When Cosmic Charlie played its first Grateful Dead cover show at the Georgia Theatre in July 1999, the band members never intended to play a second. On Aug. 1, they’ll be back on the same stage to celebrate 15 years and more than 500 shows. Not to mention, it’s Jerry Garcia’s birthday.
“It’s kind of a big mile marker for us,” says guitarist Michael Wegner. “To still be around… is pretty epic. I can remember looking out from the stage that first night, seeing how much the audience was enjoying themselves and realizing that this one-off project was clearly going to have to happen again.”
Cosmic Charlie has played about 30 shows at the Theatre over the years, paving the way for other jam bands. Putting a unique twist on the Dead catalogue, the group bills itself as the “cover band for folks who are ambivalent about Dead cover bands.”
Instead of mimicking Garcia’s crew exactly, Cosmic Charlie taps into the original group’s energy and style to build an updated show with dueling drum solos and freight-train momentum. It makes for a “healthy balance” of creativity and tradition, Wegner says.
“We were all individually into a lot of different kinds of music” when forming the group in 1999, he says. “But the Grateful Dead was something we were all influenced by, especially in our younger years when we were learning to play.”
Playing Dead music is good practice. With so many songs in the Dead repertoire, Cosmic Charlie constantly changes up the shows. In fact, the band doesn’t actually use setlists.
“At most shows, we don't even know what song we're going to start with until we're all out on stage and decide in that moment,” Wegner says. “If we play three shows over a long weekend, we probably won't repeat a song even once—that's eight to nine hours of music without repeating songs—so that [it] doesn't get old.”
For the Love of Music
Cosmic Charlie's members have no problem playing someone else’s music. It’s great to play your own songs, they say, but it’s simply enjoyable to play others’ as well.
“It's been happening for centuries. Beethoven, Mozart—you don't call the Atlanta Symphony a cover band,” says Wegner, who also plays keyboard, guitar and clarinet for local Beatles cover band Abbey Road Live, which toured the West Coast this summer. “Plus, with Dead music, there's so much improvisation and jamming that we all get a pretty creative rush.”
When both crowd and band are happy, it doesn’t matter who wrote the songs. In fact, for both parties, it can be “musical comfort food,” says Nicholas Niespodziani, lead singer for Yacht Rock Revue, a 1970s light-rock tribute band based in Atlanta.
“People love to escape into songs they know by heart,” he says. “There is a time and place to be intellectually and emotionally challenged by music, and there is a time and a place to let it whisk you away to a simpler and happier time.”
Plainly put, people enjoy the familiar. But perhaps more importantly, they fear change, says Gene Woolfolk, guitarist for Athens-based Nirvana cover band Nairvana.
“I go to Cali N Tito's and always get the chorizo and egg cubano," he says. "Not that everything on the menu isn't delicious, but I might not like it, and it could totally ruin my dining experience. It's subjective to taste, I reckon.”
Playing cover songs involves being both comfortable and uncomfortable at times. To stay engaged, Yacht Rock Revue continually learns new tunes within a “loose boundary” of source material.
Beethoven, Mozart—you don't call the Atlanta Symphony a cover band.
“If we only covered one band, it would be more difficult to keep it fresh, with the finite number of tunes available,” Niespodziani says. “But even with songs we've played hundreds of times, we all find ways to insert musical jokes or improvise.”
It doesn’t hurt to like the band you’re playing, either, Woolfolk adds. “I enjoy every Nirvana song, whether I'm playing them or not,” he says. “They are all imprinted into the back of my brain. No matter the setlist, I enjoy the awkwardly uncomfortable release.”
For the Money
Let’s not forget the financial plus to playing so-called "musical comfort food": Money is the prime reason many cover bands form in the first place. Woolfolk says he first thought about forming a Nirvana cover band five years ago, but it wasn’t until last year that he considered it again. It popped into his mind as a way to help fund his original project, The Powder Room.
“As far as covering songs goes, I've never really enjoyed it, but I have always enjoyed getting paid,” he says with frankness. “If I can exploit other people's music and make a small coin off it, I'll take it.”
Making music full-time requires creativity as an entrepreneur, not just artistically, Niespodziani says. When Yacht Rock Revue started making decent money, he says his younger self whispered, “Kurt Cobain would never do this.” But then Niespodziani reminded himself that Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell was once on the cover of GQ magazine.
“The concept of selling out has become so passé, it's not really something anyone worries about anymore,” he says. “The real sell-out would have been to ditch all of the years I had spent building these musical skills to become an attorney—which I almost did.”
Being part of Yacht Rock Revue has allowed Niespodziani to build a studio to record music for various projects, including his band Indianapolis Jones, which just put out an EP. “Playing covers for a living has given me the resources to make that music and more time to write songs than I ever had when I was a secretary or golf caddie or SAT tutor,” he says.
Still, Wegner, at least, sometimes wishes he had more time to work on his own music. “The inspiration is there, but there's not a lot of time for it,” he says. “I’m trying to finish up a new album that I started recording over two years ago.”
As long as the demand is there, the cover shows will continue, and Wegner is looking forward to making the upcoming Theatre set one of the best yet. The group has invited some special guests to join the performance, including some who have played with the band over the years.
“You gotta take the good with the bad,” Wegner says. “But the Dead will always be the original jam band—the granddaddy of them all. I think they will always be loved and respected for that.”
WHO: Cosmic Charlie
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Friday, Aug. 1, 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $10