EDITOR’S NOTE: Aimsel Ponti and Bob Keyes are on the same page when it comes to many things musical. But the mitts are off when it comes to the issue of whether tribute bands have merit. Ponti says heck yes and Keyes thinks they’re cheesier than Wisconsin. Both writers make their points below and invite you to decide for yourselves.
I love Bruce Springsteen. When I got my first decent record player – as in an LP record player with an arm and a needle and a spinning platter – the first album I played was “Born to Run.” I was in my teens, and just discovering what rock ’n’ roll was all about. I remember dropping the needle into the groove, hearing the initial hiss of vinyl crackle in the speakers of my bedroom and then that piano and harmonica.
When I got my first CD player, “Born to Run” christened it.
When I loaded up my first digital music player, Bruce had the honors.
So why, after a lifetime of loving Springsteen and seeing him perform live many times, would I want to go hear someone play the music of Springsteen when I can see the real thing? I would rather spend a few hundred bucks on tickets, gas and a hotel in Boston than spend a fraction of that sum to hear something that is unoriginal and derivative.
I have no doubt that Matt Ryan does a fabulous job with Springsteen’s material, and I actually think I might enjoy the show on some level. This has nothing to do with the musician, his band or their ability to make a living.
But to me, music is about originality, expression and intent.
I value my time and my money, and I choose to spend both on artists who stir an emotional, visceral response. Hearing a tribute band is kind of like going to an art gallery and looking at a reproduction of a painting. It may be a high-quality reproduction, but it’s a reproduction nonetheless.
You can put a mat and frame on it and make it look museum-quality, but it’s still unoriginal.
I admit there are gray areas in this debate. As my colleague Aimsel Ponti points out, there is a big difference between tribute bands and cover bands. I actually tolerate some cover bands more than tribute bands, because they are interpreting another artist’s material in their own way, as opposed to a tribute band, which attempts to remind me of the original.
I have a lot of respect for the Beatles night that Portland musician Spencer Albee organizes every year.
He brings together working musicians to interpret the music of a band that changed the course of music history. They play this music with reverence and for fun and out of respect, then go back to their regular bands to play original music.
I also have tolerance for my friend Dennis Bailey and the Bob Band, which plays the music of Bob Dylan. Bailey may look a little like an early-’70s Bob, but he does not attempt to mimic Dylan. He does not affect Dylan’s accent or stage mannerisms. He loves Dylan as a writer and musician, and takes the time to learn obscure Dylan tunes that most casual fans do not know.
In my book, that is very different from the kind of tribute bands we are debating here.
One more point. If a band is no longer playing, I think a tribute band has more latitude. A colleague mentioned Dark Star Orchestra, which plays the music of the Grateful Dead. I like Dark Star Orchestra, and though I have never seen them perform I think it’s cool what they are doing. I respect them, and would consider paying to see them if the circumstances were right.
But Bruce in the USA? No thanks. With all due respect to Matt Ryan, if I want to hear Bruce, I’ll buy a ticket and go hear the real thing.
There was a time when I thought that tribute bands were laughable. Let me be clear, I’m not talking about “cover bands” that you’ll see in a bar on a random Friday night playing classic rock hits. Tribute bands are typically highly polished and some dress similarly to their inspiration’s members. Some of these tribute bands even tour regionally and nationally, drawing huge crowds.
Take Badfish for example. They’re a Sublime tribute band and play in Portland at least once a year, always drawing a good-sized crowd.
Now I’m no expert on tribute bands, but I can tell you about two that I’ve seen. The first one I went to out of sheer curiosity. It was about eight years ago and the venue was Asylum in Portland. The band was 2U and yep, they’re a U2 tribute band. I love U2 and have seen them many times. The thought of a U2 tribute band was both novel and intriguing, so I grabbed a friend and off we went. And you know what? They were fantastic.
Even better than the real thing? Of course not, but man alive, singer Geno Marchello rocked a very impressive Bono look, and although he didn’t sound exactly like him (after all, there’s only one) he wasn’t too far off and his band sounded good enough for me and the hundred or so other people there to have a heck of a fun night. Marchello even came out into the audience for a song and I caught myself having a “Bono shiver” moment. These guys do this because they love U2 and they’ve made their love for the band a fulltime gig.
The other act I’ll mention pays loving homage to a band that is just as sacred to me as U2, and that’s Talking Heads. Start Making Sense is a tribute band that I’ve seen twice and will likely see again when they play Port City Music Hall on March 15. The band is eight members strong and is fronted by Jon Braun. Braun might not look too much like David Byrne, but he sounds so much like him it’s almost scary … in a good way. He’s also got all of Byrne’s quirky moves down, which is no easy task. Both shows have been dance parties full of appreciative Talking Heads fans.
Remember, unlike U2, Talking Heads disbanded many years ago so you can’t see them even if you wanted to (though Byrne does work Heads songs into his live shows).
I won’t argue that original music is where it’s at, but I also know it’s fun to sometimes get off my high horse and let my hair down enough so that I can enjoy seeing a tribute band. A little tribute band, however, goes a long way, so most of my attention is spent on the real deal.
And another thing: Some of the local musicians in this area make music that is downright sacred to me and I will continue to support them in any and every way I can, lest anyone think otherwise. But that doesn’t mean I don’t also have room for the occasional foray into tributeland. It’s a nostalgia-laced land that hopefully takes the music, but not itself, too seriously.