I Wish I Could Be You

April 10, 2009

While clearing up my hard-drive this morning (snore), I found the below article on Tribute Bands I wrote for the September issue of now online-only Analogue Magazine. While it’s in print somewhere, it’s not on the internet. And, obviously, the internet is the only place that counts. Read on, dear readers. (BTW, does anyone remember when Katie and I used to write actual blog posts? Nah. Me neither.)

Tribute Bands
Ailbhe Malone

I’m sitting on a couch in a stranger’s living room. His son comes in and gives me a cup of tea, and a Kit-Kat. I’m flanked on each side by two members of the Folsom Five, a Dublin-based Johnny Cash tribute band. They’re dressed in turned up jeans and their hair is carefully quiffed. They also have cups of tea and Kit-Kats. I was meant to be sitting in on a band practice, only Chico- the main man- hasn’t shown up. I’m severely disappointed. By the sounds of it, Chico is fantastic. Originally Chico was in a Bob Marley tribute band, and then decided to ‘branch out’. Apparently, he’s from ‘the North Side of Dublin, and isn’t as tall as Johnny Cash, but as soon as he’s onstage he puts on the accent and keeps it up afterwards. When we’re onstage, it’s like we’re straight out of Memphis.’ Sans Chico, the other members make up another band- the rockabilly outfit Aces Wild. When the film ‘Walk the Line’ came out, the enterprising Chico suggested forming a Johnny Cash tribute band, and the Folsom Five was born. The ’Five perform songs from all eras of Cash’s career- focusing mainly on the San Quentin and Folsom Prison Sets- with a twenty minute interval, during which they play well known rock and roll songs as Aces Wild. Presumably Chico has a cigarette break at this point. The band has yet to have a negative response to any of their gigs- provided they stick to better-known songs. ‘We spent ages practicing Cash’s version of ‘Hurt’ and then played it at a gig. Dead, it was. You could hear tumbleweed blow across the room. We had to cut ‘Hurt’ in the middle just to keep the tempo going. There’s a band in Scotland and they do anything in the Johnny Cash voice. Union Avenue they’re called. They do ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ or ‘Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me’. Ireland’s not ready for that. Ireland’s very closed-minded.’

Ireland may not yet be ready for such crossover hits as the above, but it’s very accepting of tribute bands, indeed, as are most countries. With ticket prices ever-rising, and tours skipping over cities, countries and continents, a tribute band offers the chance to hear the music of a loved band, in a live setting. Tribute bands first came to prominence in Australia- due to hefty waits between live appearances by the real deal; groups such as the Australian Pink Floyd filled the gap in a prog-rock-hungry market. The first tribute bands are generally acknowledged to be the Rolling Clones (formed in 1979) and the Bootleg Beatles (1980). However, tribute bands are coming to the fore in their own right. This summer, the Tribute to Music Festival was held Verbania Football Stadium, Italy. The festival was a week-long celebration of tribute acts, including appearances from Oasish, Rollin’ Clones and One Night of Queen. Glastonbudget, held on Turnpost Farm, Leicestershire, is the UK equivalent of the Tribute to Music Festival. The combined pun factor inherent in both festivals would support a Christmas cracker joke-writer in mince pies for 100 years. Notable samples include- Fake That, Stereotonics, Razorlike and Pink Fraud. The overt punning can sometimes lead people astray though. Earlier this year, Lez Zeppelin (an all-girl Led Zeppelin tribute band) caused the music press to frantically backpedal. Lez Zep were slated to play at Bonnaroo Festival, only, several music sites-including Associated Newspapers, Telegraph.co.uk and NME.com- in their excitement, failed to read the small print, and presumed it was Plant and Co. What a difference a letter makes…

Not that it matters, of course, that Lez Zeppelin are all female. The important thing in the world of tribute bands, it turns out, is the sound. Kevin Doogan, of Metallica tribute band Frantica, explains- ‘I saw a really good Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute band a few years ago, and they looked nothing like them. If you closed your eyes it was like you were at the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s the person’s preference.’ The toss up continually arises between looking like the band, and sounding like the band. It seems though, that it’s an easy choice. Though most groups consider their appearance to a certain degree, a tribute band’s ultimate goal is to recreate faithfully the live experience of the band in question. This often involves more work that one’d think. For example, there are little differences between the studio album and the live album. A studio version of song X fades out in the end, but when playing live, fading out isn’t an option. Therefore, one has to find out what happens when it is played live. It’d be easy to dismiss members of tribute bands as fanboy/girls, and brush off their obsession with capturing exactly every precious note, but to do so would belittle the amount of professionalism and perfectionism that they show. With Frantica, ‘we want to get it note for note right, for our own enjoyment, and for the show. People notice the difference live. I don’t want to have a laugh; I want to get it perfect. We spend ages trying to learn all the small bits, the little harmonies, the bits that you could leave out, but you should leave in because the song wouldn’t be the same without it.’

Bearing this in mind, perhaps the most difficult aspect of playing in a tribute band is trying to re-create, live, the stage presence of the band emulated. Especially when it’s a band as big as U2. Rattle and Hum was the first U2 tribute band in Ireland. Half of them taught in my secondary school. Rattle and Hum that is. Not U2. My entire secondary-school experience is rooted in watching the Business teacher and the English teacher pretend to be Bono and Larry Mullins, respectively, in various venues around Dublin. Except they weren’t pretending, they were being. It’s hard to explain. When they were onstage, we were no longer watching our teachers play music at the weekend, we were watching U2. There’s a certain amount of suspension of disbelief inherent in watching a tribute band play, but, really, atmosphere is key. It doesn’t matter how much they look, or sound like the genuine article. If it doesn’t feel the same, it’s always going to be ersatz. How then, do Rattle and Hum recreate the experience of a live U2 show? Michael ‘Bono’ Malone answers: ‘The stage presence is always a challenge because your average pub/club/venue is never going to offer the magic that is an arena like Wembley/Croke Park etc. What we try to put across is a scaled down U2 gig a bit like those MTV unplugged sessions (that were not unplugged) that were all the rage about 15 years ago.’ Uisneagh ‘Larry’ Treacy adjoins- ‘Obviously we don’t have a big stage like they have. We’re limited like that. You try to bring across an energy that the audience can react with. The best gigs are where the audience engages with the band. You try to emulate them [U2]. Your audience dictates what your set list is going to be. We never do exactly the same set. We get a feel for the kind of gig and the audience. You tailor your set to whatever the audience is going to be like. You try and get a mixture of everything. Even if we don’t like it we have to play it. You’d be expected to play them. It’s not necessarily an artistic thing, in order for you to survive as a tribute band you have to sell yourself.’

Aye, there lies the rub. The audience always wins. Like every other band, tribute bands get fed up with their material too. This is- as much as anything else- one of the reasons that tribute bands are so keen to pick up on new material as soon as possible. Frantica have ‘already got the bones of a few songs from the new album (‘Death Magnetic’). Because we’re restricted to stuff that’s already been written, when new stuff comes out it gives us a challenge. I enjoy learning new songs. I reckon people will definitely expect it. If you do play it, it’s going to be a bonus.’ Equally, Rattle and Hum are ‘looking forward to U2’s next album in the spring.’ Though in the case of the Folsom Five there’s no case of any new material surfacing, they content themselves by playing original material in the Aces Wild set in their shows. Are all members of tribute bands failed musicians then, yearning to play their own music, but with the time or the talent? While every band-member that I’ve interviewed had, at some stage, been in an originals band, to make such a claim would be false and unkind. Without sounding cloying or disingenuous, what shines through, above all else, is a genuine love of music. It’s more than a hobby, it’s a lifeline. Despite long hours, ungracious audiences and poor pay, none of them see their bands packing up any time soon. Music is a constant thread in their lives. Be it that of U2-‘we’re all very proud of what we’ve achieved in the band- we never set out to last that long. Rattle and Hum has been a constant thing in all our lives. Every day we just think about the next gig.’ Or Johnny Cash- ‘If we got bored doing it we’d knock it on the head. Even if we weren’t in the band we’d jam anyway. We’re always thinking about it. We’d ring each other about three times a week, before and after the practice, with new ideas or things to change’. Or Metallica- ‘I’ll always be playing music, definitely. I stopped for a while and I had to go back playing. I stopped, but my guitar was always there. I will always play.’



3 Responses to “I Wish I Could Be You”

  1. Layla said

    I READ that in paper! and i think i might actually still have it in paper…

    I like paper.

  2. Fayoona said

    i ALSO read that in the paper and mused over the familiarity of the author’s name. you are one talented chica miss a.
    SOS-er fi xx

  3. Hi, what anti spam tool do you use? Is it working for you or..? I would really appreciate it if you could answer this question! Thanks!

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