The Tribute Band Thing

February 26, 2012 § 2 Comments

Tony Russo is frazzled. He’s sitting backstage at Mexicali Live in Teaneck, New Jersey, where he has showed up just half an hour before he is meant to go on. On his way here, he had to make a detour to pick up his girlfriend, Rebecca, and then he got carded at the door. Despite the fact that he’s 42, and looks it. “Must be ‘cause you look so young!” his band mates tease, but Tony guesses that the bartender thought he was looking to make trouble. He leans back into the faded, L-shaped couch hugging the wall, sighs softly and closes his eyes. But, he has a show to do.

He peels off his shirt, revealing a healthy expanse of middle-aged torso and allows a tech attaches a mic-pack to his back. He, meanwhile, is coating his belly and chest with a layer of incredibly strong smelling body spray. He pulls on a fitted black t-shirt, runs his fingers through his hair, and reaches into his bag for a black sunglasses case. Removing the shades, Tony faces the mirror and puts them on. He grooves back and forth, and transforms. He is no longer Tony Russo, New Jersey resident with a day job. He has become Tono, an eerie approximation of U2 front man, Bono.

The resemblance is uncanny. The face structure and stance is right. The tiredness disappears. He suddenly seems out of place in this small, dingy backstage space. With an adjustment of the glasses and a final look in the mirror, Tono is ready. He wields his microphone and half climbs up the steps to the venue’s small stage. He launches into the opening number, strutting and preening, standing on the very edge of the stage. The crowd goes wild.

I’m here to check out Tono’s chops, and those of his band, Unforgettable Fire, or UF2, a U2 tribute band. I’ve made the journey on this cold, Saturday night in an attempt to make sense of the Tribute Band Thing (TBT): the people who put in time, energy and musical talent into imitating the music of others. Musicians (and music critics) spend a lot of time talking about creativity — about the desire to create your own sound — and yet an active tribute band circuit speaks to a higher musical truth: people want to hear what they know. They want familiarity. And musicians, perhaps purely out of love of the music, perhaps out of a self knowledge that they will likely never “make it” any other way, want a crowd that responds to them.

UF2 was formed by drummer George Levesanos in 1995. George, 46, is a short, stocky man with a kindly smile and dark brown hair combed back. He is outgoing and articulate; it doesn’t surprise me that he handles the band’s press inquiries (in this case, me). He explains his motivation for forming UF2 back in ’95 in between sips of beer and greeting fans who approach him with a handshake or a hug.

“We’re all fans of the music,” he says. “We’ve done original stuff. But I was like, hey I love U2, let’s try it. There wasn’t a big tribute scene at the time so we thought we could really blow them away by playing U2 perfectly.”

George introduces me to bass player Craig Kiell and guitar player Mick Normoyle. Craig, 49, is a tall, grey haired guy with a booming voice and an evident appreciation for Guinness (he’s wearing both a hat and a t-shirt with the beer’s logo). Mick is far quieter and soft-spoken; he resembles George Harrison. All three guys are married with kids; Tony is the only one without a family.

As I listen to the three members of the backing band riff on each other, the dude-love aspect of UF2 is clear. “I talk to these guys every day!” Craig exclaims. George and Craig talk about how they were both a part of the hair metal scene in the ‘80s, though they didn’t know each other at the time, and begin recounting various ways they got their hair “fucking huge.” Craig demonstrates on me, winding strands of hair against my head.

“The band…it’s all about the escape,” George tells me. “For us, and for the audience. That’s why you come to a show, right? To get to escape for a while.”

“So it’s kind of like a super hero thing,” I suggest. “By day he’s an accountant, by night he’s a rock star.”

“Um, I am an accountant!” George says, laughing. “How’d you know?”

The escape is primarily the appeal of the tribute band. You go see Unforgettable Fire, or Almost Queen (Tony’s fraternal twin brother plays Freddy Mercury), or New York’s Finest (The Police) or Coldplayer (obvious), because you love the music of the original band — you want the experience of hearing it played live. It won’t be the same as seeing the actual band play; the best these tribute bands can be is accurate, rather than revolutionary. But tickets are cheaper ($20 to see UF2 versus $250 to see U2, for example), the room is smaller, and you can count on a kind of intimacy that you’re not going to get from the real thing. As Tono rocks out onstage, a balding man in a blue sweater walks up to the stage, wrapping his arm around Tono’s calves in a kind of half-hug. You try that on Bono, and your ass is getting arrested, or at the very least kicked out.

An obvious resemblance isn’t necessarily essential. Take Rob Malave, the front man of Led Zeppelin tribute band Black Dog. Rob doesn’t have the same benefit, or problem, of looking like Robert Plant: tall, broad, and brown skinned, Rob is Puerto Rican, and while he has long, tightly curly hair, he’s a far stretch from the tow-headed Plant.

We’re talking backstage at the Canal Room, where the band will be playing that evening. The Canal Room has become something of a headquarters for tribute and cover bands — I first came here to see a Bon Jovi tribute band the summer of 2007 (“John” had long blond hair, overactive sweat glands, and a tendency to gyrate against his mic stand), and they have a long-running “Tribute Friday” series that often includes Unforgettable Fire. This is Black Dog’s first time playing the room.

Black Dog is Rob’s third Led Zeppelin tribute band — he started out playing with Four Sticks who were “big in Greenwich Village” after answering an ad looking for a Robert.

“I thought it was an audition, but it was a gig,” he says. Three of us showed up and they said, you do the first set, you do the second, you do the encore. I was pretty terrible!”

Four Sticks split when the bass player went on tour with Lenny Kravitz, but Rob held on to the name. They had been opening for Sabbracadabra (you guessed it, a Black Sabbath tribute band) and a few members came over from there to play with Rob. They picked up speed and became Black Dog as Rob attempted to raise money to record an album with an original band he was in at the time. Now, in addition to playing in Black Dog, he teaches high school English in New Jersey. He’s friendly and outgoing, and speaks in a low, rumbly voice — I find myself wondering how he’ll do with Plant’s trademark falsetto.

“I always go to concerts and people recognize me from Black Dog,” he says, and sighs. “Man, it’s so cool to get that – it must be even cooler to get that when it’s your own music.”

The guys in Black Dog don’t assume characters, but they do dress up a little. Rob puts on a pair of 70s-style bell-bottoms for the show, announcing that he “feels like a rock star, the tight pants are on!” He also changes into a black t-shirt with a flag in honor of Veteran’s Day.

None of the band members have seen Led Zeppelin live — the band was finished by the time they were regulars on the concert-going circuit. “My first concert was Kiss in 1979,” Rob says. “If Led Zeppelin for just a little longer, I would have made it.”

Jeff Mott, the bass player, is a few years older and was a senior in high school when Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham died in 1980. “I was sitting outside school smoking cigarettes — I was a little derelict back then — and someone came out and told me. I thought they were joking. Led Zeppelin was everything to me back then.” Jeff certainly looks the part of a musician of all trades — he has long, grey hair and a Led Zeppelin pendant on a black cord. He ties a black bandana around his head for show time.

Jeff and guitar player Dan Toto, are the band members Rob linked up with from Sabbracadabra. They’re both still in that band, and both teach music as well. Rob has a long mane of curly hair, and shows up in camo pants with 7 guitars (Zeppelin is “all about the tunings,” Rob tells me). Ted joined Black Dog this past June (the original drummer left in somewhat shady circumstances that no one seems willing to expand on), and also plays in a number of original bands.

“This is the most fun I’ve had in a band in a long time,” Ted says. “These are my buddies — it’s very different than just being a hired hand.”

What better way to get closer to a band you love than by, well, trying to be them? If imitation is a form of flattery, tribute bands have a corner on the fan-love market. UF2 plays U2, studies U2, tries to be U2, because they just love this band. More than getting to hear their favorite songs over and over, they get to play them and see people react. Compared to playing in an original band, “It’s a lot more fun,” George says. “It doesn’t have the same seriousness. I miss doing original stuff, it’s stuff that you call your own, but we’re doing this for the fun of it. These guys are our idols.”

The hero worship aspect is important when considering UF2, or any tribute band: they don’t think they’re as good as the real thing. They’re not U2 and they know that — they don’t sell merchandise, or record albums under UF2’s name because it would be making money off of someone else’s art. This is, as the name declares, a tribute to musicians they admire.

But Tony doesn’t just sing U2 songs; he becomes Bono. He’s the one member of UF2 who has never played in an original band. His resemblance to the real thing is both a blessing and a curse; he was basically predestined to front a U2 tribute band. He used to be a drummer in the 80s, but switched to singing when he participated in lip sync contests, aping Bono and “winning every one.” Then he went though a karaoke phase where he was “that guy,” until one night in ’97, he saw the original carnation of Unforgettable Fire play. George spotted him in the audience and thought, “What the hell, that guy looks just like Bono! It kinda pissed me off, like what’s he doing there?” George had Tony up onstage to do a few numbers, and when their original lead singer quit, he called Tony.

“I knew I wanted to play with Unforgettable Fire when I first saw them,” he said. And there have certainly been perks — U2’s manager Paul McGuinness caught a UF show in the Pocanos and was so taken by Tony’s accuracy that he gave him his card. Now, Tony gets free tickets to see U2 whenever they come to town (“good seats, too”) and even once got to see them play at the Wembley in London. He’s not as close to the other guys; they make fun of him for always being late but speak highly of his talents

“He’s a real smart guy,” Craig says. “Very well-read. Definitely not a blue collar front man.”

“Plus, he’s fearless,” adds Mick. “He always knows what to say to the crowd.”

But at this point, Tony almost can’t not perform as Bono. “It is kind of like an empty glass at times. You’re playing your favorite music, people are getting into it. But you’re in character, you’re playing someone else. You’re not yourself.”

He takes a sip of Murphy’s beer (which he jokingly deems “a Guinness tribute”).  “People ask me to sing just as myself, but I can’t, really. Your character voice becomes your voice. I wouldn’t know what my own voice would sound like.”

Black Dog and UF2 tread the same tribute ground: they both emulate rock bands, and are both made up of guys from Jersey in their 40s. Who’s Bad, a Michael Jackson tribute, is a whole different kind of band. Apparently, it takes 8 guys to make for one passable Michael Jackson — there are six members in the backing band, and two Michaels. Both bear a passing resemblance to the King of Pop; Joseph Bell is the better singer, while Taalib York has the dance moves.

Who’s Bad’s shows are relatively large-scale productions, with choreography and costume changes. They tour constantly — playing all over the States, in Europe, and Asia. Some of the band members play in original bands or as session musicians, but others make their living entirely off of Who’s Bad. They’re younger than the guys in the other bands, ranging from 22 to 31 in age.

I’m hanging with everyone but the Michaels backstage at the B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square before their 11 pm show. This feels the most like a proper rock ‘n’ roll backstage situation — I have a glossy sticker press pass, for one, and we’re throwing back Crown Royale while making fun of the opening act.

The band started in 2004 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where a number of the original members were attending the University of North Carolina’s music program. Despite a 2 ½ hour long parking ordeal, the band is in good spirits: they have a blast together as they drink the sweet whiskey, dance around, and attempt to catch cell phone reception in the underground club.

“Where are the Michaels?” I ask. Ray McCall, the trumpet player and talker of the group, rolls his eyes. “Oh, they’re always late,” he says. “Divas,” he says with a sly grin.

The separation of the band’s front men from the rest adds to the overall feeling of their performance: watching them play feels like watching professionals. Ray especially is always aware of his onstage presence, and his dynamic energy never flags. These guys aren’t driving around the area playing on weekends; this is their job.

The band did well when they started, but it was after Michael Jackson passed away in 2009 that they really started booking gigs, constantly.

“I don’t know if realized the impact Michael had until he passed,” Ray says. “Seeing the way people responded in England, in Japan… I didn’t expect that.”

It felt even more important to keep playing after he passed away. “We just come out for Michael, you know?” Ray says. “There’s a reason he’s the King of Pop,” Ray says. “No one can touch him.”

The room at B.B. King is quite full — Who’s Bad has played here before. Erin Cook, who works the ticket booth at the club describes the last time Taalib arrived for a show, “He came off the elevator and I was like oooooooomigod! He didn’t even have any make up on yet or anything!” She laughs. “He looks just like him, you know?”

Many in the crowd have shown up with fedoras and sparkly gloves in homage to Michael Jackson’s more signature stage get-ups. They know the words, and when the band starts in on “Thriller,” they know the dance moves, too.

During Taalib’s rendition of “PYT (Pretty Young Thing),” he and the band request that all of the PYT’s in the audience get up onstage. Soon, it’s packed: there are full figured women popping and locking, a little girl in a pink Justin Bieber t-shirt and a pale, thin girl in a strapless black dress that laces up the back, who has been gyrating against the stage, and manages to not notice her dress half falling down as she grinds on “Michael” with enthusiasm.

And while the Michaels are very good, the band is great. Their skill is evident — Patrick Cross throws in some epic guitar solos, playing behind his back and jamming out with the other members. Ray and Aaron McCoy are two-stepping and spinning while holding the horn section down. Everyone manages to get in some pelvic thrusts. It’s a serious group effort — they need two Michaels and 6 musicians to come close to the original MJ sound.

Musically, it’s harder to compare Who’s Bad to UF2 or Black Dog, but the fact that neither the original Led Zeppelin nor Michael Jackson are performing anymore helps me make a little more sense of their tribute bands. And something about the spirit of Black Dog feels right. Maybe it’s because of the intense bombast of Led Zeppelin’s music; it plays like something to jam out to.

Then again, my personal bias is important to note. I am a child of the 80s, so liking Michael Jackson is as natural as breathing. I watched kids lip synch and moonwalk to MJ at elementary school talent shows. Of course a group of talented, performance-driven musicians with an affinity for R&B would want to rep Michael Jackson, who wouldn’t? Similarly, I started listening to Led Zeppelin at 14, and considered them the high water mark of musical achievement for a good four years. My Zep-love has toned down since, but suffice it to say it’s not a far stretch for me to understand why a band would want to get the Led out on the regular.

And at a tribute band concert, the audience’s connection to the music is almost as important as the band’s. Serious passion — of the audience and of the band members — is essential for that escape aspect to be successful. The energy of the crowd, the intoxication of being wrapped up in something bigger than yourself — there’s a reason that a crowd of pumping fists at a rock show resembles footage of political rallies in totalitarian states.

We want to be swept away, to feel a real connection to the music we listen to. And nowhere is this more true than when the band you love plays your favorite song. You recognize it from the opening notes, the distinctive drum beat. You raise your arms and cheer, and (if you’re me) jump up and down a little, feeling a slow grin overtake your face. This is the moment when the energy of the whole and your individual spirit (this is, after all, your favorite song — it speaks to you and appeals to you in a deeply specific way) find common ground: the band is speaking directly to you.

It seems like every song UF2 plays is someone’s favorite at Mexicali Blues. The crowd jumps and sways, pumping their fists as Tono nails “With or Without You” and “Angel of Harlem.” Mick and Craig have left the stage and are weaving through the crowd, ending up in the balcony as they rock back and forth. Tono isn’t far behind, going up to people and singing in their faces (he drapes his arm around me at one point; I giggle accordingly); he has undeniable charisma when performing. As the show continues it seems less important to try and separate Tony’s charisma from Bono’s. They really are very good, and I smile at the recollection listening to “Angel” again now.

But because I’m not someone who loves U2, what chance does their tribute have of really blowing my mind? It’s a moment that happens in the middle of that song that really hits me. Tono is standing on a chair over by the sound booth, the crowd obligingly gathered around him. Just then, from up in the balcony, I hear it: that two-note bass line. It’s the opening to “My Girl” by The Temptations. The guys of UF2 all mentioned how, while they stay true to U2, they are very much themselves when they play: they’ll throw some Zeppelin in the middle of a song, for example.

And here they are, popping this song, my song, into the middle of a pretty great U2 song. Tono closes his eyes as he goes into the lyrics: “I got sunshine, on a cloudy day.” And just like that, I’m right there with the rest of them. I’m grinning with my eyes closed, swaying back and forth and singing along. I’m a part of the crowd and entirely in my own world. As the song ends, I slip out of the bar, walking down the empty New Jersey streets to catch the last bus back to New York. I got what I came for.

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