I admit that I had pre-conceived opinions of the idea of a “Tribute Band”. I judged them as musicians who could not make a name for themselves on their own merit and thus rode the coattails of a well-known artist in order to gain some small amount of celebrity without having to find a “real job”. Herbert Spencer correctly labeled contempt prior to investigation as a principle that would keep a man in “everlasting ignorance”. I now see my old ideas on the subject were completely flawed.
Last night I had the opportunity to attend a concert featuring an Oingo Boingo tribute band called Dead Man’s Party. I went with two guys I’ve known since high school, Lee and Larry, whom I had only seen once in the last 20 years. When I got to the theater and saw them, I was amazed at how quickly we fell into the old familiar rhythms of humor, wisecracks, and good-natured jabs at each others’ expense. I asked myself several times why I had not seen these men in so long, for I felt so glad to be with them, it was good for the soul.
We made many jokes about the opening act, featuring a lead singer who could not have been more than 12 years old and the courage to belt out a few AC/DC tunes. When his voice changes, he might have a future – an original song they performed that this young kid wrote showed promise.
The next act was a Misfits tribute band, and I was horrified to hear myself saying “all these songs sound the same” – but they did. We laughed heartily at the bass player’s intro count – “ONETWOTHREEFOUR!” – to every song, and were forced to watch the lead guitarist -sporting a black leather vest- shred on the guitar in a manner that caused his gut to vibrate like a coin-operated bed in a cheap motel. When they announced, “This is our last song”, we shared a collective cheer.
When the headlining act came out, Lee – who has seen Dead Man’s Party on multiple occasions and who organized the evening’s get together – shot out to the pit to express his inner rock fan. I was immediately impressed by the bands tight sound, and how incredibly alike they sounded to the actual band. The lead singer had all of Danny Elfman’s good-natured-yet-creepily-psychotic expressions and mannerisms – and also a hell of a voice. He absolutely sold me from the first song.
Sitting at our table on the outer ring of the theater, the band launched into “Private Life” and I couldn’t take it anymore — I had to get up and dance. So I told Larry I was going out there and I hit the pit. Seconds later, Larry was right behind me.
Getting to the center of the pit, I found Lee and tapped him on the shoulder as I joined in the singing and the fist pumping. Lee turned and saw me and the look of joy on his face was worth the traffic I sat in to get to the show – he embraced me in a big, joyful hug and we joined in the singing, with Larry taking up position on the other side. The three of us bounced, jumped, shook, slammed, singed, screamed and laughed through song after song.
This will sound trite and cliche, but I was transported back to the days (or nights) of my youth, attending Boingo shows at Irvine Meadows and doing all the bouncing, jumping, singing to the same songs. The effect was surreal — it wasn’t Boingo, but it was a Boingo show. The band nailed every nuance of every song, and played selections from the catalog that went further back than even I remembered. The band were clearly having a great time themselves, and the atmosphere of fun spilled over the edge of the stage and enveloped the audience of thirty- and forty-somethings who were all there for the same reasons we were: to hear music that we grew up with, that harkened back to a time when life was a party and the biggest concern we had was whether we would get seats on the terrace or end up on the lawn.
The band played over 2 1/2 hours and played nearly every song I could think of. The party atmosphere increased as the night went on and the strangers in the audience became friends as they stepped on each others feet and apologized, only to be met with an “It’s okay dude!” and a pat on the back. I was jumping like a coked-up gazelle during my favorite songs and more than once bumped into someone I didn’t know. Never was it met with anything other than a good-natured smile and a wave of dismissal to say “don’t worry about it.”
I don’t know where the energy came from. I am twice as old as I was when I would attend the Boingo Halloween shows, and recently the concerts I’ve attended have had the mellow, relaxed vibe of John Mayer or David Gray or Natalie Merchant – even the U2 show I went to at the Rose Bowl last year –where I stood the entire show and danced occasionally — couldn’t match the frenzy of wild abandon I reached as the band launched into “Grey Matter”. I was sweating buckets and knew that I’d be paying a price for all the leaping and bouncing and slamming I was doing, but I didn’t care: at that moment, I wasn’t a fortyish single dad getting a rare night out with adults; I was a free and vital young man who was living life like it was 1989, and I lost track of any care or concern I had.
After the show ended and we were in the Denny’s next door, I couldn’t stop laughing. I felt high, though I was stone cold sober. I was giddy, and couldn’t stop laughing. I felt like I had just been through a transformation of some kind, and in a way I had been: I’d been transported back to my youth, where I partied for a few hours, and then transported back to the present where the effects still lingered. The smile is still on my face as I write this nearly 24 hours later.
A tribute band wields magical powers. I imagine those powers are proportional to how much an audience member loves their music, or what kind of memories that person associates with the original band. For me, Dead Man’s Party hypnotized me into thinking I was 21 again and enjoying a kick-ass New Wave show, and they did it all while singing and playing instruments. That’s no easy task – I’d say that’s a “real job”.
By the way, I am so not 21 anymore. I am paying the price today with sore legs, no voice, and impromptu napping. Magic spells seldom last long.