Monday, February 17, 2014

Paying Tribute to Those Who Pay Terrific Tribute

Note: This article references and praises--but doesn't explicitly rate--performances by:

The Cheetles - Beatles tribute
Phil Angotti & bandmates - Zombies tribute
w/ Tommi Zender
27 Live, Evanston, IL
February 15, 2014

My Fair Audrey:
Celebrating Audrey Hepburn,
a musical tribute
by Hilary Ann Feldman
with Beckie Menzie
Glenview Public Library
February 16, 2014

My thoughts on "Tribute Artists" aren't completely clear.

Especially to me.

While I admire anyone who has the talent and courage to perform in front of others, and appreciate everyone who has ever enjoyably entertained me--from rock bands who pack football stadiums to buskers who go largely ignored on subway platforms--I would generally say that I prefer the "real thing."

But what is the "real thing?"

And at least in a rock 'n roll realm, but also in terms of Broadway musicals that nowadays often feature existing pop songs, how much of it still exists?

While I have seen--and greatly enjoyed--Chicago's terrific Tributosaurus on several occasions, and likewise the excellent Beatles tribute group American English, I don't think I've ever paid more than $20 at a local bar to see a "tribute act." Most have been in the province of local summer festivals or other such free/cheap venues.

So though I've heard great things about The Musical Box--which covers early Genesis--and the Australian Pink Floyd Show, both which seem to play theater-sized venues for substantive admission, I tend to reserve my $30 & up concert expenditures for the "real thing."

But then, how many "jukebox musicals" have I seen, with talented vocalists singing tunes by ABBA, the Four Seasons, Buddy Holly, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, etc., etc.?

Aren't those essentially tribute acts?

And it's not like even in a stage musical featuring original music, the actors are singing songs they've created. Nor are most classical and jazz artists I see.

So why do I perceive something a bit less artistically pure about a band of talented musicians performing songs by the "Fab Four" than I do about an orchestra performing music by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart and Brahms? Or a local theater group performing West Side Story or Hello, Dolly?

Certainly, one could argue that most veteran rock acts--many whom I do pay considerable money to see--are only paying tribute to their former selves.

In the coming months, I will attend concerts by Barry Gibb, Ringo Starr and Billy Joel, none likely to sing songs any more recent than 20 years old, with most dating back much further.

So while I believe originality is a key element of much great artistry, how much of it still exists in rock and other realms?

Call me a relic who still cherishes three chords and the truth, but the truth is that there is no popular musical artist under the age of 30 that I knowingly want to see live, and very few of any age that I would look forward to seeing for a first time.

With so many of the rockers that I love--from Bruce Springsteen to Paul McCartney to the Rolling Stones and many more--at risk of retiring or expiring in the not-so-distant future, and others long extinct, it seems that if I want to continue hearing live music I like for the next (let's hope) 40 years, I not only better accept tribute acts, but embrace them.

Perhaps for much more than the $10 I paid to see an absolutely superlative tribute show at 27 Live in Evanston on Saturday night.

After an enjoyable set by local singer-songwriter Tommi Zender of presumably mostly original (or at least not well-known) material, I heard a Zombies cover band led by Phil Angotti followed by a really terrific Beatles setlist by the Cheetles.

Though I've heard Angotti's name for years (here's his bio), I had never seen him, though I should note that he did come onstage to perform a couple of his own songs with Zender.

But I was tremendously impressed by how well he and 3 bandmates--whose names I can't cite--handled the Zombies' terrific catalog under the moniker Beechwood Park (a Zombies song they didn't play).

Ironically, only about 18 months ago, I--along with my friend Dave and sister Allison, who also accompanied me on Saturday with our friend Bob--saw the actual Zombies (with original members Colin Blunstone and Rod Argent) at Viper Alley in Lincolnshire, a club not all that much larger than 27 Live.

But I love their music and with Angotti emulating Blunstone's vocals well, supported by great harmonies and impressive musicianship, it was a pleasure to hear them run through early Zombie singles like "She's Not There," "Tell Her No," "I Love You," "Leave Me Be," their cover of Gershwin's "Summertime" and a quartet of songs from the masterful Odessey and Oracle: "Care of Cell 44," "Maybe After She's Gone," "Friends of Mine" and "Time of the Season."

As I said to my pals, if the show ended there, my $10 would have been well worth it.

But while I have never been disappointed by American English and have seen at least a handful of other Beatle tribute bands over the years, I was as impressed as I could be by the Cheetles.

Opening with "Taxman" and hitting other Revolver album cuts like "She Said She Said," "Doctor Robert," "I Want To Tell You," the 7-piece band actually enriched my acute appreciation of the Beatles by mining their catalog so deeply.

Although the Cheetles gloriously romped through early Beatle gems--"All My Loving," "From Me to You," "She Loves You," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"--in the middle of their nearly 2-hour set, even cooler was their jarring juxtaposition of the latter with "Happiness is a Warm Gun."

Many of their choices caught me by pleasant surprise, including "Nowhere Man," "Hold Me Tight," "Tell Me Why," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "This Boy," "Lovely Rita" and encores of "Getting Better" and "You Never Give Me Your Money."

Although unlike American English and other such groups, the Cheetles didn't dress like the Beatles, adorn wigs or run through the greatest hits in roughly chronological order, for hardcore Beatlemaniacs--as most in the rather full room assuredly were, even those of us who didn't get up and dance--they were about as good a "tribute act" as one could want, from the songs they sang to the way they sounded.

While she seems more predominantly a cabaret singer who performs various types of shows--including one coming up this weekend in Arlington Heights--I was also tremendously impressed by the "tribute act" Hilary Ann Feldman performed Sunday afternoon at the Glenview Public Library.

Given that Audrey Hepburn only starred in two musicals to my knowledge--Funny Face and My Fair Lady--I wasn't sure what to expect going into My Fair Audrey: Celebrating Audrey Hepburn, a Musical Tribute.

And while she has some nice credits, including in New York, London and Los Angeles, it wasn't Feldman's name that brought me--and presumably most others--to the GPL, but Hepburn's.

But after instantly showcasing a delightful voice on "Funny Face," Feldman--accompanied by pianist Beckie Menzie--delivered a program that went far beyond a mere medley of show tunes associated with its subject.

Feldman essentially took the audience through a live hourlong documentary of Hepburn's life, interspersing songs more for their topicality than familiarity--and shone all the more for it.

Beyond My Fair Lady's "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and "I Could Have Danced All Night," and "Moon River," which Audrey famously sang in Breakfast at Tiffany's, I really didn't recognize most of Feldman and Menzie's musical selections. So I may be wrong on some titles and can't cite the sources, with some possibly being originals. (Note: Thanks to some nice feedback from Feldman, I was able to correct some things I had wrong.)

But I was engrossed by learning about Hepburn's early life in Nazi-occupied Holland, which left her ill and malnourished, and how her lifelong commitment to UNICEF--for whom she would serve as a special ambassador in her final years--began with the aid she and her family received following liberation of the Netherlands.

Feldman shared how she was largely unfamiliar with Hepburn's film oeuvre prior to planning the performance--I honestly don't know if it is a regular showcase or was a first-time act for her--but was more so drawn to Hepburn's humanitarian mission.

Working without any accompanying visuals--I thought a few slides depicting Audrey at various stages might have been nice, if not truly necessary--Feldman didn't extensively run through Hepburn's filmography but did spend several minutes explaining the hubbub surrounding her participation in My Fair Lady.

After noting that Hepburn initially deferred to Julie Andrews as deserving the part of Eliza Doolittle, took the role only when it was clear the producers didn't want Andrews and was told she would do her own singing only to have Marni Nixon's voice substituted despite Audrey having arduously trained for months, Feldman smartly ran through "Just You Wait," substituting the (movie production-related) names of Jack Warner, Alan Lerner and Andre Previn for that of Henry Higgins.

This segment also featured a song titled "Vibrato," which had quite clever lyrics about one's limited vocal abilities. It was written previously by Menzie and another collaborator, Cheri Coons, but it fit the presentation perfectly and was a definite highlight.

Feldman also broached on Audrey's marriages, family and flirtatiousness ("I Love Men"), her work with UNICEF which took her to some of the most dangerous and emotionally-devastating places on Earth ("Beautiful City") and her refusal to act in The Diary of Anne Frank because it hit too close to home, given that both she and Frank were both born in 1929 and grew up in war-torn Holland.

This anecdote was accompanied by a song about having Hollywood aspirations--"Hollywood"--which actually quoted lines from The Diary of Anne Frank book.

While Feldman's songs--and her singing--were excellent, paralleling her comment that Hepburn's greatest role was that of humanitarian, her informative and heartfelt narrative was just as good if not better. I loved her summing up Hepburn by extolling Audrey's embodiment & embrace of this Dutch saying:
"Don't fret, it will happen differently anyway."
All in all, the performance had far more biographical insight and emotional heft than some--OK, me--may have suspected, and reiterated--albeit in a different context--what I had again discovered the night before:

There is nothing wrong with a great tribute act.

While this may seem easy to say given my limited outlay, the truth is that the $10 I spent on the Cheetles + "Zombies" provided more holistic entertainment satisfaction than The Beatles LOVE recently did for more than $100 in Las Vegas.

And even as a free library program, Hilary Ann Feldman's My Fair Audrey was genuinely far better than more than a few big budget musicals I've seen in downtown Chicago, on Broadway and in London's West End.

And thus, I feel it only appropriate to pay tribute.

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