Sunday, March 29, 2009

March Tribute Band Madness in New York

First off, apologies (to Ben, in particular, who actually complained) for all of the silence here on Sound of Blackbirds. I've been busy working on a paper for a conference and so have been letting some posts stew in my head instead of getting them out into the world.

Now, I have a big place in my heart for bands with a theme -- for instance, I just saw The Zambonis, America's favorite hockey band, recently. And one of the subsets of that category is the tribute band, a band that plays the music of another, more well-known band. So I was pretty excited a few weeks ago to get to see three tribute bands in one week!

First, on St. Patrick's Day, Sarah and I made our first voyage out to the Bell House in Brooklyn. And (like some others who were at the show apparently) I really thought that the place was a great space. There's a very comfortable bar -- where many people were opting to spend the night without even seeing any music -- with decent Guinness on tap and pleasant barkeeps. And then the performance space is a good size with a few stools around tables, a bar off to the size on a raised platform and a solid sound system. The show was a benefit for (and apparently raised over $500); the benefit included a buffet dinner of corned beef and shepherd's pie, which are both things that I like.

The featured band was The Fauxges, a Pogues tribute band. They took the stage with a blast of hard-strummed banjo-ukelele and some intensely pounding rhythm guitar chops. The drummer knocked out a simple march beat for most songs over the course of the night. And these guys put their hearts into being a good Pogues tribute band by drinking lots of liquor and screaming loudly into the microphones on such classics as "Sally MacLennane," "Jesse James," "Greenland Whale Fisheries" and "Navigator." The band was having fun and so was the crowd -- although I would have liked to see a little more pushing and shoving down front, frankly. The accordion player, who was off to the side (and who went to college with Sarah, for the record), laid down some good sounds apart from the band, clatter and yell of the rest of the band. Not the greatest musical experience I've ever had, but a fun night nonetheless.

The Friday after St. Patrick's Day, David and I found ourselves at B.B. King's -- amazingly to me, this was David's first time at the venue. This show featured not one but two tribute bands: Ziggy Starlet and the Spiders from Venus, an all-female David Bowie act, and The Unforgettable Fire, the great New York-based U2 tribute act.

Ziggy Starlet came out looking hot: she was wearing a shiny black and gold-stiped body suit with circular holes cut at buttocks, waist, shoulder and wrist-level along one side. She was glammed out and ready to rock. The Spiders from Venus included guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. The guitarist had her chops down, getting the "Ziggy Stardust" riff right and letting loose a little bit of shred on some other songs. They totally rocked out on "Suffragette City" and did their best to do so on "Rebel, Rebel" and "The Jean Genie," too.

The group lacked most in the vocal department, I'm sad to say. Ziggy Starlet looked the part, but going woman-for-man with David Bowie on vocals proved a little less workable. Her struggling to hit some of the notes helped me to realize the exceptional quality of David Bowie's voice, which I'm sure was not exactly the intent of the performance, but it was my lesson for the evening.

When it came to The Unforgettable Fire, however, I am pleased to say that nothing was lacking.

Jessica Shaw and I tried to see these guys years ago -- 1999 or 2000 -- at the Continental, but the band had to cancel for health reasons, and we drank shots of Jagermeister while watching some Long Island teenagers do Frank Zappa covers instead. Well, almost 10 years later, I finally got to hear some faux-U2.

The Unforgettable Fire has its act down. They sound like U2: Tony Russo totally has the vocals down. They do their best to look like U2: Russo in Fly sunglasses; guitarist Mick Normoyle in a ski cap; bassist Craig Kiell with close-cropped, dyed-blonde hair and glasses; and drummer George Levesanos with, well, um, a pair of drumsticks... (Perhaps not coincidentally, Levesanos is the only remaining original member of the band, which formed in 1995.) And their show is like U2's: they tack on bits of popular songs at the end of the U2 songs; slogans get flashed on the projection screens (including "The More You Drink, The More I Look Like Him" -- I guess that's not exactly like U2); buffalo go jumping off cliffs during "One"; the band moves out to the middle of the audience (even at B.B. King's) in the middle of the set; Russo grabbed a spotlight during "Bullet the Blue Sky" and flashed it on and off Normoyle like in Rattle and Hum; he waved the Irish flag around during "Sunday Bloody Sunday." It was an amazing simulacrum.

Except that makes it a bit weird... Both David and I had to kind of scratch our heads. Here we were hearing music that sounded like U2, and the performance was like U2's. But how excited could we get? It wasn't really U2 at the end of the day. These guys didn't write the songs or come up with the show. And for David, this was intensified by the fact that they already had the songs from the new CD down and integrated into their set: "Three years in the making; three weeks in the faking," he suggested. Well, a lot of the crowd -- including Irish John and Double A from the Howard Stern Show, who were guzzling Coronas in front of us-- didn't have this existential dilemma -- they got into it, yelling and screaming and grabbing, snapping photographs, shouting out the lyrics. (OK, I definitely didn't shy from singing along to the lyrics. That's for sure.)

At the end of the day, I had a great time seeing The Unforgettable Fire, and I would go see them again in a second, and I think that all U2 fans would enjoy seeing these guys. But there is still some pause in the fact that they are so realistic as a tribute band... Someone should write a dissertation on it! (Oh, wait....)

The set list went like this:

"Van Diemen's Land"
"Sexy Boots"
"Bullet the Blue Sky"
"Beautiful Day"
"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
"I Will Follow"
"Stay (Faraway, So Close)"
"Wild Honey"
"Angel of Harlem" with "My Girl" tag
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" --> "Please" --> "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
"New Year's Day"
"I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight"
"All I Want is You"
"Where the Streets Have No Name"
"Mysterious Ways"
ENCORE: "Gloria"
"With or Without You"

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