Saturday, September 11, 2010

Under the Covers

Published in the New York Press on April 28, 2010

Think of your favorite band. Not the speed metal trio that only wears Snuggies when playing basement parties, and not that same trio back when it was a jugband quintet with a DJ, either. Think of your favorite band at least 20 other people have heard of. Got it? Well, chances are there are people out there who like that band enough to start another band just to love the first band more completely.

Tribute acts are big business, and not just as Elvis or Madonna impersonations in Las Vegas, either. New York City is lousy with them, with shows regularly performed at everywhere from B.B. King Blues Club & Grill to the Canal Room to Otto’s Shrunken Head.

“I think people like it because they get to hear the music of their favorite bands easily and hear it up close, and for a much less expensive ticket,” says Marcus Linial, owner of the Canal Room. “Most of the concert tickets, you go see some of these big name acts, Billy Joel, it’s $150. Big Shot is here for $15.”

Linial, it should be noted, is also coowner of Fun Music Agency (FMA), a Brooklyn-based company whose website boasts a clientele of hip-hop pioneers like Doug E. Fresh and the Original Sugar Hill Gang. FMA also handles nine tribute acts, most of which look and sound the part. Bruce in the USA, Bon Jersey and Coldplayers all make the association easy even in print, though like all the tribute acts on FMA’s roster, it’s also about “music, mannerisms, showmanship and production.”

Earlier this year, the Canal Room hosted a Haitian relief concert with Invisible Sun (The Police), Unforgettable Fire (U2), Voyage (Journey) and Rubix Kube, the venue’s weekly all-purpose ’80s tribute. While it’s difficult to imagine Journey and U2 ever having taken the stage together during their shared heyday, Linial says audiences for tribute shows are less precious about mixing and matching.

“I think 20 years ago, Journey fans and U2 fans were not the same fans,” he says. “But I think that today, I’m 41 years old, and the 32-year-olds that come to the show, I think that they’re open to hearing ‘Faithfully’ and ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ on the same night.”

A similarly incongruous mix of initial styles worked well at a late January show at Brooklyn Bowl, one that featured tribute bands with tongues more firmly planted in cheek. Even after headliner Dangerous (metal tribute to Michael Jackson) canceled, Judas Priestess and Cheap Trick or Treat laid waste to the stage.

Judas Priestess headlined the night, and while it’s only a few shows old, the all-girl tribute to Britain’s sexually ambiguous metal legends seemed fully formed. As with many tribute bands, Judas Priestess combines gimmick with chops, and all with a name so perfect, it’s hard to imagine why it took 30 years for someone to put it all together.

On paper, it seems unlikely.

Fortunately for the fans of Judas Priestess, the performance—a combination of showmanship, skill and balls-out rock—takes place in the actual world, where it hits squarely in the face.

Frontwoman MilitiA’s road to performing in a tribute band primarily differs from some of the others the New York Press spoke to in the details. While it might be tempting for music elitists to believe the performers in these acts are washed up notalents, the truth is rather different.

In her youth, MilitiA went to a Maryland Catholic school and showed early proficiency as a concert pianist, eventually studying at the Peabody Institute and the Boston Conservatory of Music. It was during this period that her true ambitions finally surfaced.

“I kind of looked around and was like, ‘I want to play rock ‘n’ roll, this shit is boring,’” she says, noting that the transformation was finally complete when a guy she was dating joined an industrial band with a female singer who just wasn’t cutting it.

“I said, ‘I want to be in a band, get rid of that bitch,’” she says. “That was the start of everything.”

MilitiA, who still performs with her originals band, Swear on Your Life, answered a Craigslist ad for Judas Priestess, and after the group rehearsed “Hellbent For Leather,” she knew she’d found the perfect fit. Fortunately, local fans seem to agree, including a tall leather-bound gentleman in a crisp Judas Priest shirt who soaked up every second of the Brooklyn Bowl performance.

“I would say a big part of our audience is these guys that have been seeing Priest since 1983,” says MilitiA. “Priest fans are die-hard. If they fucking love it, then I know we’re doing our job.

Judas Priestess also gained approval of another key member of the Judas Priest fandom: the band’s singer, Rob Halford, who the band met on the set of VH1’s That Metal Show.

“He’s like my heavy metal father now, and I’ve got to do him justice” MilitiA says.