Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 02, 2004


On my Thursday morning drive I heard an in-studio interview and song on the local Oldies station. The Beatles-tribute-impersonator group Rain was playing a couple shows in town and they came in to promote their appearance. (I assume their name was “Rain” and not “Rein” or “Reign” or “Rayin’.”) There was almost-witty banter, and they played one song, a Beatle fave of mine, “This Boy.” Nicely done, the tight 3-part harmony, the energetic 6/8 rhythm guitar. Nicely done, and what made it awful was the lead banterer not only tried to sing like John Lennon but talk like him too. His impersonation was almost good -- recognizable, and just wrong enough to be hideous.

I’ve never seen or knowingly heard an Elvis impersonator, but I understand that impulse more. Elvis had a more flamboyant voice and persona than any of the Beatles. Larger than life and sincere and sweet. The Beatles’ non-musical group persona was insouciance and wit and sarcasm and goofiness. All fine qualities to emulate, but hard to pull off when you’re straining to recreate the physical sound of someone else’s voice.

Nothing against tribute bands, mind you. Couldn’t we consider symphony orchestras to be Beethoven tribute bands? I’ve been to several tribute shows in the last decade. Most of them have technically not been tribute shows, but oldies shows -- old stars touring on their catalogues. Trying to remember whom I’ve seen:

Ramones. (What struck me was that they played the same roles in the same costumes longer than Carol Channing in “Hello Dolly.”)

Television. (Twice! Two of the best shows I’ve ever seen -- wild jazz-noise-improvised bluesy-riff-anchored rock. Exhilarating.)

Funkadelic. (The four OTHER original singers won control of this name from P-Funk leader George Clinton. The show was a George Clinton tribute act, even doing some of Clinton’s solo hits. And it was tremendous -- they can really sing, and they hired an ace band, and it was in a small club, and it rocked.)

Brian Wilson. (Beach Boys tribute act, with a couple songs from his solo career. Gorgeous show. I cried during the song “Add Some Music to Your Day,” at the suddenly climactic line, “Music is in my soul.”)

Earth Wind & Fire. (Great showmen; Philip Bailey can still sing like an angel -- he sang the high parts. Since they were playing Seattle, in the middle of the show most of the band left the stage, leaving the lead guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer, none of whom had been in the classic EWF band, and they did “Machine Gun” by Hendrix. And it was wonderful.)

Patti Smith. (I love her first album but she’s never been an inspired bandleader. She still sings with energy.)

A Jimi Hendrix Tribute Night by lots of people at the downtown Symphony Hall. (Mostly striving to be arty & different while failing to deliver the songs on anything resembling their own terms. Except Medeski Martin & Wood, who tore up “Manic Depression.” A good match -- the first time I heard MMW, I thought, wow, that guy is the Hendrix of the organ -- such a creative master magician of tone & timbre & distortion.)

A Rahsaan Roland Kirk Tribute Night led by Steve Turre, a trombonist who recorded with Kirk, and featuring sax phenom James Carter. (Tremendous show. Kirk is one of my top favorite all-time composers, and this band tore it up.) ("Tore it up" -- it just occurred to me: an allusion to Dionysus.)

Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra doing selections from Duke Ellington’s sacred (meaning, explicitly Christian) music. (I’ve seen this concert twice! And wonderful.)

Barry Manilow. (A great showman, and aside from maybe Patti Smith, the only of these acts to offer new material in his show, some of which was head-shake-able No, some of which was lively & tuneful & head-nod-able Yes. At a party after the concert, a friend, when he heard where my beloved spouse and I had been, said, “John, I think you’re taking this irony thing too far.” I tried to explain that I really like a lot of Barry’s songs; that they had touched me in my pre-teen years before I understood what was supposed to be cool, and I was enjoying getting back in touch with that open-ness. My friend said he understood and talked about how Journey was the new hip thing in coffee shops, and the 20-year-olds pouring the coffee probably had the same relationship to it that I had to Barry. I was horrified, never having run into this trend, and the very next day I heard Journey in a coffee house, and I started the process of making my peace with Journey, and trying to hear what people like in it. I’m getting there.)

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