Back in October, after performing to a packed house as part of Pittsburgh Plays Petty, guitarist Byron Nash was approached by a woman and her mother. Through tears, the woman explained that her father, who had recently died, was a musician and a Tom Petty fan, who especially loved the song “American Girl.”
“Something about the way we had played that song touched them,” Nash recalls. He felt almost uncomfortable accepting the woman’s praise – “Like, well, it’s not my song” – but he realized “That’s how [music] transcends. It doesn’t matter if it’s your song or someone else’s song,” he says. “I gave it a lot of integrity and I cared about it and that was someone I reached.”
Tribute shows like Pittsburgh Plays Petty occupy a strange and sometimes divisive space in the world of live music. Nash’s experience represents the best sort of outcome. But done poorly, or for the wrong reasons, audiences — subjected to self-indulgent or questionably-conceived renditions – will wish that they’d stayed home with their record collections. And, of course, there are the sneers that come from a certain kind of purist for whom original music is the gold standard.
Organizer Josh Bakaitus – a long-time promoter who has managed several tribute bands over the years – knows this as well as anyone. “There’s always this kind of ‘original bands vs. cover bands [thing],” he says with a laugh. But the Pittsburgh Plays series – the second installment, Pittsburgh Plays McCartney, happens Dec. 28th and 29th at Mr. Smalls Theatre – feels more conceptually rich than your average cover show. “I think that this event merges those two [types of performances] which is kind of an interesting thing.” More than just allowing musicians to channel iconic artists, or giving audiences a chance to squint and pretend they’re watching the “real thing,” Pittsburgh Plays provides a platform to grow the music scene in an organic way.
Bakaitus and his business partner Cory Muro, bummed about missing Tom Petty’s last-ever stop in Pittsburgh, decided to organize a tribute to his music and his life, which would also allow them to see the songs they loved performed live. (For the second installment, several people suggested the Beatles, which Bakaitus thought was too obvious. But McCartney’s vast catalog, and the fact that he released a record this year, made him seem like an interesting and relevant compromise.)
Unlike many cover shows, which feature already-existing bands, the Bakaitus and Muro assembled several brand-new bands, each comprised of five to seven musicians from a wide variety of scenes.
For Nash – a Pittsburgh music veteran known for bands like SPORATIC, Formula412 and Byron Nash & PlanB – that’s part of the appeal. “It’s all mapped out for you. The organizers and the promoters, they picked all the music, they picked the order of the songs, and who was going to play what,” he says. “It’s not a typical gig where you have to do so much as an artist.” Bakaitus notes that a few new collaborations formed from Pittsburgh Plays Petty, between musicians who would have never otherwise met. “That’s one of my favorite parts about the whole thing, we put them together and they hopefully mesh and then collaborate. To me that feeds the music scene.”
Andre Costello who, like Nash, was part of the Petty show and will return to jam McCartney, says that usually bands themselves organize these sorts of events, which often limits their scope. “But when Josh does it, since he works with bands from every circle in the city, he’s able to pick people from all over,” he says. And because musicians are delivering classic songs rather than writing their own, there’s less creative angst or conflict. “You just play,” says Costello, of Andre Costello and the Cool Minors. “Everybody just does their best and there comes a certain amount of relaxation.”
All four of the Pittsburgh Plays Petty shows sold out, bringing the kinds of crowds that most promoters would kill to draw. “The audience we reach is so broad,” Bakaitus says. “I think it is safe to assume that [a lot of] the people that come don’t go very frequently to see local artists.” Often, he says, people really do want to know what’s happening in the local music scene, but don’t necessarily know where to start. “They have a lot going on and they just don’t know where this stuff happens. So this kind of gives them the space to find out what’s going on in their community, which is kind of cool.”
Costello agrees that it can be easier to attract an audience that knows what it’s getting into. “If it’s a band showcase [playing original music] people aren’t going to go unless it’s their friend,” he says. “But this is cool because it’s like a little taste-tester. … It’s like, ‘Let’s see what all these singers sound like trying to sing like Paul McCartney. What sort of influence can I hear in them doing this artist?’” Nash, for one, saw that reflected in the social media followers he gained after the Petty shows. “The demographic definitely changed”, he says, and included people “I probably wouldn’t have been able to reach based on the music I usually play.”
In addition to opening new avenues between artists and audiences, Pittsburgh Plays is working to incorporate a scholarship component. The details are still in the works, but Bakaitus explains that a certain percentage of ticket sales (after the musicians are fairly paid) goes into a savings account that will eventually support various local music-related projects. “If you’re a Pittsburgh music lifer and you have something that you want to … if you want to start a record label, if you want to open a record store, something where you need some capital to get started, we want to be able to help you get started through Pittsburgh Plays.”
But ultimately, the underlying goal is for artists to share the songs they love, as well as they can. “I think it’s still unparalleled the amount of quality music that [McCartney] has generated,” Costello says. “Petty is the guy that has written more awesome rock songs than anyone else, and Paul’s his own island in the same respect. Here we’re trying to perform as if it’s an orchestral piece, so you’re going to see people trying to play it respectfully and trying to play it as closely to the actual version as they can.”
And there’s a certain responsibility when it comes to playing someone else’s music, Nash notes. “I think it’s up to us to deliver the music as [well] as possible. You kind of really want to own it and not deviate too far from what the original is. You don’t want it to be carbon-copied but people are coming to hear the songs the way people are used to hearing them. It’s not really about us, at all,” he says. “It’s a nice lesson in humility.”