HIGH FREQUENCIES: New lamps for old; searching for love over gold

Tribute bands are the new black?

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Photo credit: Melissa Bützer

Tribute band or original music? It’s a choice Atlanta’s ticket-buying audience has to make these days, whether to go see nameless musicians recreate a favorite band’s music in concert or go see a group of musicians trying to make a name for themselves crafting original songs while building their chops.

Between now and the end of March, up to 50 tribute bands are booked in Atlanta, from major concert venues to smaller bars and local hang-outs. The Variety Playhouse, City Winery, the Vista Room, Terminal West … they all offer tribute bands in the coming weeks; Smith’s Olde Bar even presenting a weekend festival of them.

It was in the late '80s/early '90s that ads for the Machine, a Pink Floyd tribute band, first started appearing for their shows at the Variety Playhouse. It seemed innocuous enough. A group of New York-based musicians, huge Pink Floyd fans, decided to take their obsession on the road and amaze other fans of the British band. And why not? At the time, Pink Floyd was in a state of disarray, Roger Waters having left the group and declaring the end of the band, only to find that former band mates David Gilmour and Nick Mason decided to carry on without him. During the ensuing legal battles, fans wanted to experience Pink Floyd’s music and theatrical stage presentations live — and the Machine fit the bill.

Of course, a band like the Machine was not taken seriously by any self-respecting rock critic. For all intents and purposes, they were nothing more than a copy band, playing other people’s music with studio-like precision to recreate the experience for a new generation.

It wasn’t the first time such a thing happened. In the late '70s, Randy Hansen, a guitarist born in Seattle, WA, started touring as Randy Hansen’s Machine Gun, performing a set of music by another Seattle-born guitarist, Jimi Hendrix. Hansen, a white man, not only resembled the late African-American guitarist in physical stature, but dressed in the groovy, psychedelic '60s fashions that were Hendrix’s trademark. Onstage, he even wore brown makeup! But the fact that he could play guitar like Hendrix, only added to the experience (pun intended). Of course, Hansen wasn’t as creative a guitarist as Hendrix, nor did he have the same inventive, divine inspiration as the guitarist who died in 1970, but having learned to play Hendrix’s songs note-for-note, Hansen’s show in Hendrix drag made for a night of good entertainment.

I remember talking to Hansen backstage at the Agora Ballroom after his set many years ago. He had washed off the dark makeup from his face, arms, and hands and was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans when a couple of local Atlanta groupies made their way into the dressing room. Looking around the small space, they seemed perplexed. Finally, one of them interrupted our conversation and asked if we knew where Randy Hansen was? Hansen just smiled and kept on talking.

Today, Hansen still performs, and his website calls his act a “tribute” to Jimi Hendrix. But what once was reserved for playing the music of dead musicians and broken-up bands, has taken on a life — and industry — of its own as younger musicians, growing up with the echoes of their parents’ record collections, have decided to pay tribute to any number of bands. For any number of reasons.

The Machine, who, like the rest of these bands, shouldn’t be taken seriously unless you’re out for a good time, returns to Atlanta with their audio/visual extravaganza, playing City Winery Jan. 23. City Winery also has Kick: The INXS Experience, Feb. 22.

If you miss the Machine, you’ll have your chance to get your Pink Floyd fix next month when the Pink Floyd tribute, Interstellar Echoes, is at the Vista Room Feb. 23. The Vista Room could easily take the lead in how many tribute bands one club has booked: Still Bill (Bill Withers), Jan. 25; Chi-Town (Chicago), Feb. 2; A Tribute to Sting & the Police (to hell with a name, just call it what it is), Mar. 3; and Street Fighting Band (the Rolling Stones), Mar. 22.

But Smith’s Olde Bar has them all beat.

Image GIG POSTER: Butzer & Co. at the Earl.ILLUSTRATION: Aaron McKinneyA long-standing Atlanta showcase club, Smith’s books in one weekend more tribute bands than any other club in town has on its schedule for the next three months. Pseudopalooza, Friday and Saturday, Feb. 23 and 24, offers six bands on Friday: New Sensation (INXS); Stone Tribute Pilots (Stone Temple Pilots); El Scorcho (Weezer); Roxonian (Roxy Music); Nameless Nameless (Nirvana); and Electric Avenue (an AOR hit list); while Saturday promises 10 bands: Shake Your Money Maker (the Black Crowes); the Dirty Doors (the Doors); Dead Affect (the Grateful Dead); Running Down A Dream (Tom Petty); Madam Company (a Paul Rodgers/Bad Co tribute fronted by a woman); the Cherry Bomb (Joan Jett/Runaways); Running With The Devil (Van Halen); Ballbreakers (AC/DC); and Rumors (Fleetwood Mac). With two drink tickets and one meal ticket (Fox Bros. BBQ) included with the purchase of the individual VIP package, it’s not a bad deal.

Earlier in February, Smith’s also offers a night of Pretty Vacant (Sex Pistols) vs. the Kings of Queens (Ramones) on Feb. 2, and Abbey Road Live (the Beatles) on Feb. 9.

This Friday night, Terminal West features Runaway Gin (Phish, themselves a “tribute” to the Grateful Dead), while Avondale Towne Cinema offers Permanent Waves (Rush) Saturday night, and, across town, 529 has Clashinista (the Clash). Eddie’s Attic, another bastion of original music, offers the latest installment in the Amplify My Community series with “Lennon vs. McCartney vs. Harrison,” as local musicians fight it out amongst themselves, pitting post-Beatles solo material by John, Paul, and George. The following week, on Jan. 27, the Georgia Players Guild presents the Music of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

The Variety Playhouse stays in the running with ZOSO (Led Zeppelin), Jan. 26-27; the Fab Four (Beatles), March 16; and the Yacht Rock Revue, veering off its usual '70s schmaltz course March 30, performing the Talking Heads landmark live album, Stop Making Sense.

And, if “tribute” bands aren’t enough, there’s the progeny on tour. Both daughters of Sam Cooke and Isaac Hayes are now on the road, singing the songs their fathers made famous. Carla Cooke plays the Vista Room this Saturday night, followed by Heather Hayes, Feb. 8. Both shows are more of a revue, with the daughters telling stories and dancing in addition to performing the hits of their fathers. Perhaps Atlanta’s new mayor will have a second act after her term is over.

Albert White, who plays the Northside Tavern this Saturday night, has a musical lineage, but that doesn’t form the basis of his performances. The nephew of Atlanta barrelhouse piano player Piano Red, White forged his own sound on guitar after taking lessons from Red’s guitar player, Wesley Jackson, at an early age. Leading Red’s band into the '60s, White established a friendship with Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, another Northside regular.

Also, this Saturday, Club Silencio: Music from the Films of David Lynch returns to the Earl. A tribute to the music featured in “Twin Peaks,” Blue Velvet and other Lynch productions, it is performed by Jeffrey Bützer with T.T. Mahoney, Nikki Speake, Ben Davis, Sean Zearfoss, and Matt Steadman, who all play with Bützer in his band the Bicycle Eaters. Bützer has also curated similar shows with the songs of both Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. What I find interesting about Bützer’s presentations is that, rather than performing the material letter-perfect, the music is approached in much the same way he writes his own compositions, featuring instruments as varied as guitars, violin, accordion, piano, glockenspiel, resonator bells, autoharp, bowed banjo, harmonica, melodica, toy piano, percussion, and Casio. The result is demonstrative rather than just interpretative, and offers as much of Bützer’s own personality as that of the original composers.

The evening also marks the release of Bützer’s latest album, In The Grey Plumage, which he will perform at the beginning of the night. Bützer’s own music, an intriguing mix of the aforementioned instruments, draws inspiration from French pop and cabaret chansons, spaghetti westerns, and minimalist expressionism, creating stark and demanding compositions. Don’t think Philip Glass — it’s more the Durutti Column meets Nico’s Marble Index, sombre yet playful. Some of the compositions are not so much the sound of things falling apart as they are items breaking away in liberating cascades.

Also on the bill is Small Reactions, a band that features Bützer collaborator Sean Zearfoss on drums, with Clinton Callahan, bass and vocals, Scotty Hoffman guitar and lead vocals, and Rossellini Politi, guitar and vocals. They create glorious noise pop as infectious as it is exuberant, as exciting as it is creative.

While the spirited tributes such as Club Silencio are few and far between, they are most common when musicians get together to simply play music by artists that mean something to them. It’s why the Star Bar’s (Buddy) Hollyfest 2018, 10 years running on Feb. 3, is such a success. It’s why Street Fighting Band with Doug Kees, Jimmy Ginn, Fred McNeil, and Stephen Skipper seem to have so much fun onstage. It’s not so much a business proposition as it is a show of love and respect.

A “big” concert announcement this week is that tickets go on sale Friday for the Atlanta appearance of Celebrating David Bowie, set for March 18 at the Buckhead Theater. Featuring members of the late chameleon’s various studio and live bands — in particular keyboardist Mike Garson (listen to his piano solo on Aladdin Sane), guitarist Earl Slick (his work can be found on Diamond Dogs and Young Americans) and bassist Carmine Rojas (Let’s Dance/“Serious Moonlight” tour bassist) — the show banks its appeal on the musicians’ connections to Bowie’s music. As such, the concert is filled with familiar songs by musicians who helped shape them the first time around. And hopefully, to celebrate Bowie properly, they will expand on what they originally added to Bowie’s musical output, rather than just mimic it.

What has caused this rise in popularity of tribute bands? Is it nostalgia? Is it that ticket prices for concerts by major artists have gotten so expensive that many fans can’t afford them? Is it that people don’t want to wait for the real thing in this age of instant gratification, when one gets immediate reactions to one’s posts on social media? Is it that much commercial music has become nothing more than a by-product of culture, rather than a cultural force? Or, is it that many people are no longer concerned with the real thing, and any imitator will do — like a reality TV star acting as President of the United States?


You can contact Tony Paris regarding upcoming gigs; noteworthy news, rumor, and innuendo; or, if you just want to say, “Hi,” at cl.highfreqs at gmail.com, since you already know he doesn’t read messages received on his Facebook account.

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