Travis Laughlin is a dedicated tribute artist, and I felt an immediate connection with him. As a fellow Southern LGBTQ man whose need to perform took me away from the region for a while before returning home, I empathized completely with his story as we chatted together for an hour. He’s a very open, approachable person, and his passion for theatricality is both charming and contagious. He made me want to get back into the studio to dust off the choreography chops and book a performance venue.
His obsession with Janis Joplin is very familiar to me. Janet Jackson is the reason I became a dancer, and the reason I found myself traveling all over the world as a dancer and teacher. She changed the course of my life. Similarly, Travis keeps Joplin’s legacy alive by restaging her music live with a band. He channels Joplin by way of his character, Pearl. His character is the namesake for Joplin’s second studio album. By way of Pearl, Laughlin (along with his band, The Charlotte Holding Company) brings the rock legend’s voice and presence into the present, which is very important to Laughlin, since he feels her legacy has otherwise been neglected and minimized.
Laughlin discovered Joplin’s music accidentally while looking through his mother’s vinyl collection. When he asked his mother who the strange creature on the album cover was, Hazel (Travis’s mother) was dismissive, saying, “That’s Janis Joplin. She couldn’t sing — she only screamed. Her only good song was ‘Me and Bobby McGee.’” With Hazel being so dismissive, Laughlin put the album aside, forgetting about it until later after the untimely passing of his brother in a fatal car accident. At the funeral, his brother’s friends were playing Joplin’s music, and commenting on its importance to his brother. Travis revisited Joplin’s catalogue, and has never left it since. It remains a very important connection to his memory of his brother.
His sense of family and collaboration runs strong. This sentiment is extended to his band. Although I focused our conversation on him, he repeatedly reminded me that his band is an inextricable part of the performance. The Charlotte Holding Company is comprised of some permanent members, and is supplemented with guest artists. Laughlin made it clear that he greatly admires them as amazing talents unto themselves who have learned to play each of Joplin’s albums from beginning to end. And that’s what is absolutely fascinating about their upcoming residency in Charlotte, N.C.
Every Wednesday of December 2018, Snug Harbor will showcase Pearl and The Charlotte Holding Company as they perform one of Joplin’s albums. The albums will be performed chronologically, so each Wednesday will be a different performance. The first Wednesday will feature Joplin’s debut album, and each week the band will play the next album in her discography.
Laughlin thought it important to clarify that he identifies as a tribute artist, not a drag queen. Without diminishing the creativity of drag, he asserted that what he does is far more specific. Whereas drag requires the performers to create new characters from scratch with their own idiosyncrasies, Laughlin’s goal is to curate something much more predefined. He does not seek to invent a personality, but rather to preserve one. Although he admires the inspiration drag artists channel, his motive is to channel Janis Joplin in order to educate audiences about her influence on the development of pop culture.
Why does Laughlin think this is important enough to dedicate 25 years of his life to perfecting? Because he sees Joplin as an important mold breaker. He calls her the first female Rock Star, and I don’t see how anyone could refute that assertion. She is one of the artists who began dissolving the separations between “black” and “white” music, which itself was part of the process of integrating a racially segregated culture. Her carefree yet impassioned nature encouraged women to express more independence and autonomy. She empowered women to intensify their efforts to realize equality. In this way, I would posit that she is thus indirectly part of the conversation concerning gender and sexuality that ultimately leads toward LGBTQ efforts toward recognition, tolerance and finally acceptance.
He observed that, as of now, he’s been performing Pearl almost as long as Janis Joplin was alive. Joplin is a member of the ill-fated “27 Club,” a group of major rock artists who all passed away at the age of 27. Some of these other luminaries include Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Curt Cobain and Amy Winehouse. It would be interesting to reconnect with Laughlin on Pearl’s 27th birthday, to get a sense of what it would mean to him to be carrying the torch for so long (eventually, I presume, long enough for Pearl’s lifespan to outpace Joplin’s herself).
Pearl and the Charlotte Holding Company will perform on Dec. 5, 12, 19 and 26, 9 p.m., at Snug Harbor, 1228 Gordon St., in Charlotte, N.C. Cover charge is $5. The venue is open to those ages 21 and older.
For more information, call 917-805-7601 or visit snugrock.com.