By now you faithful readers able to wade through my initial meanderings in each column are hopefully anticipating that they (usually) lead to something worthwhile. I start this month’s entry with that preamble because this will be the weirdest prelude yet to my main point, but I would not have had the inspiration without the events that are herein described (mercifully without great scatological detail).
For the two or three of you dear supporters who ever find yourselves in the UK in Northumberland National Park in Bardon Mill County Parish (where I’m writing this in an AirBnB) traveling on the easterly-westerly B6318, eat at the Twice Brewed Inn (just west of the Sill National Landscape Discovery Centre) at your own risk. My wife and I were out for a long walk through the hills, valleys and part of Hadrian’s Wall and we stopped there for an early afternoon bite. It’s also a brewery and I wanted to sample a couple of ales I knew I’d find nowhere else. The beer’s quality was not as highly above average as was its price, but I reasoned this is a touristy pub so what can one expect?
What one shouldn’t expect is food poisoning from an under-cooked sausage roll (or bap as they’re sometimes called)—funny, my autocorrect attempted to change that word to “bad” three times. All was fine until we left the pub to continue the two-and-a-half mile return journey to our AirBnB. A half mile in my stomach had bloated to the size I used to be when I was 42 pounds (three stone for you Brits reading this) heavier and within an hour of getting back I was rolling on the carpet, my head the color of a beet, with a fever of 102.5 and the worst cramps I’ve ever experienced. Those of you who have had a bout of this malady know what I went through; those who haven’t, suffice it to say it ain’t pretty and I would wish it on no living creature.
The first twenty-four hours are the worst, sayeth the health gurus, and they’re right. I spent the first 12 of these thinking I was going to die and the remaining half wishing I would. A huge blessing was that the couple who remotely run the AirBnB at which we are staying are both what the English call “expert practitioners” in the field of health (this designation appears in other disciplines), a term and function of which we are bereft in the USA. In this case, an “EP,” among other things, makes house calls to ill people to help them ascertain if they need to go to hospital or not. This humane outreach is for two reasons: the first is there aren’t enough beds to go around in most hospitals in the UK so they’re reserved for those who truly need them; the second is it saves the already weakened afflicted, and their worried family, a needless trip to the nearest hospital to be told there what they can be told at home. Would that such a health industry found stateside footing.
The second half of this column’s title revealed
None of this would have come up (poor choice of words…emerged? nope…arisen? auugh!!) had this wonderful woman not made a house call to us. She calmed me down, settled my nerves, told me (Huzzah!) I would live!—and casually mentioned that she and her husband were so busy at their jobs they rarely went out for a night. She was excited they were heading that night into Carlisle (the northernmost large city in Northwest England) to see The Dubliners. In my half-feverish state, this gave me pause: I knew the group had declared themselves retired in 2012, after a fifty-year run. The next day Anne confirmed with our host that they saw a Dubliners Tribute Band.
A Tribute band? They’ve been gaining traction in the states but have long been rampantly popular in the UK. In fact, the leading agency dealing solely with them here has “175 of the best Tribute Bands for hire” as well as several solo acts impersonating worldwide icons from the ’50s up to the present—and this offered by just one of the many companies dealing in this commodity. For between £412 and £3,000+ you can have, to employ a skeletal list: Elvis (seven acts from which to choose); The Beatles (five of those); Elton John (four of him); Queen, or the Blues Brothers (three each) or ABBA (with 12 tribute acts, they have their own category—the rest are grouped by decade). Some of the band names are clever, some are howlingly bad. As an aside, the wittiest tribute band name I’ve yet come across is from the US…wait for it…The Doobie Others. Isn’t that lovely?
All of this got me thinking: when we perform or go and see performances of OKOM, are we listening to, or playing in, tribute bands? I found this question difficult to answer. The groups listed above, and those like them, specialize in one sound and/or persona. For instance, you’ll not ask someone impersonating Freddie Mercury to do their best Rod Stewart. Whereas, successful classic jazz and swing bands play the repertoire without trying to sound exactly like their inspirations (exceptions of which I’ll touch on forthwith). A good band steeped in the 1920s-1940s gives you music of Louis Armstrong to Bix Beiderbecke, Lu Watters to Bunk Johnson, Eddie Condon to small group Ellington, and the best bands sound damned convincing at all of it. Sure, a band might prepare a set, or even a show, featuring a style, band or musician, but you rarely see them dressing up in the outfits of their musical heroes.
Why the freedom here? I surmise it’s that with very few exceptions remaining, no-one is left who can call this music “nostalgic.” They simply weren’t around when it was current. Whereas if you and your band don’t have the sound and look of the idols you’re tributing, of whom your audience has first-hand memories, people will know you’re a sham and you’d better switch gears (re: Freddie to Rod). As well, our music often contains a generous amount of improvisation, lending itself to the desire to emulate, not imitate.
Of course, this is not an airtight thesis
What’s the one exception to this postulation? It’s the cadre of reading bands specializing in big-band music from the pre-swing era, early examples are the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble of New Orleans and any number of crack bands organized over the years by Dick Hyman and/or Bob Wilber. A partial list of currently performing bands of this description from the US includes Don Neely’s Royal Society Jazz Orchestra (CA); Josh Duffee’s Graystone Monarchs (IA); T.J. Müller’s Arcadia Dance Orchestra (MO); Matt Tolentino’s Singapore Slingers (OH) and the internationally renowned Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks (NYC, Hollywood…pretty much everywhere).
Okay, so how is this lot different from a tribute band? Each is of course filled with expert musicians, though none of the leaders mentioned above would hesitate to tell you how hard it is to find people who “get” the music they’re playing and like it, let alone retain them, but that’s probably also true of a band convincingly backing an Elton John impersonator. The difference is the breadth of music they perform. You’re getting repertoire spanning 20-30 years from multiple sources. If anything, these groups are an ultra-sophisticated tribute to an entire musical age deserving of resuscitation. Moreover, most feature improvisatory subunits during their performances. None of these groups warrants being relegated to the ranks of tribute bands.
So alas, I can’t see how the “tribute band” route is open to us and in a way I’m miffed! I was in some fine bands over the past years as were many other..ahem…middle-aged musicians I know. Where’re OUR tribute bands? Where are the Chicago Six, South Frisco, Grand Dominion, Hot Cat (itself a tribute band to the Black Dogs) or Titan Hot Seven tribute groups? What of the still-existing bands throughout the country like Blue Street, The Galvanized Jazz Band, The Original Salty Dogs or the New Black Eagle Jazz Band (the latter two through attrition becoming in a way their own tribute groups)? I’m sure that talent agencies everywhere would be scooping these up (for a similar example of delirium, please see my shared column with Hal Smith in this issue).
I’ll ask one more question: how many times did I use the word “tribute” in this column? Email me the correct answer. The first one who does will be mailed a copy of any CD they’d like on my website.
I’ll finish with a story starring the lesser-used but equally potent word “impersonator.” During the final ten years of Elvis’ life, there were 1,500 full-time Elvis impersonators. Over the following decade, that number rose to 15,000. Statistically, this proves that by 2027, one in three people in the US will be an Elvis impersonator. Won’t it be fun to see Vince Giordano’s orchestra with three Elvises in it?
Cheers, from Towhouse, UK