Are modern tribute concerts a salute or sacrilege?

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Tribute shows are here to stay. But is that a good thing?

Everyone’s doing a tribute show these days.

No longer is it solely the domain of musical theatre hopefuls who never quite made it, playing to RSLs full of people who are long past caring about new music. Musicians we know and love are now paying tribute to the music that influenced them and lending a sense of credibility to the concept.

It’s very easy to be cynical about it. Particularly when an artist you don’t like is taking on music that you deem untouchable. Much as I appreciated the sentiment, the very thought of attending any of the myriad Prince tributes following his passing made me gag.

The greatest barrier for a tribute show is our idea of what is appropriate. What you’ll let a band get away with and what seems like sacrilege.

That’s perhaps the greatest barrier for a tribute show; our own preconceived idea of what is appropriate. What you’ll let a band get away with and what just seems like sacrilege.

The only way you can appreciate a tribute show is by checking your cynicism at the door. It’s not always possible, but when it is, a tribute show can be a lot of fun.

Regurgitator have been celebrating classic 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico for over a year now; initially at the National Gallery of Victoria, to coincide with their Andy Warhol – Ai Weiwei exhibition, and then at Sydney Festival, MONA and, just last month, for the Brisbane Festival.

It’s an odd combination, the Gurge and the Velvets. But their Brisbane Festival show proved that an odd combination is perhaps better than an obvious one when it comes to these kinds of things.

To help realise the breadth of the album’s sounds the band were flanked by regular keyboardist Seja Vogel, who took on Nico’s vocals, and Chinese guzheng player Mindy Meng Wang, who simulated the madness of John Cale’s psychedelic detours. They were set in front of astounding visuals by Ken Weston, which very nearly stole the entire show, such was their unique, wondrous beauty.

But it’s the loose and spirited way in which the band as a whole honoured the source material that made it work so well. At no stage did it feel overly reverent, which, despite their importance, would been an uncomfortable tribute to the anarchic proto-punk group.

It was respectful, but ultimately very fun.

Nashville’s Old Crow Medicine Show took much the same approach when tackling Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde the following week. Musically, though, it could not have been a more different experience.

From go to whoa, this was a slick operation. Showmanship is as important a factor in the Old Crow experience as their jaw-dropping musicianship and revved up modern bluegrass songs. They are a taut southern American road band with a finely tuned show and an unbelievably charismatic leader in Ketch Secor.

Rarely did this ever feel like a show that Bob Dylan would have played at any stage of his career. Secor’s banter is peppered with jokes and local references, and the band even turns in a synchronised dance during ‘Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat’.

 

But, musically, this is a spot-on replication of what many consider to be Dylan’s masterpiece. Old Crow’s reputation as one of the most proficient band in the American country scene is well-earned and the way they are able to pay respect to Dylan’s album while retaining their own distinct character is admirable.

But, following both shows, I had conversations with fans who were left utterly unfulfilled. These people were fans of the bands, more so than the material they were paying tribute to. Despite the fact the shows were advertised as tributes, they felt cheated seeing these figures in front of them, but not hearing their hits (though Old Crow Medicine Show did treat us to a rousing version of ‘Wagon Wheel’ at the set’s end).

In Old Crow’s case, it did feel like something of a waste of a tour. To hear just one of the band’s own songs in their first tour in seven years was somewhat unfulfilling. But to complain about a show of the standard they presented feels ungracious.

The ‘credible’ tribute show could well be here to stay, and who are we to tell a band what they should and shouldn’t play? But, despite how much fun these two shows were, it’s hard to imagine anyone having a life-changing experience watching any band replicate a musical artefact.

If you’re on the fence about attending a tribute show, it’s worth giving it a try with an open mind. If you hate the very thought of them even existing, then be patient and wait for your band to get back to what they normally do. 

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