“‘Whoa, this is cool.’ That’s the wow factor.”
John Kenny, Philip Peeples and Jim Cocke are on the hunt for epic rock songs created after 2000.
The three Lake Highlands bandmates debate songs for future setlists while finishing lunch at a back table inside Fish City Grill. Cocke says it’s their responsibility to define epic rock music for future generations.
Queen? Absolutely. Radiohead? Divisive. Fall Out Boy? Hopefully not, but millennials love it.
Kenny laments that pop music rules the radio, and Cocke accuses him of being a cantankerous old man.
“What makes a song epic?” is a common conversation topic among members of Epic Unplugged, a cover band that reimagines popular rock music. The eight-piece outfit follows an atypical model, swapping an electric guitar for its acoustic counterpart and adding a string quartet and a piano.
“We do ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin,” Kenny says. “It’s a different song hearing it live with strings. People are like, ‘Whoa, this is cool.’ That’s the wow factor.”
With only four shows to their name, Epic Unplugged already has booked 10 gigs throughout the fall, including the House of Blues and Lake Highlands Oktoberfest, slated Sept.29. All eight members are professional musicians, and two are household names in Dallas’ music scene.
Peeples is a drummer for the Old 97s, a 25-year-old alternative country act. Kenny is the guitarist for Graceland Ninjaz, the self-proclaimed “King of Party Bands.”
Thanks to their credentials, booking gigs is seamless, although juggling several projects often is chaotic.
“Only with the quality of players we have could we get ramped up so quickly,” Kenny says.
The inception of Epic Unplugged spurred from a conversation between electric violinist Lance Youts and Kenny. Youts wanted to cover his favorite music, and Kenny wanted to sing again.
They opted to add a bass, piano and drums.
“Then it became, ‘What if we got a string quartet?’ ” Kenny says. “ ‘What if we get a harp? … You know what? Let’s stop there.’ ”
Sans harp, Kenny enlisted longtime musicians Cocke and Peeples. Next, they drafted a rotating cast of violinists, cellists and a viola player for live performances.
Now all that’s left is to narrow down their setlist. Peeples rattles off their choices: the Beatles, the Eagles, David Bowie, Foo Fighters, Nirvana, MGMT, Black Sabbath.
“We might be the first people on the planet to play ‘War Pigs’ and ‘Immigrant Song’ unplugged,” Kenny says.
Justin Phillip Brooks has told stories onstage the majority of his life.
His father was a church music director who sang at several churches, often bringing his family onstage with him. As a seventh-grader, Brooks performed with a 60-year-old church organist named Miss Betty in the Beaumont’s fire department’s band. She loaded a drum set into her car for the mini concerts.
Music and faith have always been intertwined in Brooks’ life. “It’s the lens by which we look at everything,” says his wife, Tiffany, who also is a singer.
The Lake Highlands neighbors joined Liturgical Folk, a group that sets retired Anglican priest Nelson Koscheski’s poems to music. Now he and Tiffany — along with her brother Morgan Taylor — formed a folk trio under Brooks’ name.
This is their first time performing as a trio, and they can’t quite figure out why it took so long to collaborate.
“For me, it was, ‘Why haven’t we been doing this the whole time?’ ” Brooks says.
“It just kind of came together for us to do it,” Tiffany adds. “We’re doing what we love with the people we love.”
“We’re doing what we love with the people we love.”
Tiffany and Morgan’s parents aren’t musical, although the two grew up singing and creating songs. Their grandparents, though, owned an antique accordion, harmonica and dulcimer, instruments sometimes highlighted in their songs. Family stories are a part of the lyrics, too. The song “Candle on the Shore” is about Brooks’ great-great grandfather, who ran the Bolivar Lighthouse near Galveston and sheltered people from hurricanes in the early 20th century.
“I wrote the story from the perspective of a survivor,” he says.
The trio are staples at Opening Bell Coffee and completed a Sofar Sounds sessions, where people buy tickets before knowing the location of the show, whether that be the back of a restaurant or someone’s living room.
“People are there strictly for the music,” Brooks says. “It’s really the environment we love.”
Like Brooks, his children, Taylor and Grayson, tag along with to watch their parents perform. Whether they think it’s cool, though, has yet to be determined.
“I was thinking about that the other day,” he says. “Do Bono’s kids think he’s cool? Do Frank Sinatra’s?”
Four lawyers and three retirees walk into a bar.
Instead of immediately grabbing beers — that happens later — they carry four guitars, a bass, keyboard and drums to a small stage at Lone Star Roadhouse. They check their mics.
Then, around 7 p.m., the Catdaddies launch into renditions of their favorite classic rock tunes, the ones that bandmates revered in high school and have performed the past 20 years.
“It’s more like a party when we play,” guitarist and singer Kent Hofmeister says.
The Catdaddies is Lake Highlands’ homage to the 1960s and ’70s classic rock. The band celebrated its 20th anniversary in mid-September. A line formed at the entry, former members joined for their favorite songs and wacky moves graced the dancefloor.
When the band formed in 1998, its members’ only goal was unrelated to success, longevity or money. Then members of the Dad’s Club at Lake Highlands Elementary, they were asked to perform in their children’s talent show.
The five-piece outfit chose a few favorites to play, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” The competition was so fun that they kept practicing, says Mark Sales, the only remaining original member. The then five-piece outfit coerced their children into being roadies and trekked their gear to the school gym to practice.
“The music is in our DNA,” Melton says. “It’s what makes us tick.”
A year later, they landed their first gig at Enchilada’s.
Juggling a family, full-time career and rock band was time-consuming for most of the guys, so Sales sought out replacements. The lawyer recruited friends from the bar association, and now the seven-piece band includes Kent Hofmeister, Bryan Dunklin and Christina Melton, along with David Michnoff, Brad Young and Steve Rickey. Band members say they’re divided into two groups: members of the bar and guys who go to bars.
The band’s practice space has since relocated to Sales’ converted garage. The room is more sophisticated than that of a teen garage band, although it does have just as many posters. Images of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and John Lennon line the walls. So does “Almost Famous” and Woodstock.
At a summer practice, weeks before their 20th anniversary show, songs like The Beatles’ “Birthday” and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon” blare from Sales’ garage. Michnoff, the drummer, explains one of the band’s few rules: “We don’t do anything past early MTV.”
The Catdaddies have played at the arboretum and the Granada Theater. Every year they take their talents to Law Jam, a fundraiser for the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program. And one of their favorite shows was at the Christina Melton Crain Unit, a women’s prison named after their bandmate.
“The music is in our DNA,” Melton says. “It’s what makes us tick.”