As a kid, Joey Pitcher could look at a photograph and draw an exact copy. But if he tried to create an original drawing, the results were less than inspired.
The same principal applied when he took up guitar. He happily spent hours mastering Led Zeppelin riffs and solos, feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment in sounding just like Jimmy Page. But he wasn’t nearly as successful at, or interested in, writing original songs. “I am a better copier than I am a creator,” he says.
That skill set serves him well as the lead guitarist of Contraflow, which specializes in exact, full-bodied reproductions of classic rock anthems from the 1970s and ’ 80s. Whitesnake, Rush, Foreigner, Bon Jovi, Sammy Hagar, Styx, Boston, Kiss, Journey — Pitcher and his bandmates, including former Lillian Axe vocalist Derrick LeFevre, duplicate them all with exacting musicianship.
On Saturday, Contraflow celebrates its 10th anniversary as a band with a show at Rock ‘n’ Bowl, a favorite venue.
The journey — Journey? — that led Pitcher and LeFevre to Contraflow was not direct. As a boy, Pitcher was a “Partridge Family” fan who wanted to be David Cassidy, the singing guitarist who got all the girls. The discovery of Alice Cooper changed everything: “I literally went from buying Partridge Family albums to buying Alice Cooper albums.”
Kiss, Led Zeppelin and Rush soon followed. Seeing Rush at the old Warehouse concert hall in 1977 “was a life-changer,” Pitcher said. “Rush was the end-all for me.”
Personal tastes aside, his first band of note was Soul Shop, a cover band devoted to 1970s funk and soul; the versatile LeFevre was its singer.
LeFevre had joined his first cover band at age 16. His early ré sumé includes Grand Central and a Houston-based pop-metal band called Success. Success made the move to Los Angeles in search of a record deal, only to have its dreams dashed by the ascent of grunge.
Back in New Orleans, LeFevre tried his hand at grunge via Facedown, with Pitcher on guitar. Hoping to tap into the local market for dance/Top 40 cover bands, LeFevre and Pitcher launched Soul Shop to play favorites by Earth Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, the O’Jays and the Temptations. They were good enough to be booked for the popular New Year’s Eve party at the old Bally’s Casino in New Orleans East, which catered to a predominantly African-American clientele.
“We were a bunch of long-haired white guys playing R&B,” LeFevre said. “People would do double takes.”
Looking to leave behind his landscaping day job, LeFevre spent a decade on Bourbon Street. He got his start with Sho-Tyme at the Bourbon Street Blues Company, then jumped around to various bands at different clubs. “Other than rap, country and death metal, I listen to everything,” he said. “I’m pretty versatile. I can adapt pretty well. On Bourbon Street, you never know what they’ll throw at you.”
From 2004 to 2010 and again for a European tour in 2012, he fronted Lillian Axe, the long-running Louisiana metal band led by guitarist Stevie Blaze.
Meanwhile, Pitcher had befriended members of a Top 40 wedding band called the Distractions. They were eager to launch a side project to play classic rock from the 1970s and ’ 80s.
Hurricane Katrina put those plans on hold. But in 2006, the newly christened Contraflow launched with Pitcher and several members of the Distractions: rhythm guitarist Scotty McGregor; his wife, vocalist Melissa McGregor; drummer R.L. Marix; and keyboardist Chet Delatte. Bassist Drew Cavaseno, a transplant from New Jersey, eventually joined their ranks.
The McGregors got divorced; Melissa left Contraflow in 2012. LeFevre had substituted for her a couple times, so was the obvious choice to replace her.
He had just quit a Journey/Bon Jovi cover band, and was trying to launch his own classic rock project, Rocktricity. Jumping into Contraflow “was a no-brainer,” LeFevre said. “They were already established, and they were doing what I was trying to do.”
A male vocalist brought a welcome dose of masculinity to bear when Contraflow covers such hair metal favorites as Whitesnake’s “Still of the Night.” “Two songs into the first gig with Derrick,” Pitcher said, “we looked at each other like, ‘Oh, yeah. This is what it’s supposed to sound like.’ ”
Pitcher is a stickler for details; he is the band’s quality control officer, insisting on letter-perfect re-creations: “I’m sure I get on everybody’s nerves sometimes.”
And the Contraflow repertoire is constantly updated. Asia’s “Only Time Will Tell,” Sammy Hagar’s “Heavy Metal” and the Styx deep cut “Man in the Wilderness” are recent additions.
“We’re always hesitant about a song not everybody will know,” Pitcher said. “We try to please the audience rather than ourselves. But sometimes, we throw in one for ourselves.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.