I Was Dreamin' When I Wrote This: A Trip to Tribute Land

For some fans, legendary artists of the past offer a fun diversion from the present. But what happens when that turns into an obsession?

Dave Matthews Band


Label: RCA
US Release Date: 1996-04-30

Alanis Morrissette

Jagged Little Pill

Label: Maverick
US Release Date: 1995-06-13

In Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s recent, critically acclaimed meditation on nostalgia, the lead character, Gil (Owen Wilson), wanders around '20s Paris as if in a dream, encountering one legendary writer/artist after another. He’s finally able to experience the reality of a time and place about which he’d long fantasized.

I recently had a similar time-warp experience, though it was slightly less romantic: instead of hanging with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso, my companions were luminaries of the mid-'90s: Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews.

OK, it wasn’t actually them – but it was the closest you could get for five bucks on a Thursday night in Chicago. The event was part of a monthly performance of classic albums at a place called Reggie’s Music Joint. While the term ‘classic’, applied to music, typically evokes bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s, this show, curated by a friend of mine, was going for a more contemporary audience with its two selections: Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill and Dave Matthews Band’s Crash.

If you’re between the ages of 25 and 35, and from a particular socioeconomic group, there’s a good chance that one or both of these albums was part of your rotation at some point. For me, both hold pretty strong memories of place and time, whether it was rocking out to “You Oughta Know” while preparing for a middle-school bash, or nodding along to “Lie in Our Graves” on the drive to high school (my stay on the ‘Dave’ bandwagon was both late and relatively short).

Of course, while both artists have enjoyed huge success, neither are very ‘cool’ to like anymore – DMB, in particular, has not aged well. After age 21 or so, calling yourself a ‘Dave’ fan was akin to saying your favorite food was ‘pizza’; it signified that your tastes had not matured past a certain point.

If this tribute show is any indication, the remaining hardcore fans don’t particularly care about how they’re perceived. They’re all about enjoying themselves and reveling in music that is – admit it – pretty fun to listen to, at least for a night. The songs I witnessed were played with barely a hint of irony (even Morissette’s “Ironic”), the performers focused instead on note-for-note authenticity.

I’m not sure if the bands on display could truly be classified as “tribute” bands, which Wikipedia says strive to “capture every nuance of the imitated artist’s actions and appearance for a perfect imitation,” but they were certainly elevating the form to something beyond a tossed-off cover, from the swinging of the Alanis stand-in’s hair to the unmistakable manic movements of the bald singer who stepped in for Matthews. Clearly, these people had spent some time practicing in front of a mirror before stepping on the stage.

One performer who certainly didn’t need practice was violinist Jason Vinluan, on loan from the most well-known DMB tribute band, Trippin Billies. He’s been performing the songs on Crash and other albums for years now, and his familiarity with the tunes was obvious, as was his enthusiasm. Strutting across the stage and playing his parts to near-perfection (as far as this non-expert could tell), Vinluan was in his element – much as Gil felt in his as he cavorted with the literary lights of Paris.

It can be difficult to understand what would make someone dedicate such time to painstakingly recreating someone else’s art. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, tribute bands are the music world's biggest brown-nosers. It’s one thing to play a cover every now and then, but projects like Trippin Billies are something different altogether --- and they require a significant amount of work and talent to pull off.

In his recent interview with the resurgent Weird Al Yankovic on ESPN’S "B.S. Report" podcast, Chuck Klosterman lauded Yankovic’s band for its ability to convincingly mimic various styles of music for those witty parodies (and as PopMatters’ William Gatevackes notes in his recent feature, "Hail Yankovic, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Being Weird" the band produces original songs in the style of other artists, as well).

Here’s the thing, though: Yankovic produces some added value to the music; he has something to show for that hard work. A straight-up tribute act, on the other hand, seems to be fighting a losing battle – the best-case, nearly unattainable scenario is creating a flawless reproduction of something that’s already been made.

The explanations I can come up with for fighting this battle are pretty simple: 1) It’s a challenge; 2) it’s fun (don’t most musicians start off playing other people’s music?); 3) it’s a chance to live vicariously through artists you’ve idolized. Like a kid who plays basketball in the driveway while pretending to be Derrick Rose taking a last-second jumper, tribute musicians assume the role of the star and, if they’re good enough, the audiences might just treat them as such (or, if you believe movies like Rock Star, they could actually get to join the real band). Both artist and audience get a taste of the real deal, and the delusion typically costs a lot less than an actual concert featuring said star.

But as long as you’re fantasizing, why not reach a little? Midnight in Paris would’ve been somewhat less appealing had Gil been traveling to Miami in the ‘90s to learn from Dave Barry. It’s not like the Dave Matthews Band or Alanis Morissette are particularly hard to find (the DMB Caravan is likely coming to an abandoned lot near you); to me, it makes sense to try and recreate an artist that you can’t encounter anymore, like The Band (possible tribute band name: Jawbone) or 2Pac (Brenda’s Baby).

Even in my wildest dreams, I’m still not a talented musician. But I can conjure up visions of hanging out with my favorite artists in a different time and place. Given the range of cultural eras to choose from, I’d likely go with a trip to what I’d consider the real “classic” period: the late ‘60s. Something tells me, though, that despite the fun of hanging out with Dylan and The Band at Big Pink, I’d ultimately be disappointed by the experience and prefer a return to the more familiar, if less ‘exciting’ present. As Gil learned, there’s a danger in romanticizing another time and place, especially at the expense of your current reality. The past can be a fine place to visit (say, on the third Thursday of each month), but you wouldn’t want to live there.

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