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Have We Earned The Right To Play Tribute Gigs?

Have We Earned The Right To Play Tribute Gigs?

Should the independent music scene just stick to originals, bad as they may be?

Please don’t shoot the messenger, but I think John Mayer is a terrible, terrible musician. He sounds deceitful, insincere, pandering, and, worst of all, just really very mediocre. His songs make me cringe. He does have his legions of fans, though, who would no doubt disagree with my very slanted opinion, which I have no intentions of changing (wrong as it may be). But anyway, recently I came across something strange. Apparently, there was a gig held in Mumbai this month which was unashamedly a “Tribute to John Mayer”. What?

There’s another new band in Mumbai, comprising of members from a bunch of other popular city bands, called Fake Plastic Friends (because “trees” would have been too on the nose). These guys seem to be a Porcupine Tree tribute band. That means they only play songs by Porcupine Tree at their gigs (how they don’t fall asleep playing those songs, I don’t quite know), and they do a competent job of it. Their first gig had some half-a-thousand people in attendance (all presumably rubbing their eyes and yawning, waiting for ‘Trains’ or ‘Mellotron Scratch’ to start). The Blue Frog has another gig scheduled for July 3, which is a tribute to grunge, and will no doubt be packed. It’ll have lots of songs by Bush, Silverchair, Puddle of Mudd, Matchbox Twenty, Nickelback, and the likes (no, wait).   

Led Zeppelin, a famous tribute act that use to cover a little-known band called Taurus in their prime. By Happybeatle2 Led Zeppelin, a famous tribute act that use to cover a little-known band called Taurus in their prime. By Happybeatle2

Tribute gigs have become a thing in India now. Internationally, tribute bands have been around for a while — often with amazing names: AC/DShe or Dread Zeppelin — and the trend has slowly filtered its way through to the ‘developing’ world as well. On the face of it, I honestly see nothing wrong with the concept. In fact, it sounds like a win-win (win). A one-off event where fans can reminisce and experience — in a live setting — songs by bands they grew up listening to. Even I’d jump at the mere mention of a tribute to hair metal (…).

For the artists performing, it’s a rare opportunity to let go. A kind of fantasy-fulfillment designed to pay homage to influences and inspirations, and to just have fun on stage without the hubris that accompanies playing original music. Plus it can be a display of musicianship and chops, coupled with considerable learning and growth as a musician. In fact, there’ve been a couple of really cool tribute bands in India as well: Think Floyd used to exist a decade or so ago in Delhi, and they’d play Pink Floyd songs to near-perfection, with a full lights show to complement the music. There was also a merciless Rage against the Machine tribute band that sprouted up a few years ago. And, by all accounts, Fake Plastic Friends sound like they’re quite good too.

Then there’s the organisers — tributes seem an easy way to programme a gig when there’s a lack of interesting live options that haven’t been exhausted yet, while the venue will inevitably get a biggish crowd looking to heighten the nostalgia factor with a pint of beer or 10, so they have no reason to object.

But it seems like a cheat code, and I find myself wondering: Where does it stop? I have, cross my heart, heard of a gig in Delhi which was a tribute to Maroon 5 (!), at a venue I now boycott on principle. What’s next… a tribute to Rebecca Black? Another one for Zayn Malik? It’s a slippery slope.

The Fab Four doing their bestest Beatles impression. By LindsayG0430 The Fab Four doing their bestest Beatles impression. By LindsayG0430

Not too long ago (in the larger scheme), independent rock ‘n’ roll in India was stuck in this muddy loop of mostly just playing songs by Megadeth, Metallica, Iron Maiden, and Pearl Jam (poorly). The merit of bands was determined by how close to the original they sounded, and how well the guitar player managed his solos. He’d rest his foot on the floor monitor to look cool during the ‘Fade to Black’ solo, and then get yelled at by the sound guy.  Most original music was met with disbelief, followed by howls of derision, empty bottles, and stale fruits and vegetables.

Independent music has, for what it’s worth, moved on from that culture of covers, now to the point where anyone lacking the conviction to play their own music on stage is harshly judged and often ridiculed.

Having audiences receptive to original music is of course a positive step, but it’s really not worthy of feeling self-satisfied and patting ourselves on our backs. It’s literally the very first step forward for a young scene. So there’s no need to ‘take stock’ and say things like: “We’ve come a long way.” The occasional tribute gig isn’t going to nullify that progress — it would be alarmist to suggest otherwise — but what’s somewhat troubling is not their existence but the frequency with which they happen (sometimes three or four times a month in a city, while bands cry themselves silly over the absence of regular gigs). It’s almost a clever little way around the roadblock of not being allowed to present covers. So now they’re everywhere.

There’s no such thing as right or wrong in music — not even plagiarism if you ask Led Zeppelin — and, as pointed above, tribute gigs do serve some kind of purpose. So I have no reason to be didactic here, but an interesting, if slightly abstract, question presents itself: Have we earned the right to play all these tribute gigs? People are releasing new music on the internet almost by the day, and original music festivals have now become a bona-fide Big Deal. But then we also still have bands who refer to their songs as “OC1” or “OC2” (abbreviated from ‘original composition’ or ‘own-comp’, of course) even though it’s 2016. Plenty of crowds will still beg for songs by their favourite artists, too often reserving the loudest applause for covers. So is independent music solid and self-assured enough for tribute gigs to merely be sporadic, novelty affairs that are not actually counterproductive? It’s hard to be certain.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.

 

By Akhil Sood
Cover illustration by: Eshna Goenka