This year's Under Cover Weekend ended with a strong turnout at the Firebird last night. The crowd awaiting the opening super-group featuring Theodore and The Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra already surpassed the somewhat-skimpy attendance for last Saturday's event.
It's a good thing so many people made it out for the first act, because the combined bands put together an immaculately constructed, tight performance of Van Dyke Parks' orchestral pop. The musicians left no stone unturned in replicating Parks' layered arrangements. In addition to a string section, a horn section and a secondary percussionist, the two bands brought a vibraphone, toy piano and even a typewriter to the stage. But even with as many as ten musicians playing at once, the hybrid band never felt cluttered. Each player was part of a well-oiled machine designed to bring the audience sophisticated pop, and there were only a scant few mistakes throughout the night.
The bands mostly stuck to material from Parks' tropical-flavored Discover America and faithfully reproduced that album's arrangements and infectious energy. The boisterous horn section in particular put a charge into the show. The group also did restraint well, as seen by its tight performance of the chamber-pop piece "G-Man Hoover." Still, the biggest response came from their run-through of the Jungle Book's "Bare Necessities," a song that Parks arranged, which evolved from a sleepy jazz arrangement to its familiar jamboree.
In almost complete contrast to this ornate set was Fractured Army's take on Pat Benatar. From uber-'80s clothes (frontwoman Jessica Spitzer wore a torn white skirt over a blue dress) down to the perfect echo setting on its ghostly synths, the group nailed everything about Benatar and her music. Aside from a few barely off-key moments in "Shadows of the Night," Spitzer was fantastic as Benatar. She dominated the show and belted out hits such as "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and "We Belong" with authority, but never hogged the stage or detracted from the band's punchy attack. Fractured Army saved the best for last with the killer one-two combo of "Love Is A Battlefield" and "Heartbreaker." Spitzer threw herself completely into the former song with spirited dancing to ensure that the group's performance lived up to the song's epic feel. And "Heartbreaker" flat-out rocked, as Fractured Army jumped in at full-throttle and never let up.
The Makeshift Gentlemen turned out to be a surprisingly good match for the Doors. Frontman and guitarist Joe Swigunski perfectly captured Jim Morrison's melodramatic presence and Alex Breuer's arsenal of four keyboards were mostly able to replicate Ray Manzarek's various organ and piano sounds. Opening with an abbreviated "Light My Fire," The Makeshift Gentlemen gave lively performances of classics like "Love Me Two Times," "Hello, I Love You," and "Touch Me."
The only stumble occurred on "Alabama Song (Whisky Bar)," where the Gentlemen were a little disjointed in places, a problem highlighted by the verse's oom-pah rhythm. Fortunately, a great read of "Love Her Madly" overshadowed this slight blemish and the group finished their set with a scorching rendition of "Break On Through" that featured the bassist ferociously channeling Morrison at his most energetic. The Dive Poets was startlingly good as R.E.M. Eric Sargent was perfectly cast as Michael Stipe; not only did he look and sound like R.E.M.'s frontman, but Sargent exuded Stipe's energy and playful stage presence. Decked out in a suit and Stipe's later-era blue face-paint over his eyes, Sargent gleefully leapt into "Pop Song '89" and bounced around during the group's up-tempo numbers. His gigantic smile made it clear he was happy to take on this role. The rest of the band provided rock-solid support.
The rhythm section of Jeff York and Renato Durante locked into a solid, propulsive groove that fed into the jangling guitars of Karl Eggers and Anna Moffatt, resulting in an almost perfect approximation of R.E.M.'s sound. Only the occasional presence of Moffatt's violin hinted at the Dive Poets' country tendencies, which were largely kept at bay for the sake of faithfulness to the Athens' combo's sound. The Dive Poets also picked an excellent setlist, hitting standards such as "The One I Love," "Orange Crush," "Radio Free Europe," and "Losing My Religion," which inspired a loud sing-along in the crowd. When you add in the set's fast pacing (songs faded into each other) and the group's spot-on harmonies, The Dive Poets portrayal of R.E.M. was one of the highlights of this year's Under Cover Weekend.
Following this set would be difficult for most bands, but Via Dove was up to the task in its performance as Pearl Jam. Despite the night's Stone Gossard abstaining from the long wigs and '90s fashion that the rest of the group donned, Via Dove were coordinated musically. From opener "Not For You" onward, the for-the-night quintet displayed a mastery of Pearl Jam's pile-driving yet tuneful sound. Aaron Vaught proved himself capable of stepping in Mike McCready's shoes with arena-ready classic rock guitar heroics. And as always, Andy Shadburne remains a thrilling frontman with energy, stage presence and vocal talent to spare, although he jumped the gun on getting to the chorus on a few songs. Via Dove was at its best tearing through rockers like "Even Flow" and "Do the Evolution," but also demonstrated its proficiency with the Temple of the Dog ballad "Hunger Strike."
John Joern of Fattback joined the group on vocals for the duet, and once he and Shadburne realized that they both couldn't be Eddie Vedder the song took off. The call-and-response at the end, particularly Joern's wailing as Chris Cornell, riled up the crowd in true power ballad fashion. This primed the pump for the night's closer, "Alive." As expected, the Pearl Jam fans in the audience went nuts and Via Dove did it justice. Vaught brought the house down with his never-ending solo in the epic coda and helped send this year's Under Cover Weekend