By Brent Thompson
It is fair to say that the thirst for cover bands and tribute shows has never been greater than at the present time. The Black Jacket Symphony, Yacht Rock Revue, Rumours, The Molly Ringwalds and Electric Avenue – among others – all consistently fill venues these days. But alongside bands that perform radio staples are bands that delve into artists that didn’t always inhabit the charts but still deserve our attention. The Famous Blue Raincoats are one such act and the group focuses on the catalog of Leonard Cohen, one of music’s more shadowy figures. The Birmingham-based sextet – David Stegall, Reid Brooks, Chase Arrington, Andrew Malinoski, Johnny Hicks and David Lambert – performed its inaugural show at WorkPlay earlier this year. Recently, we sat down with Stegall as the band prepared to make its debut appearance in Atlanta.
Birmingham Stages: David, thanks for your time. If you will, give us some background on yourself and the formation of The Famous Blue Raincoats.
David Stegall: I was never actually a huge Leonard Cohen fan, but I had some friends in college that had a couple of his albums. I sort of liked him, but I liked faster-paced music then. I think Judy Collins covered every song he ever wrote – so you could hear him through her – and some other singer/songwriters covered him. He does have a way about him, if you will. I just started taking up the harmonica maybe 10 years ago and I was just playing the harmonica with different guitar players. About three years ago, I met a girl named DeAnna Fields and she was very knowledgeable about all sorts of music. She was a folkie for the most part. We started playing together and then she started encouraging me to sing. I said, “I don’t think I can sing” and she said, “Sure you can” and we worked out some songs where there was always a deep male vocalist like Johnny Cash and Tom Waits.
As I started listening to more artists that had deep voices, I found that I really could sing like Leonard Cohen in his latter years. So, we started doing some songs that way and we hooked up with Reid Brooks and cooked up this idea that maybe we should do a show of just Leonard Cohen music. We had seen the [Birmingham-based tribute ensemble] Maverick Lounge Series and we were thinking it was a good idea. We started messing around with it and DeAnna and I parted ways about the same time we got serious about doing this show. So, Reid and I got serious about it but I didn’t know how to form a band. Reid had a friend named Chase Arrington – he said Chase could put together a band and we could make him musical director. He did and it’s an excellent band.
Birmingham Stages: How do you select the specific Cohen songs that are included in the band’s repertoire?
Stegall: We started getting together and working through songs. He has probably 250 songs, so I basically look at what songs he played in concert. If you ask people to name their top five Leonard Cohen songs, it isn’t going to be the same songs. He has an album called Live in London that was particularly well done and he was in his mid-sixties. Not that we follow that exactly, but we try to emulate it to a degree. Learning more about him made me like him more – it was about getting familiar with him. I read a couple of Leonard Cohen biographies and and books and poems that he wrote.
Birmingham Stages: The band’s debut performance was at WorkPlay earlier this year. If you will, tell us about the show.
Stegall: I talked to Tommy Williams and his wife, Courtney, and told them what I was thinking about and they said, “We love the idea – just tell us when you want to do it.” We had about 200 people there on a rainy, cold February night. Half the people there were probably only familiar with one Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah.”
Birmingham Stages: Your band has an upcoming performance at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta. How did that show come about?
Stegall: My old friend Dan Nolen, who owns half of The Nick and Smith’s Olde Bar, called me and had seen a video that was taken at WorkPlay on Facebook. I said, “I’ve been meaning to call you” and he said, “I sort of thought you would and I thought you’d tell me that you wanted to play.” I said, “I didn’t know it was that easy.” He said, “It’s not that easy, but I’ll let you play.” He’s come up with some really good ideas. [Cohen fans] have become an older crowd for the most part. Dan said, “Let’s do an early show with maybe more seats than we usually have, sell it out and book another one.”
Birmingham Stages: Are there any plans to take the show to different markets? You have a unique niche, so it seems other cities would be receptive to it.
Stegall: Leonard Cohen has a cult following, so you want a larger population area. The bigger the city, the more Leonard Cohen fans you’re going to have.
Birmingham Stages: The cover band and tribute show market is very healthy these days. I don’t know whether or not that factored into your decision to form the band, but your timing seems ideal.
Stegall: I’m not astute enough to have seen that in the music scene and I’ve never really been a part of the music scene, other than I’ve always really loved music. But Dan brought that up and I said, “I thought you discriminated against people that didn’t do original music.” He said, “I used to, but I’ve changed my tune.” I said, “Why’s that?” and he said, “Primarily because of my friends in Yacht Rock Revue.” They’re based in Atlanta and they’re killing it. Dan said, “Plus, people use aren’t interested anymore in hearing a bunch of songs off a band’s new album. They want to hear music that they’re familiar with – they want to sing along.” Also, a lot of the bands being covered aren’t touring anymore, so the cover band experience is as close to the original experience as you’re going to get. Cover bands are where it’s at – it’s a trend.
For more information, visit www.thefamousblueraincoats.com or @thefamousblueraincoats on Instagram.