Friday, August 7, 2015

The Torture of Being the George

It has occurred to me that one of the worst, most humiliating musical jobs in the world is being in a tribute band, spending your evening pretending to be someone else, playing all his or her parts just like on the record, or in the video, commonly even dressing as that musician dresses.

Then it occurred to me that, in a way, all of us start out in tribute bands, the only difference being that those in which we start usually have a flexible format. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison in their pre-Beatles days were in what at one moment might have been heard as a Buddy Holly tribute band, at another as a Little Richard tribute band, just as the Rolling Stones were a Slim Harpo tribute band, and then a Jimmy Reed, and then a Chuck Berry. Close your eyes and you can easily hear many of the extremely talented (I’m being sarcastic) Tom Petty’s biggest hits as the work of a very specific tribute band — A Tribute to The Byrds’ “Chestnut Mare”.

It occurred to me also that playing in a tribute band is comparable in many ways to being an actor charged with bringing a real-life character to life on stage. I have been both a musician (albeit never in a tribute band, unless you count early Christopher Milk as The Who Jr.) and an actor, and appreciate that the pleasure in both is largely in displaying one’s skill. The difference is that the actor, assuming he or she has a sympathetic director), might get to bring out particular aspects of the portrayed character, in a way that wouldn’t work for the tribute band musician. The audience doesn’t want to hear an interpretation of Jimmy Page’s guitar-playing on "When the Levee Breaks." The audience wants a note-for-note recreation.

Can you imagine how frustrating it must be for the Lennon surrogate in a Beatles tribute band to have to play that little short-scale Rickenbacker in a world full of Strats and Teles and Les Pauls? And it must be torture to be the George. I would guess that the huge majority of tribute band Georges are around 1000 times more accomplished than George himself was, and that playing the comically desultory solo in "All You Need Is Love" every night just as on the record must be excruciatingly frustrating. Can you imagine how these guys must wish just once they could let ‘er rip, but imagine the expression of horror on their audiences’ faces if they did so.

I am reminded of perhaps the most foolish thing I ever wrote during my brief career as a music critic, in a review of the jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer in Rolling Stone. I speculated that if, every few songs, they had somebody come in and play a snarly guitar solo through a 300-watt Distortorama (as The Carpenters had in their hit “Goodbye to Love”), it would provide a lovely respite from the velvety harmonizing, of which good thing, entirely too much! I can imagine the group reading the review, shaking their heads in dismay, and musing, “WTF! What is wrong with this guy?”

Hold on. That isn’t the foolishest thing I wrote. While a university student, I used to spend a lot of time in a particular record store flipping through albums, memorizing liner notes and so on. Somehow the name of Carlos Montoya, a classical guitarist, stuck in my head. When I reviewed one of Santana’s first LA performances for the Los Angeles Times, I identified their guitarist as Carlos Montoya, rather than Santana. D’oh! Double-d’oh! And the funny thing is that not a single reader complained. When I complained about Robert Plant’s shrieking and Jimmy Page’s irrepressible showing off on the guitar, all of southern California seethed. Misidentifying one Carlos as the other? Not a peep!

Happy birthday, TLD!

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