Don’t even think about calling them a cover band.
“I think that cover-band label is pretty lame in the first place,” says David Connor Jones, bassist for local rock band Custard Pie. Sure, the band does exclusively perform Led Zeppelin covers—but Jones sees their take on the music as something far removed from Elvis impersonators and KISS-tribute acts.
“The implication is that being original is better than covering a tradition, or even a single group like Zeppelin,” Jones continues. “But original bands these days are a dime a dozen—the airwaves are full of them. I find most original voices today fairly unoriginal. Just because you wrote it and a multinational corporation decided to promote it, doesn’t mean it is any good.”
Instead, Jones and the band—a local dream team of sorts, consisting of vocalist Rhett McGahee (formerly of Menage), drummer Jamie Stirling (formerly of The Merle and DrugMoney) and guitarist Aaron “Woody” Wood (frontman for Hollywood Red, and formerly of The Blue Rags)—are trying to make the most of music that’s already good. In fact, their shared passion for these songs brought the group together in the first place.
“We got into it on a lark, coming together out of our love for this particular music, thinking it would be really fun to do, but also thinking it would run its course in a matter of months,” Jones recalls. “Once we got going, we did not stop for the next three years.”
In other words, they had became popular, touring regionally and performing a surprising number of local shows. While some of their success—perhaps even the majority of it—is directly attributable to the existing Led Zep fan base, Custard Pie’s willingness to experiment with the songs, rearranging them and treating them less as holy writ and more as old standards, helped keep them from being easily lumped in with other tribute acts.
And, in a strange twist, years of unexpected success began to take its toll. Sure, there was no Jimmy Page-like heroin abuse, and certainly no John Bonham-like asphyxiation from vomit, but the band still had its struggles. Stirling was a newlywed, McGahee had recently started a metal-working business, Wood was knee-deep in recording the Hollywood Red debut, and Jones’ growing videography business needed his attention. Something had to give.
Jones recalls that, immediately after their performance last August at Asheville’s Downtown After Five (“our biggest, most ecstatic crowd”), the four decided to take a break.
“We all had other matters on our minds and needed to break from it,” Jones explains. “We all knew we could pick it back up at any time down the road.”
Custard Pie’s hiatus proved to be well-timed for Wood, who continued to perform both solo and with Hollywood Red (who played their own set at Downtown After Five last month), as well as being featured on CMT’s reality show Big Break. Now that the band has reunited, at least for a time, one can only wonder how Wood’s other projects will be impacted.
In true rock-star fashion, however, Wood declined to be interviewed for this story, insisting that Jones speak for the band. Jones, at least, doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, he has nothing but good things to say about his bandmate.
“Woody is Woody,” Jones says. “He has always remained his own man, no matter what band he is playing with at any given moment. I think one thing that sets Woody apart is that he has been so hard at work at this his entire adult life, absolutely going for it, without a net. That can be pretty tumultuous. I admire him for it.”
But Custard Pie is more than Wood’s showmanship. Or, for that matter, Jones’ insight and devotion, McGahee’s powerful voice or Stirling’s forceful drumming. There’s a special alchemy at work between the members, and their show is anything but a letter-perfect recreation of Zeppelin’s original works. Live, they are by turns wild, unruly, precise, and sloppy, and they do it all with a hip-shaking swagger that’s almost impossible not to enjoy.
“I think [we] have a very unusual musical chemistry, and that definitely has something to do with our success as a band,” Jones says. “Whenever we [perform], it just works for some reason. Maybe it’s magic, too.”
And deeper still is that the four members of Custard Pie don’t seem to be too worried about the business side of playing Zeppelin covers. If that was all they were after, they might easily join the ranks of tribute acts such as ZoSo: The Ultimate Led Zeppelin Experience.
But Jones says that’s not what they’re about at all.
“Before the record industry, folks got around playing music after dinner with the family or with friends on front porches and whatnot, and they were doing a lot of covers,” he says. “It was not about stardom, money or fame. It was about the music and what it can do for a gathering of people when done in the right spirit.”
And it’s that spirit that keeps the members of Custard Pie—real life, impending stardom and cover-band stigma included—coming back for more.
“As long as you enjoy what you are doing with a band, you will find a way to make it work somehow,” Jones says.
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]
who: Custard Pie
what: Led Zeppelin covers, refreshed and re-imagined
where: Grey Eagle
when: Friday, July 18 (9 p.m. $12. www.thegreyeagle.com or 232-5800)