The Case For Tribute Bands: REM Dead Letter Office

The tribute band a a really interesting thing.  Tribute bands weren’t really a thing when I was younger.  Outside of the random Doors tribute Moonlight Drive and a handful of Beatles stuff I can’t recall many tribute bands making the circuit back in the 80’s and 90’s.  There were cover bands, there always have been those and they have made a franchise out of some of them that play all the 80’s party anthems.  They are fun, like a jukebox of guilty pleasures live in concert.  Motown, 80’s, disco and funk, metal, grunge, country, you name the genre and I’ll find you 6,000 different cover bands.  But the tribute band is a completely different beast.  The tribute band really needs to hit that specific fan, and they have got to be tight.

I think the first tribute band I remember being into was Zoo Station, the U2 tribute band out of Cleveland.  We used to see them all of the time when they would play.  U2 wasn’t touring so much in the 2000’s and honestly the material was in a dull kind of moment for them so here comes a band playing all the hits with a little slice of the swagger of the real thing.  You have this huge Irish population in the Cleveland area and you have casual to super fans scattering all across the city.  So they would be booked to most of the bigger Irish Bars in the city and they would fucking pack the place.  Irish people + whiskey + black and tans + all the U2 hits = black out drinking and a really good time.  The last time I saw the Zoo Station play it was kind of weird, their Bono had left the band and the aforementioned Moonlight Drive Doors singer took lead, and it was pretty disastrous.  He brought the swag of Morrison and mixed it with the pop sensibilities of Bono and it just didn’t work.  He wasn’t into the music like the other dude was.  Yet I still managed to get drunk to the point of smoking weed out of a coke can in the back lot of Brendan O’Neil’s with him by his beater van.  I thought I was going to wake up in a bathtub full of ice with a kidney missing.

So some combos really work.  That U2 formula I have seen completely crash and burn as well at the House of Blues a few years back.  It was a double bill…with an Elton John tribute.  One, I can not think of a worse combo of music to throw together.  Two, the Elton John guy was pretty shitty and three this U2 tribute played a bunch of deep cuts and newer material which was the reason I wasn’t paying the big bucks to see the real deal.  Every other song I was like what the fuck is this?  We ended up leaving early, disappointed.  Other formulas that failed were The Cure, with an over the top fake Robert Smith that looked like a coked out 80’s Def Leppard roadie, and a Depeche Mode all clad in leather trio that made me question my sexuality.

A few months back we saw Kick, the INXS experience, because my wife is a super fan and they put on a great show.  Unfortunately this was on a weeknight and the turnout was shit, and it was a seated show.  That was fucking dumb, no offense to my Music Box peeps, but this is a let’s fucking dance kind of band, clear out those tables and give the girls a pit to swoon over fake Michael.  I enjoyed it but the thing I thought was weird was most of the guys in the band were in metal bands as their real gig.  So were they into the music, did they truly love INXS or did they find the formula to make a few bucks doing a side gig.  I don’t know honestly, because they were pretty tight.

So a buddy of mine, REM super fan #1, checked out this Dead Letter Office tribute a couple years back and they swung by the Winchester in Lakewood last night and holy shit did they deliver.  There are tributes out there covering current artists from Foo Fighters, to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but they you have tribute bands of groups like REM who you probably will never be able to see again.  REM is one of my top three having seen them multiple times locally to a once in a lifetime trip to Sydney to see them with my brother.  Which is a novel all to itself one day.  So my question is if you were at those shows back in the 80’s and 90’s why wouldn’t you come check this out?  The turn out was pretty good honestly, but I thought for sure I’d see more familiar faces in the crowd.  Friends of mine so inspired by the music of REM they formed bands.  I’d belt out The One I Love with some of them playing guitar me singing to the pre-lollapalooza alt rock art chicks at Huntington beach or on the lawn outside of Arabica.  They were confusingly absent from this throwback hit fest.

Outside of listening to the records on your platform of choice why not come out to check out this kind of nostalgia factor?  REM for me is one of those bands that were life changing to a 80’s Duranie.  I was caught up in that synth pop moment like a lot of kids, and then my buddy in 1984 slips me this cassette by a band called REM called Reckoning.

They crowded up to Lenin with their noses worn off
A handshake is worthy if it’s all that you’ve got
Metal shivs on wood push through our back
There’s a splinter in your eye and it reads, “React”

#1, what in the fuck does any of that mean?  #2 holy shit listen to that riff.  Then 7 Chinese Bros kicks in followed by one of the most amazing unrequited love songs of all time.  Ok, rewind that, listen again.  Ok rewind listen again singing “I’m sorry…..I’m sorrrraaayyyy.”  I was hooked early on with REM.  That next summer my Walkman would discover a bootleg cassette copy of Fables of the Reconstruction at a flea market while on vacation in South Carolina along with a copy of INXS’s Listen Like Thieves.  I was Wendell Gee’ing and Shine Like it Does’ing my ears off for the whole week.

I love a live band.  I love a great original band, but the tribute band is a thing of beauty when done properly.  Dead Letter Office was done properly.   There are no elaborate costumes, the singer rocks the shades and beanie to give a slight illusion of stipe but outside of that it’s not like some of those cheeseball Beatle bands with the Sgt Pepper uniforms that seem to come as a standard in a kit somewhere.  They were tight, he’s human and fake Stipe fucked up Losing My Religion but hit everything else which is not a simple feat.  They did 41 songs…3 hours with a small intermission that covered a nice chuck of everything pre-declining years.  I truly don’t know many people who like much of anything after New Adventures in Hi-Fi, with the exception of Collapse Into Now most of the records remain pretty forgettable minus a couple hits.

My thing is this.  There are bands that will probably never get back together.  The band breaks up, you get some various solo work, a one off appearance here at some charity event and there and side projects but they never come close to what once was.  REM falls into this category along with the Talking Heads.  Byrne solo is never going to be Talking Heads.  Tom Tom Cub is never going to be the Talking Heads but as a fan of Talking Heads I put out some big bucks to go see him in August for one reason; to see him cover Talking Heads songs because honestly that new record he put out is fucking garbage.  I have limited to zero interest in seeing any of his solo weirdo artsy junk, but I know he will play like 5 Heads songs.  He’ll probably butcher them and make them all artsy and I will hate them but maybe…just maybe he will do them justice.  So when the chance comes around to hear those songs you love again, go and check it out you might be surprised you had a good time.

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