UnderCover Presents: Creating community on-stage and off
The Bay Area is a music-lover’s paradise.
Any night of the week you can go out and hear jazz, hip hop, AfroBeat, Indonesian gamelan, western chamber music, or whatever your heart or ears desire. Despite that diversity, sometimes musicians themselves can feel siloed in their own sub-genres and sub-communities.
The concert series UnderCover Presents aims to change that by bringing together Bay Area bands and musicians to reinterpret classic albums, with a different musical act doing each song. The next show will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic Beatles album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
An orientation of sorts is taking place at the recently renovated UC Theatre in Berkeley. A couple dozen musicians and producers have just tromped around on a tour, to get familiar with where they’ll be performing and now, more importantly, they’re meeting each other over beer and pupusas.
“It almost feels like, when when you get in the swing of it, almost like a musician’s summer camp,” says Kevin McCann, who plays keyboards in the San Francisco indie rock band Eyes on the Shore. He’s actually played in an UnderCover show before, with a different band.
“You’re running around, running into people,” McCann continues, “making new friends and making all kinds of crazy connections that … you wouldn't normally have made ... and all of a sudden, we're all thrown in the same room, on the same stage, doing the same thing. It's pretty incredible.”
The project has been going on for seven years now, with a diverse range of source material. The series has included tributes to funk legends Sly and the Family Stone, punk heroes Green Day, British folkie Nick Drake and Icelandic genre-tripper Björk.
Every show has a different guest music director who helps curate the bands and guide the sound of the show. For Sgt. Pepper’s, it’s producer and multi-instrumentalist Joe Bagale, who also performs as his alter ego Otis McDonald.
After the meet and greet, Bagale addresses the musicians, saying, “[I’m] so happy that you guys are all here. The Beatles are my number one, and the reason all y’all are here is that you represent the bad-assery that we have here in the Bay Area. I think we all share a common bond in terms of how that band has inspired us and informed us.”
A Day in the Life
The idea for UnderCover Presents was dreamed up by event planner and PR professional Lyz Luke and her friend Charith Premawardhana, founder of alternative chamber music collective Classical Revolution. After a night of brainstorming, they landed on a concert featuring the legendary album The Velvet Underground and Nico.
The very next day they started making phone calls. Within a month they had put together a lineup. Word spread and buzz built. Well-known musicians like Liz Phair and Third Eye Blind’s Stephan Jenkins asked if they could join. They added a second show after the first one sold out.
Luke says while they were planning the show, she thought it would be a one-off.
“But after the first night, I definitely saw ... the chemistry that was happening between the musicians and the audience,” she says. “I saw musicians getting huge really fast after this gig and being given opportunities that they normally wouldn't be able to get.”
Getting Better All the Time
By now, Luke and her crew have produced 14 UnderCover Presents shows. She takes care of all the behind-the-scenes stuff like booking, promoting, and holding the vision of the project. She’s not a musician herself, but says she’s UnderCover’s “Executive Music Enabler.”
“Musicians started recording on albums together,” she says. “They started sharing concert bills together. They started just inviting each other out, socially. And for the audience, it became really special because there were people who have never listened to AfroBeat music [or] they never thought they'd be into hip hop. Favorite moments of mine are like at the Freight and Salvage, when we present an electronic act, and all of a sudden a silver-haired lady gets up out of her chair and starts dancing. And for me, those are the things that make me do what I do.”
Luke says it’s important to her to keep the line-ups fresh, to invite new musicians into the project every time. This is to keep increasing the breadth of the community, but she also wants everyone in the audience to be able to relate to someone onstage at some point in the show.
“That can mean a lot of things,” she says. “That can mean cultural backgrounds, that can mean age and body type, can mean sexual orientation, can mean ability. We're incredibly thoughtful when looking at the roster, to make sure we aren't skewing too much in one way or the other.”
With a Little Help From my Friends
The musicians in the Sgt. Pepper’s show are from genres ranging from soul to jazz to pretty much anything you can imagine.
Rohan Krishnamurthy is a classical Indian-trained percussionist who has also studied jazz, western classical, and pop music. He’s covering “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” with saxophonist Prasant Radhakrishnan and keyboardist Colin Hogan.
Krishnamurthy says he sees the UnderCover project as a way to bridge cultural and geographic divides in the music world.
“Actually, the Bay has one of the largest Indian diasporas in the country,” he says, “but the Indian arts scene is actually quite sort of separated from a lot of other arts scenes.”
He’s excited to pay tribute to a band that helped pave the way for his own musical blend of Indian and western influences.
“Of course, a lot of people know that the Beatles were heavily influenced by Indian music and Indian spirituality. ‘Within You Without You’ is kind of this piece in the album that's heavily influenced by Indian music in a very obvious way — there's sitar, there’s tabla,” Krishnamurthy says. “But we thought this would be an interesting kind of challenge: what if we took a different piece like ‘Mr. Kite which, you know, has all these sort of circus effects and elements. And what if we brought this kind of classical and contemporary jazz perspective to it?”
Singer-songwriter Kendra McKinley says it’s the chance to celebrate her musical heroes that she’s most excited about. She’s covering “Lovely Rita.”
“I listened to [The Beatles] exclusively until I was 12 years old. To me they were music, and everything else was extra,” McKinley says. “For me personally, it's so much more about celebrating this band and what they've provided for people rather than it being an opportunity to, you know, showcase the individuals.”
Music enabler Lyz Luke says her favorite part of the shows is standing backstage, watching the musicians watching the other musicians.
“It's incredibly, incredibly special,” Luke says.
Luke has been bringing artists together with UnderCover for seven years, now. She says she’s hoping for at least seven more. She can do it — with a little help from her friends.