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Musical Chameleons: My Take On Tribute Bands & A Concert Review

April 1, 2012

 

Recently I had the privilege of attending a classic rock tribute band known as Comfortably Numb: Canada’s Pink Floyd Show. The event took place on February 4th 2012 at 4pm at the Opera House on Queen Street East in Toronto, Ontario. The band consisted of Azim Keshavjee a.k.a. AK (from London, England) on lead vocal, all guitars, talk box, and lap steel, Solveig Keshavjee (from Montreal, Canada) on backing vocals, keyboards, and video/audio FX, Ahenk Ozakpinar (from Istanbul, Turkey) on bass and backing vocals, Matt Babineau (from Ottawa, Canada) on drums and percussion, and Charles McInnis (from Ottawa, Canada) on keyboard and organ. Although these members are best known for their tribute work in Comfortably Numb, they also have a band of their own called The AK Project, which will be releasing an album with new material in the spring of 2012.

 

As a Pink Floyd fan myself, there were several aspects that I was looking forward to viewing and hearing in the concert. Comfortably Numb’s 2012 tour was called “The Pigs, Wishes, and Moons Tour”, meaning they would be playing songs from Pink Floyd’s albums Animals (1977), Wish You Were Here (1975), and The Darkside of the Moon (1973). Previous to the show, I had researched fan reviews on Ticketmaster.ca regarding their previous shows. Out of 68 reviews, 47 were rated 5 stars. After reading several reviews, I gathered that they often performed most (if not all) of the albums listed in their tour name, and included effects that were similar to Pink Floyd’s concerts (i.e. psychedelic lighting, lasers, video screens, etc.). Some shows were as long as 4 hours.

 

One of my main concerns with a Pink Floyd tribute band covering an album like The Darkside of the Moon would be its level of accuracy towards the song “The Great Gig in the Sky”. It is sung by a female singer and is one of the hardest songs for any vocalist to sing. I’ve seen several concerts (including Pink Floyd’s Pulse concert DVD) where that song has been shamefully butchered by many female singers. Some performances (i.e. Pulse) contain more than one singer, each as horrific as the last. For me, my respect for the band rested within their ability to reproduce that song. Along with song choices, I was also interested in how they would organize their set list. Since many of Pink Floyd’s songs lead into the next one, I was curious to see if they would shuffle different songs from different albums, or keep the songs and their albums in a consecutive order. 

 

Previous to the concert, I had read about certain tribute bands like Dark Star Orchestra that “re-creates exact Grateful Dead shows – say, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, August 30, 1978” (Kurutz 150). I wondered if Comfortably Numb would play studio versions of songs note for note, or create a song version that allowed improvisation within solo breaks, or even recreate a show from 1977 onward that would have included excerpts from all three albums.

 

The Opera House was originally a Vaudville theatre built in the early 1900s. Today it contains modern lighting and sound equipment behind its proscenium arch and is the host to many new and unique bands. The building had great acoustics and created a cozy and intimate relationship between the band and its audience. The audience participation was grand as many danced and sung along to the music and offered friendly remarks to the band’s commentary. The audience’s age ranged from baby boomers to elementary students.

 

Unlike most tribute bands, Comfortably Numb did not alter their physical appearances to fit the members of Pink Floyd, nor did they exploit character traits, posture, or possess exact instrument replicas. Aside from similar lighting, laser, and video usage on a circular projection screen (like Pink Floyd’s), it was clear from the beginning that their main focus and concern was on the music itself.

 

Although the band did not play complete albums, they would play several songs in album order. For example, when it came to playing the Animals album, they played “Dogs”, “Pigs (Three Different Ones)”, and “Sheep” together, leaving out the first and last song of the album. Their songs were note-for-note replicas of studio versions, except for their rendition of “Comfortably Numb” (ironically), as the singer mixed up some of the lyrics by accident, and “The Great Gig In The Sky”, for the female vocalist added some improvisation in her solo. Their strict attention to Pink Floyd’s studio details not only provided an amazing concert experience for the young people in the audience, but also allowed fans to re-live timeless classics like “Time” and “Wish You Were Here” performed exactly the way they would have been performed when they were originally released. Comfortably Numb allows like-minded people of all ages to gather and celebrate the music of Pink Floyd in a time when Pink Floyd no longer tours and Roger Waters tickets sell at $150 each (as opposed to Comfortably Numb’s $35 ticket). Comfortably Numb offers a chance for people to experience the raw power and emotion that is associated with live concerts in a time where everything else is digitally altered and sterilized before becoming available to the public’s ears. AK’s vocals and guitar defy the ways of new music productions by not using software to alter his voice or playing abilities. Instead he promotes the ways of the 70s by actually playing his guitar (rather than miming) and not being lured into the current Autotune craze. AK possesses real talent and has been described by fans as “playing like David Gilmour and sounding like Roger Waters” (Comfortablynumblive.com), a compliment that every Pink Floyd tribute band wants to achieve. Aside from playing Animals, Wish You Were Here, and Darkside of the Moon, near the end of the show and within the encore they played several songs from Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1979) album including “Mother”, “Another Brick In The Wall Pt. 2”, “Run Like Hell”, and “Hey You” as if they were extras on a DVD.

 

Steven Kurutz, author of Like A Rolling Stone, describes tribute bands as: 

 

“...unabashed believers in rock and roll, at a time when the form appears to have hit a dry spell. ...But at a tribute show, classic rock culture reigns in all its high-decibel glory. I think of tribute bands as being like those historical re-enactors, dressing up and reliving a golden age of rock and roll – a time before the commercial dominance of pop and hip-hop, before DJs replaced live bands, before radio and record company conglomeration, before things like guitar solos and groupies and rock operas became ironic” (Kurutz 5-6).  

 

The first known tribute act happened in 1976 with Beatlemania – a Broadway musical containing four guys dressed like the Beatles playing Beatles music in celebration of the Beatles’ music. The idea came from Steve Leber, who knew that there was still a demand for the Beatles and their music, even though the band had broken up in 1970. Most tribute bands play classic rock, however there are exceptions such as country, blues, reggae, and soul. Although there are some tribute bands that play newer or touring artists, many tribute bands are formed from older bands that are no longer able to reunite (i.e. the Beatles, the Doors, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, etc.) (Kututz 41). 

 

Aside from the term “tribute” bands, the term “cover band” often appears and people often assume they mean the same thing. A cover band is a group of people that play more than one artist’s repertoire, whereas a tribute band will stick with only one band. A tribute band will often change their appearance and adopt personality traits, postures, and even accents from the original band members. Tribute bands will often play pieces note for note, whereas a cover band will play a song based on the original, but will leave room for improvisation and artistic interpretation (Homan 5).

 

There are many conflicting views towards the craft of a tribute band. Some people like Steve Leber (creator of Beatlemania) believe that tribute bands are “no different from classical orchestras. Both perform the music of great composers; it just so happens that in the case of tribute bands, the composers are named Lennon and Jagger and Garcia, not Mozart or Handel, and they haven’t been dead for two hundred years to be properly canonized” (Kurutz 159). Others believe that tribute bands are a scam and are simply uncreative musicians riding on the coat-tails of other people’s fame and achievements. Many tribute bands are faced with the question: why not make your own music? For many tribute band musicians, their music discourages them because subconsciously they’re always comparing it to their mentors. Other bands have produced their own music, but have found themselves at the bottom of the music industry trying to promote it, after being on top of the industry as a tribute artist. Comfortably Numb is an exception to the tribute band stereotyping. Although their tribute work is well known, they are able to produce their own albums under a different band name and maintain success as independent artists.

 

Several scholars have linked the act of “tributing” to other art forms outside of music. Steven Kurutz argues that “Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho is unquestionably a tribute band to the Alfred Hitchcock original. Karaoke is based on the same premise as a tribute band, as is the popular video game Guitar Hero, in which players replicate, note for note, famous guitar solos.” (Kurutz 4). Tribute bands often see themselves as simply promoting and celebrating the bands that they’ve grown up idolizing. Many see it as a way to “give back” to the artist, as imitation is said to be the highest form of flattery. But how do the original artists feel about tribute bands? In 1980 a reporter from Boston Globe asked Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones what he thought about the Canadian Rolling Stones tribute band Blushing Brides that had been taking North America by storm. When asked if he was bothered by their popularity Jagger replied, “No. It’s not offensive to me. It’s just mad...What can you do? What would Elvis have done? There are a lot of Elvis imitators, right? And then there’s the Beatlemania thing, which did very well. I mean, the appetite for recycled crap in this country seems enormous” (Kurutz 67). In several cases, tribute bands have been given set props or instruments by the original band themselves. For example, Peter Gabriel donated original stage props and backdrop effects from Genesis circa 1973 to the Montreal Genesis tribute band Music Box, whose musical focus was the Peter Gabriel led era of Genesis (Homan 19).

 

Although I have not seen Pink Floyd in concert I feel as though I have. When describing my concert experience to friends and family I was constantly correcting myself and reminding myself that it was in fact a tribute band and not the “real” thing. There were moments in the concert where I became deeply drawn into the emotion that the music was conveying. Their rendition of “The Great Gig in the Sky” was so beautifully executed that I ended up having chills. I’ve been to many classic rock concerts in my life, and I’ve only experienced that feeling a few times, and those were all with original bands. There were moments where I would close my eyes, leaving the visual effects behind, and just focus on the music being played. There were many magical moments within that concert that words really cannot describe. As a Pink Floyd fan, I felt as though I was in another time experiencing the greatness of David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Richard Wright, and Nick Mason back in 1977 in an intimate venue. To be in a room that makes you a majority instead of a minority with like-minded people is always extremely refreshing and rewarding. My only criticism about the show would be the lyric mistake in “Comfortably Numb”, and the lack of “Have A Cigar” from Wish You Were Here. Of course, it would have been nice to hear Darkside of the Moon in its entirety, but with the concert being three hours long already, I really can’t complain. 

 

When I started writing and researching tribute bands I wasn’t sure how to feel about them. I’ve always felt that nothing can be better than the real thing. However over the years I’ve been to a couple of expensive concerts (i.e. The Animals and Jethro Tull) that could not hold a candle to their own music. After seeing Comfortably Numb and witnessing how rewarding a tribute band can be, any negative connotations I previously held against tribute bands has been lifted. It takes a lot of hard work musically to be able to pull off such flawless performances, and many tribute artists end up knowing the songs better than the original artist. Through practice, performance, and pure dedication, tribute bands have proven that credit should be given where credit is due, regardless of who wrote what.

 

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