In which we unapologetically, over-seriously consider the phenomenon of the tribute band
ILLUSTRATION BY STEVIE VAN BRONKHORST
The tribute band is pop music’s greatest indulgence.
It trumps the extended solo in effort, the double album in redundancy, the rock opera in geekitude. At worst, it’s a tasteless, exploitative approximation of the real thing, the Rolecks watch of entertainment. More often, it’s a harmless—if shameful—form of flattery. As it exists right now in Seattle, it’s something else entirely.
The city’s newest tribute bands are “The Rolling Stones” and the American Girls, comprising musicians in their 20’s and 30’s playing music made 40 years ago. Both started playing shows within the last few months. Both are very good at what they do. Without spending too much time comparing, it’s interesting to note that the American Girls—who are also known by the superior moniker Petty Party—is a Ballard band, repping the rootsy, corduroy-clad singer-songwriter side of Seattle, and “The Rolling Stones” are a Capitol Hill band that emerged from the city’s noisy post-punk scene. Though they play infrequently, the members of these bands perfectly render their source material.
Everyone who learns an instrument starts out playing someone else’s songs. The truly brave/talented/clueless attempt to write their own music, often undaunted by the fact that they’ll never best, say, “Satisfaction.” These guys went that route. All of them come from other bands—very good, innovative bands, including Truckasauras, Past Lives, Widower and Whalebones. Each has worked hard to develop a unique, personal mode of expression. In the case of Jordan Blilie and Devin Welch of “The Rolling Stones,” who were in early-’00s group Blood Brothers, they even sold a lot records and played to big crowds around the world. For years, they impacted fans with their own stuff. Now they’re putting time into playing someone else’s stuff. Why the hell would they do that?
A cover band demands no judgment. Your affection for Petty and the Stones might be latent, but it’s real. That affection stems from history: Judgment was passed way back when, probably in high school, you first heard “Runnin’ Down a Dream” on the car stereo with the windows rolled down to summertime or “Mother’s Little Helper” on your parents’ turntable. The guys onstage share that history, and communally, in the moment, that history is powerful.
Petty Party frontman Kevin Large’s original music, performed as Widower, is woefully lonesome, and Large is often wracked by stage fright. As Tom Petty, he gushes charisma, his band is spot-on, the transformation is complete. The six-piece “Rolling Stones” focus on Exile on Main Street-era blooze-rock anthems, boosted by a full horn section and backing vocalists. They pose and strut and sweat while reviving a glorified past on a tiny stage. Both bands inject new cred into classic rock that’s been drained of urgency by radio overplay. Both dig into the details and disappear into the music. There’s no irony, only kickass songs. Musicians and music lovers are confronted with dozens of new songs to judge every week, most of which they’ll never hear again. These cover songs are part of American pop-culture DNA.
The crowds at “The Rolling Stones”’ debut performance at the Rendezvous Grotto in February, and Petty Party at the Sunset in March, were seasoned, show-going crowds. Music scene crowds. Not, in other words, typical tribute band crowds. And yet there they were: Bros high-fiving, girls twirling, everyone yelling every word of “Free Fallin’” and “Loving Cup,” swilling Budweiser and losing whatever critical inhibitions come with “checking out a band.” These people were in love with these bands before they heard the first note—they were in love with these bands 20 years ago. So instead of judging there was dancing, instead of skeptical hand-wringing there were knowing smiles of recognition.
Which isn’t to say there’s no pressure involved for the musicians. Present at the “Stones”’ Rendezvous show were all the members of the Real Decoys, the band drummer Tyler Swan’s dad played in 40 years ago. Devin Welch borrowed the elder Swan’s ’78 Fender Telecaster—Keith Richards' preferred axe—for the gig. For weeks the bandmembers had practiced songs they already knew by heart. It’s a serious thing for an artist to mimic his idols. There are multi-generational standards to meet.
But is it art?
After I claimed it was in a blog post, a commenter at SeattlePI.com wrote, “It’s paradoxical to claim artistic legitimacy as a cover band. It’s about having a good time, dropping our precious artsier-than-thou attitudes (something this scene has in spades) and remembering why rock music exists in the first place.”
Short shrift, I say. First, rock music exists for reasons different to everyone. Secondly, consider that this month, the Seattle Symphony performs Carmina Burana, an 80-year-old piece of music based on 800-year-old Latin literature. Seattle Art Museum recently featured the photography of Andy Warhol. The Seattle Shakespeare Company just wrapped up its season with The Merry Wives of Windsor. These artists, performances, and exhibitions all re-present art made long ago–facsimiles, copies of copies–yet we don’t question their artistic value.
We deal with facsimile reality every day, edified by a tweet about a blog post about an article about an event. Though it’s recently reached surreal levels of disconnect, this process of perception is not new. (Recall Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and the hypothetical cave-dweller who perceives the shadow of a cutout of an animal as the animal itself.) The latest example, which surfaced online in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, is the Martin Luther King, Jr. quote that wasn’t by Martin Luther King Jr. The approximation was just as good as the real thing.
In his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase The medium is the message. He suggested that meaning is derived by looking beyond content and instead at the method of content delivery. Tribute bands—and our love for them in 2011—tell us about ourselves. As writer Wallace Stegner put it, “We like what we know more than we know what we like.”