We May Never Meet Again: The Music of Amy Winehouse. Movement 9. A CJP Presentation. The Street Theatre. February 12, 2016.
My last live tribute band experience was with a touring Elvis show. That wasn't much fun, and I'm still cathartically expelling that gig from memory.
I've checked out the band's website. Albeit briefly. There's an interesting description: "This is no tribute act but a series of reimagingings (sic), drawing from their collective backgrounds in jazz, soul, funk and more".
I'm OK with that. One of my best live music moments was with 1990s group Dread Zeppelin, an American band best known for performing the songs of Led Zeppelin in a reggae style, and sung by a 140-kilogram Las Vegas Elvis impersonator. They had great reimaginings too.
The Canberra Street Theatre is an intimate venue, and the stage tonight is set up in typical theatre fashion. Black drapes, and overhead lights illuminating the stage in white with slight magenta. It feels inviting.
The band hit the stage dead on time. Vocalist Elly Poletti looks stunning in a white floral dress, and the other band members all wear black pants and black, long-sleeved shirts. There is no channelling Amy Winehouse in the fashion department here. If anything, I'm reminded of that typical School of Music jazz look, minus the black skivvies. Quite a safe look really, considering the style of music they're about to launch into.
The band kicks off with Amy, Amy, Amy, and halfway through the performance I start to feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This band's music is tight. I mean, really tight. They then quickly move on to What Is It About Men. A funky rendition with a Latino beat, infused with an uptempo acid jazz feel.
It's not until the fourth song, Back to Black, that head honcho Joe McEvilly talks to the audience. He briefly mentions his new spin on the original Amy Winehouse songs. This is not a man of many words on stage. In fact, neither is Poletti. They've both said but a few words since the show started. As an audience member I don't feel engaged. Not one bit.
Next, we get an amazing rendition of Halftime, which Poletti says is her favourite Winehouse song. This is followed by Valerie. And it's the end of set one.
Musically, the second set is pretty much like the first: absolutely brilliant. The highlight for me is Love Is a Losing Game, where Poletti's vocal delivery has all the tempered angst, poise, and soul that only a singer of this magnitude can achieve.
The last two songs run together. The band kicks off with Between the Sheets and transitions into a rendition of Rehab. It sounds good, but I don't think the transition worked as well as it could have.
There's no denying that McEvilly's arrangements are all about having the retrospective freedom to explore, reimagine, and create a different nuance to Amy Winehouse's songs. He does this incredibly well, and the renditions coming out of his band tonight are often more powerful, emotional and, dare I say, soulful than many of the originals.
Yet, it is one thing being great musicians, and another thing being great performers. And here's where the buck stops for me tonight.
First, the stage show is static and boring. The horn section just stands there, in a line, at front of stage, like vigilant jazz soldiers under instructions not to move. It's frustrating to watch, and contradicts the danceable energy of the music they are playing.
And second, any great live performance feeds off the energy of the audience and visa versa. To get this started, there needs to be an engaging quality from the band that invites the audience into the show through some form of banter, or anecdotes. Even a little more eye contact with the audience from singer Poletti, who appeared to be in her own zone all night, would help. This is a quality noticeably absent tonight.
Tribute band. Cover band. Call them what you will. Essentially they're bands that play other people's music in some way, shape or form. In most cases this sometimes weird, but mostly wonderful, tribute world represents a group of friends celebrating their favourite bands by banging out their music, often within the confines of a mate's home or garage, whereby their efforts rarely see the light of day. Occasionally some bands do venture out, treading the boards of a local pub, in which case it would have been a greater service to the original band songs, and humanity as a whole, if they'd stayed in the garage with the roller door down.
I'm happy to say the music tonight is not the problem. The arrangements are brilliant, and the nuance and poise created vocally and instrumentally in each song is amazing.
Perhaps it's one of those situations where the band are so proud of their reimaginings, and rightly so, that they're guarded against comparisons to a tribute band. If this be the case they need to kick out the jams.
Whatever the case may be, more people need to hear this music and have fun doing so.