Books

Sympathy for the Devil...

John G. Nettles

... (Or an Incredible Simulation!): I once saw an ad on the back page of this rag for an upcoming show featuring a band that billed itself as “Colorado’s #1 Widespread Panic Tribute Band!” This particular bit of hype caught my eye and continues to haunt me to this day, because it’s a very odd thing for a band to call itself. It implies that A) there are apparently enough Widespread Panic tribute bands in Colorado for there to be a clearly superior one, and B) there are enough Widespread Panic tribute bands nationwide to make a state-by-state distinction. This, in turn, leads to two inevitable questions: just how many Widespread Panic tribute bands are there in the world, and why?

Rock journalist Steven Kurutz examines the tribute band phenomenon close-up in his book Like a Rolling Stone: The Strange Life of a Tribute Band (Broadway Books, 2008). Kurutz spent a couple of years following a pair of Rolling Stones tribute bands, the East Coast’s Sticky Fingers and Canada’s the Blushing Brides, on their travels, from playing half-empty dives and wedding receptions to the occasional glory gig in Las Vegas or Amsterdam. Kurutz recalls the growth of the cottage industry in fake rock from its origins in Broadway’s Beatlemania (“not the Beatles but an incredible simulation!”) to its current state as a vast subculture, a network of barely ground-level bands and players who, week after week, leave their mundane day jobs to crisscross the country in cramped vans in order to pretend to be rock stars.

Along the way, Kurutz poses the burning question that has to be asked: why, if one is skillful and practiced enough to play like Jimmy Page or Jerry Garcia or Keith Richards, would one not direct that talent and drive toward original music which could result in real rock stardom? The answers are telling. As anyone in a band, particularly in this town, can attest, playing original music may be good for the soul, but it’s hard on the spirit (and the wallet). The guys in tribute bands have the opportunity to play the music they love for more people than just the bartender, and if that means aspiring, as the Keith for Sticky Fingers does, to be “the Keithiest Keith around,” so be it.

Kurutz’s book is alternately affectionate and sad as he documents the highs and lows of the would-be rock-star life, including the online sabotage wars between Sticky Fingers and its West Coast archnemesis of the same name, the monumental ego of a Mick Jagger who believes he’s now better than the real thing, and the bizarre remora-like experience of a band following the actual Rolling Stones’ tour schedule for an endless series of warm-up shows in sports bars around the country. (At one point, Sticky Fingers plays a gig a hundred yards from the stadium where the Stones are going on, and watches its audience trickle out, primed for the real thing.) For an unflinching look at lives spent forever on the fringe or as a cautionary tale to everyone out there polishing up Eddie Van Halen hammer-ons, Like a Rolling Stone is a fascinating read.

Originally published at Flagpole

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