, I really like Devo, and I thought they slam-dunked it."
And there's plenty more where that came from, as far as jaw-dropping (now legendary) Cover Up performances:
Cy Rawls, musician and sometime local music critic, recalls seeing Bucks Deluxe as Lynyrd Skynyrd--" ... mercifully conducted without any Rebel flags on stage."
Brian Walsby, cartoonist and drummer to many over the years--including The Patty Duke Syndrome, Willard, Polvo and Daddy--points to Olympus Mons' set of early Gary Numan songs and The White Octave doing The Replacements as past highlights. "Maybe it wasn't the most original choice," says Walsby of The White Octave's Replacements set. "But they pulled it off--a shambling set that featured the dude from White Octave in a dress, a la [The 'Mats eccentric guitarist] Bob Stinson."
Both Rawls and Walsby themselves have participated in The Great Cover Up: Rawls as a blood-drenched Glenn Danzig during last year's event and Walsby playing Wipers' songs ("The Wipers are gods, in my opinion," he says) as the opening act of the first Great Cover Up.
Rawls' participation was more unique. He vehemently dispels the notion that the event is a chance to fantasize about being someone else--a concern voiced by many folks who've seen "tribute" bands over the years. "It was serendipity," says Rawls, who hadn't planned on taking part in the event until he received an unexpected phone call from the band Analogue II, only weeks before the event.
"I received a voice-mail message asking me to show up and practice," says Rawls. "I knew without even asking that they wanted to play Danzig songs."
Barwick's own outfit, indie popsters The Ashley Stove (the Matt Brown lineup), has tackled British Invasion-era Kinks, as well as walking in the shoes of seminal L.A. cowpunk band X. (Barwick says his wife Jennifer, also the Ashley Stove's bassist, "does a mean Exene.")
The bottom line is that if you want to know who does what, covers-wise, you have to show up and witness The Great Cover Up firsthand.
"At first I was skeptical about the bands keeping who they cover a secret," says Barwick. "But pretty much every band is good, so it's more fun to just go and be surprised," he adds, revealing his music-fan side.
"We try to make the lineup interesting every night, so you can't just go one day, you know? You might miss The Who or somebody!"