September 6, 2007

The Ultimate Sing Along

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The first time Ryan Clifford heard The Dave Matthews Band, “It was like an awakening.” Although Clifford had never picked up a guitar before, what better way to connect with the music he loved than to start a band and play their songs?
“The first time I had ever heard it I can remember how it felt,” he said. “I remember the smell of the room.”
And so, the next day Clifford bought a guitar and began learning how to play. Now, Clifford spends his days as Dave — he is the lead singer and guitarist in The Dave Matthews Tribute Band.
“I couldn’t picture myself with a better day job,” he said. Clifford gets to tour the country, “performing and playing music I love.”
Most people can relate to Clifford’s passion for their favorite bands — it feels really good to sing along — but Clifford took it one step further.
And so did the members of The Fab Faux, Led Zeppagain, AC/DShe, The Pink Floyd Experience, 2U and many other tribute acts across the country.
Many of these tribute acts aim not only to sound just like a famous band, but also to look, act and seem just like the real thing. Even the most devout fan would have to take a second look while watching videos of some tributes to The Beatles, including 1964 The Tribute, The Return, Beatle Mania Now and Abbey Road.
The Fab Four, a Los Angeles tribute to The Beatles, even warns beneath their streaming on-line video: “The Fab Four performed all of what you are about to see and hear.” A warning that sounds strangely sci-fi, similar to a sign you might find in Ripley’s Believe it Or Not Museum or Madame Tussauds’ Wax Museum.
In fact, The Fab Four does near-perfect impersonations of The Beatles. So good, they are almost scary, eerily mimicking Lennon’s bow-legged wiggle and McCartney’s crooked smile.
The Dave Mathews Tribute Band performance last Thursday on the Ithaca Commons was a scaled down, bite-size, replica of the real thing. Like a plastic souvenir with Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” pasted on it, The DMTB was sort of kitsch, even campy. But that is not to say the performance wasn’t a good time.
Clifford’s voice was raspy and breathy — at times nearly pained and at others carefree. It’s not like Clifford naturally sounds so much like Dave does — just that he strives to sing in the same manner. His intonation, where he breathes, his accent during performance — you could say his affectations — make him a well groomed, perfectly marketable imitation.
For most musicians this is key.
“Tribute bands are very easy to market,” said Larry Honigbaum, singer and guitarist for Ithaca-based Grateful Dead tribute, The Lost Sailors. “My original music didn’t fit into any categories. But now when someone asks what I do, I just say, ‘Grateful Dead.’”
Honigbaum has been to over 300 Grateful Dead shows and has been in a Grateful Dead tribute band for over 16 years.
“As a musician and as a fan of music — as a human — it was always pretty special” seeing the Dead live, he said. Now that “there is an obligation to help carry the tradition on,” Honigbaum has “reached a good balance,” between having a family and kids, a day job and going out and playing the music that he loves.
The Grateful Dead are largely famous for their live shows. The band would play extended and altered versions of material at every show and encourage fans to tape and trade these performances. As a result, The Dead’s sound evolved organically and there exist dozens of versions of many of their songs. And even though this style is difficult to capture, there are hundreds of Grateful Dead tribute acts across the country, including The Schwag, Shakedown Street, Uncle John’s Band, Crazy Fingers, Cosmic Charlies, Dead Beats and most famously, Dark Star Orchestra.
The Lost Sailors, however, are “not trying to mimic what The Dead did,” said Honigbaum. “But what we do, more importantly, is we capture the approach and spirit of their live music.”
“The Dead provides the material — it’s a big playground where you can go,” he said, and “the task is to open up and let yourself go. Create something new.” To Honigbaum, playing The Dead’s songs allows him to express himself. It is not an obsessive exercise in homage, but rather a vehicle to connect with the music.
“No music would have any life at all, if the people performing it didn’t put themselves into it,” he said. The Lost Sailors aim to play The Dead’s music with Honigbaums’ “filter.”
It could be argued that tribute bands are kitsch, especially those with a gimmick, such as Chicks with Dixie, an all transvestite Dixie Chicks tribute, or Beatallica, who play the music of The Beatles in the style of Metallica. But others may have tapped into something deeper.
Like the famous Trekkies who, despite their obsession with Star Trek, get more out of the show then most viewers, the super-fans who start tribute bands may see it in a different light. And as Honigbaum put it: “Hey, we get it!”