His bandmates gave Joe Wilaniskis the biggest challenge of the night, first thing.
The music major at the University of Tennessee mouthed ‘‘now?’’ in the direction of Run for Cover’s lead guitarist Wayne Stambaugh just after the band was introduced on June 4 at Rose Center’s Prater Hall.
Stambaugh nodded and Wilaniskis settled further into the comfort of a small stool, his upper body hunched forward, long waves of hair framing his face and began his task at the double keyboards.
The typically stoic bass player Rodney Tomlinson let a smile escape as he watched Wilaniskis from stage left, over the staccato movements of Jim Pope’s drumsticks, his head bowed slightly in approval as the opening of Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” commenced.
Every note was skillfully delivered and heralded what felt like a paradigm shift to the thirsty audience. Live music was back at the Rose.
The birth dates of the band members may be in different decades, yet according to Stambaugh, “When you are playing music there is no age.”
Wilaniskis cut his rock band teeth as the drummer in the 2019 Encore Theatrical Company’s production of “Green Day: American Idiot.” Stambaugh and Tomlinson were also in the show band. In 2020, Run for Cover members discussed adding a keyboard player and Wilaniskis, who is wildly proficient at several instruments, expressed interest. He auditioned on a Sunday afternoon.
“He was a perfect fit,” Stambaugh, who serves as the band’s spokesperson, said. “He is a great young person.”
By the time singer Chris Morelock joined the musicians to belt out the first vocals on June 4, the crowd of just over 100 was quickly acclimating to the new norm at Prater Hall. The doors had opened 30 mins prior and many of the ticket holders arrived early to mill about and stock their tables with snacks and adult beverages while greeting acquaintances with enthusiasm that would have been considered overwrought in pre-pandemic days.
The song’s opening line, “It’s been such a long time,” was symbolic for the band as well as the audience.
Run for Cover had been poised to perform at several venues in 2020, including Rose Center and Hamblen County’s annual July 4th celebration at Cherokee Park, before the pandemic hit. Despite the cancellations, Stambaugh continued to hold long practice sessions at his home. Band members wore masks and socially distanced; no-one tested positive for Covid.
“It was very frustrating not to be able to perform in front of an audience, but it was great to have everyone in the room,” Stambaugh said. “It is extremely hard to rehearse in masks. It’s hard for guitar players to see the fret boards. Chris ended up in another room because he just could not wear a mask and sing. There was a time period where I only saw nine people for months at a time and four of them were in the band.”
Developing the set list for a show is a democratic process that involves more than selecting an opening song with a relatable line like “It’s been such a long time.” Once a song is chosen for the list, the fine tuning ensues. According to Stambaugh, “Foreplay” took a lot of hours for the musicians to perfect.
“We wanted a classic rock song that showcased all the musicians, especially the keyboardist and the drummer,” Stambaugh said. “A lot of our choices are songs that we’ve never heard people do before. We enjoy the challenge of that.”
Meeting the challenge of mastering live performances of songs by classic artists and groups including Yes, Rush, Stevie Wonder, Jefferson Starship, Kansas and Peter Gabriel is elevated by praise from notable local musicians like Mitch Smith and Sam Morgan who attended the June 4 concert. Stambaugh addressed Morgan from the stage just prior to taking on the guitar solo from Toto’s “Hold the Line,” telling the audience that Sam could probably do it better – then demonstrating his own prowess on the rifts.
“They were great,” Morgan, who now lives in Nashville and who is described by Stambaugh as one of the best guitarists to come out of this area, said after the performance, “Wayne texted a while back to invite me and I told him I had already gotten tickets. I really wanted to hear them play.”
The two-hour show enabled the band to test out a portion of its playlist that grew to at least 100 numbers during the pandemic rehearsals. A previous concert, held in May at Litz Farms as a fundraiser for Encore, was a more casual revue of the band’s song inventory. The June 4 session was formal in its rock homage and served as a precursor to the band’s upcoming appearance on July 3 at Cherokee Park.
“I feel blessed to work with this talented group,” Stambaugh said. “Jim Pope could be a drummer anywhere in the country. Rodney Tomlinson is the best bass player in the area. Chris is one of the best vocalists in the area.”
The elevation of Morelock on a stage at Prater Hall, as opposed to being level with the front row at the Litz farm, showcased his theatrical background in movement, his physicality at the mic is not typical cover band pantomime, but an authentic honing of the classic lead singer role, which he began cultivating in earnest during the 2016 Encore production of “Rock of Ages” and finessed during the 2020 rehearsals.
“We never know ahead of time what he’s going to do,” Stambaugh said. “We’ll script out how we will introduce songs, we’ll talk about it back and forth, but once he gets on stage, he runs with it.”
To date the band has concentrated on cover songs but considering the skillset, growth is inevitable.
“We are working on some original material,” Stambaugh said. “Chris and I are working on some songs we started 30 years ago. We are so blessed to have the support we have locally. We sometimes wonder if we deserve it.”
The smiles onstage, those that appear when one of the band members is showing out a bit, are representative of the good rapport between them that holds up even after hours of rehearsal.
“We all give each other a hard time,” Stambaugh said. “We have a lot of fun during rehearsals. We laugh a lot. Sometimes we have to stop and take a break when it gets too funny.”
The July 3rd show at Cherokee Park will include classic rock and roll, although the democratic process has not yielded a complete set list just yet. The band offered a preview with its final song at Prater Hall: “Carry on My Wayward Son” by Kansas.
“We expect it to be a great experience out at the park,” Stambaugh said. “We are so blessed to have all the support. I feel personally it’s the best group of musicians that I’ve ever worked with, without a doubt.”