Thursday, February 04, 2016

Bill Cochran interview: Great Moments in Vinyl

Bill Cochran has been one of the great radio production voices in Chicago for decades (WXRT, WNUA), but he is also the leader of Great Moments in Vinyl. It's a unique project to say the least. He and his band perform great albums from rock history from beginning to end. On Tuesday night February 23rd, they are performing Tom Petty's "Damn the Torpedoes" and "Full Moon Fever" at Martrys in Chicago. (Ticket information below). Last night I got a chance to chat with him about the band and the show...

Tell the story of how you came up with the idea for this project.

Bill: Great Moments in Vinyl is the culmination of a lot of things. The earliest origins can be traced to my passion for music pure and simple. I’ve been listening to music in all its shapes and forms my entire life, and I love sharing songs I’m excited about with other people.

About six years ago I started hanging out at The Old Town School of Folk Music, and I found myself surrounded by all these amazing musicians who were teaching classes there—on Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Steely Dan—and it occurred to me that since they knew how to play all this different music, maybe I could build a series of shows with these talented people. So for each new Great Moments in Vinyl performance, I ask around my circle of musicians for ideas about whom to recruit for the lineup for each show. I work quite regularly with guitarist Richard Pettengill who to my knowledge has never met a riff he cannot play. I also turn frequently to vocalist/guitarist aerin tedesco for musical ideas and personnel suggestions. There’s a regular roster of musicians I’ve brought on board as we’ve gone along. But I also make it a point of recruiting people I’ve never worked with before for each new show in order to help spread the word about the band throughout the music scene and to bring new fans to the performances.

And then there’s the storytelling aspect of these shows. I’ve been to too many gigs where the band has gotten the crowd in their corner, but then they take so long to get the next song going, the audience starts chatting or moving around or ordering drinks. I figured I could fill that time with stories about the songs and the artists and hold the crowd’s attention as well as give them insights about the music they were listening to. And really, the stories do give you a new appreciation of the music. Like learning that on Led Zeppelin’s second album, Robert Plant composed lyrics about a woman he was wrestling over whether or not to have an affair with. One difficulty was that he was married at the time. But the more major obstacle might have been that the woman in question was his wife’s younger sister.

“What Is and What Should Never Be” indeed!

How else is it different from a typical bar cover band experience?

Bill: I think of ourselves as fans of the albums we play. And when we get onstage, we’re just sharing our excitement for those songs with other fans of those albums. It reminds me of growing up listening to records with my friends. When the singer or the guitarist did something cool, you’d look at each other and go, “Whoa! Did you hear that?”

So that passion is what I hope we convey first and foremost. We don’t try to replicate the albums note for note and nuance for nuance. Because then you’re inviting the audience to listen for the places you don’t get it right. Instead we want our crowds to get caught up on how cool it is to hear these songs live.

The major difference, though, is that a Great Moments in Vinyl show is a narrated concert. You’ll hear the songs you remember from an album performed with passion. But you’ll also learn a thing or two that’ll make you hear the music in a new way. We haven’t done a Joni Mitchell show yet, but one of her songs from Hejira sticks with me because it was written about a friend who at that point in the ‘70s had gotten married and started a family. At the time the record came out, it seemed like a fanciful bit of wistfulness about what it might have been like to settle down. We come to find decades later that Ms. Mitchell had herself given birth to a child when she was young and given it up for adoption. And suddenly “Song for Sharon” becomes a much more poignant reflection on the road not taken.

How do you decide on an artist (generally) and what made you pick these two Tom Petty albums specifically?

Bill: In the past, it’s been as simple as asking amongst ourselves, “Well, what album would you like to do?”

I’d spent two years rehearsing prog rock songs in a friend’s basement with no performances to show for it so that inspired me to put together a Pink Floyd set (that I loosely referred to as before and after Dark Side of the Moon): Meddle and Wish You Were Here.

Sometimes a chance remark or spontaneous groove will pave the way to a future show. While rehearsing for one of our R. E. M. sets, I happened to pick out the bass riff to “Walking on the Moon.” Our drummer joined right in and said that if we ever wanted to perform The Police, count him in. So two shows later, we did.

Then, at one of those Police rehearsals, vocalist Peter Andreadis threw out the idea of doing a Michael Jackson show someday. When I got the idea to hire some dancers for the dance floor to take that set to the next level, we started making plans for an Off the Wall/Thriller concert that fall.

This year, we’re exploring the idea of inviting established artists to step into the spotlight for the shows that we brainstorm together. Chicago singer Phil Angotti is bringing his Tom Petty tribute experience to our upcoming Damn the Torpedoes/Full Moon Fever show. Then in March, the duo Congress of Starlings (aerin tedesco and Andrea Bunch) will make our Indigo Girls show come together.

And of course, there’s a little common sense applied to our choices, too. We take a look at how well an album has sold. And whether or not it really has enough songs on it that would be familiar to an audience. And fun to play.

How much rehearsal time is needed for each show?

Bill: Ha! That’s hard to answer! No matter how many times we get together, I always wish we could have one more run through.

Any favorites?

Oh, man! After two and half years of performances and something like 17 completely different shows, there have been so many amazing highlights. Working with a small string section to play the Paul Buckmaster arrangements for the Elton John albums we did. Having our lead singer aerin tedesco surprise the audience by shaving her head completely for our Sinéad O’Connor performance. Hearing singer Judith Weirauch belt out the Janis Joplin vocal to “Ball and Chain.” Rehearsing the Police album Synchronicity and getting to hear guest vocalist Miki Greenberg's over the top performance of “Mother” for the first time. (There comes a time in every series of rehearsals when we realize that we’re going have a great show to present. And for the Police rehearsals, that was the moment.) The first time we ran through our Janis Joplin set with a horn section (for the Kozmic Blues numbers) we all got chills. Playing "Moonlight Mile” live (with strings, of course) to close out our Rolling Stones show. But probably one of the best moments in this whole series was when we did Michael Jackson’s Thriller on Halloween week. As the title track kicked into high gear, the zombie dancers appeared and the place went nuts!

And those are just the performance highlights. I’m so invested in the power of the storytelling aspect of every show that I’m especially gratified when the tales I tell about the artist and the music hit home. Feeling the audience wince when I introduced Sinéad O’Connor’s “Black Boys on Mopeds,” a song about racially motivated police brutality in 1980s Britain, by dedicating it to Freddie Gray of Baltimore, Maryland, and Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner of New York City, and Tamir Rice of Cleveland, Ohio, and others.

Or sensing their simpatico when I talked about Patti Smith writing her album Horses for the “alienated teenagers, sensitive waifs, and artistic misfits,” the people who discovered that record when they were young and held onto it for dear life. “They were my people,” she said. “They were exactly the people I had in mind. I wrote Horses for Michael Stipe. I wrote Horses for Morrissey. And they found it.''

Or hearing them laugh when I reported that Bernie Taupin moved into the family home of Reginald Dwight and shared a bunkbed with him when they were just launching the career of Elton John...and that just for the record, Bernie was on top and Reg was on the bottom.

Thanks for taking the time to chat, Bill. Where can people get tickets?

Bill: Martyrs’ sells tickets through their Calendar page.

For more information, check out the band website or their Facebook event page.