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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 63.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Almost famous
Local tribute acts come close to the real thing
Marcus King & Thee Royalty evoke soul greats of the 1960s and '70s
Marcus King & Thee Royalty evoke soul greats of the 1960s and '70s
Credit:Eric Tadsen

Pressed against the stage of the High Noon Saloon, one young fan had an urgent request.

"Would you guys ever do 'Mr. Jones'?" he asked another young man setting up a guitar, amplifier and synthesizer.

"Mr. Jones" is a salsa-tinged track on Naked, the 1988 swan song by the storied New Wave band Talking Heads. It was an appropriate request for the members of Houses in Motion, because they are a Madison-based Talking Heads tribute band.

On a frigid Friday night, a sellout crowd had come to the High Noon Saloon to hear the band play faithful renditions of some of the post-punk era's most enigmatic pop songs. The songs are also, as the fervent, mostly twentysomething crowd demonstrated, eminently danceable.

Ever since Bob Dylan inaugurated the era of the singer-songwriter, most pop acts write their own material. But some local musicians are finding great success in playing the songs of other, more famous artists. These are not mere frat-party cover bands. They are tribute acts, groups whose reason for being is to pay homage to a particular band or genre. As the ecstasy of the Houses in Motion audience suggests, these acts can connect with clubgoers very successfully.

Houses in Motion's Greg Ujda mimicked the strange, wide-eyed persona of Talking Heads front man David Byrne and, with his reedy tenor, successfully re-created Byrne's trademark yowling and crooning. The band members ably played Talking Heads' deceptively simple arrangements - especially multi-instrumentalist Andy Fitzpatrick, who reproduced keyboardist Jerry Harrison's spare synthesizer riffs note for note.

Houses in Motion even took stagecraft cues from Talking Heads, especially from the group's brilliant 1984 concert film Stop Making Sense. The film begins with a solo performance by Byrne, and then other musicians join him, song by song, until a large ensemble fills the stage. Likewise, Houses in Motion played the first set as a quartet and focused on earlier Heads songs ("Psycho Killer," "Take Me to the River"). When the band returned after a break, a percussionist and two backup singers joined them, and they stretched out on later, more intricate Talking Heads songs like "Girlfriend Is Better" and "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)."

All the songs were greeted wildly by the spectators, who hopped and sang along. Many of them looked collegiate, but others seemed to belong to the loose community of hippiefied jam-band fans - like the young woman who wore a long, flowing skirt and the guy who talked about following Umphrey's McGee around the nation.

It was an electrifying night for Houses in Motion and their fans - and for the High Noon Saloon, whose owner, Cathy Dethmers (herself in the AC/DC tribute band the Bon Squad), looked satisfied and busy as she poured drinks behind the bar.

Earlier that same Friday night, a different kind of 1980s recollection got under way at the Badger Bowl, the combination bowling alley and music venue south of the Beltline. It was a performance by the hair-metal tribute band Cherry Pie, and it also proved electrifying to fans - who were, like the musicians, a good 15 years older than the Houses in Motion set.

A quintet founded in 1999, Cherry Pie shares a name with a hit song by hair-metal avatars Warrant. The band mounts a scaled-down version of the sort of hard-rock arena events I sometimes attended 20 years ago. There are risers on the stage, which is made hazy by swirling lights and smoke. The musicians wear leather pants or ripped jeans, and they have gigantic hair. "People think we might be wearing wigs," keyboardist and guitarist Josh Becker told me.

Packed into the venue were clubgoers primed for fun. Many of the women wore bright red Cherry Pie camisoles. At the beginning of the performance, someone in the audience jubilantly shouted at lead singer John Swenson. "He wants to know if we're going to 'rock out,'" Swenson said drolly, forming air quotation marks with his fingers. "We are going to 'rock out,'" he continued, repeating the gesture.

There were air quotes around everything that followed, beginning with the set list, which drew from both the pop-metal repertoire (Mötley Crüe's "Kickstart My Heart," Whitesnake's "Still of the Night") and the synthesizer-heavy genre once called AOR, for album-oriented rock (a Journey suite of "Don't Stop Believing" and "Any Way You Want It"). The show was flamboyant. Swenson stomped and shrieked, and drummer Frank Babeck twirled his sticks with gusto.

Like hair metal in its heyday, the show was equal parts machismo and kitsch. Cherry Pie's act might seem merely silly, in fact, were it not for the enthusiasm of the audience members and the expertise of the musicians. Swanson's singing was especially impressive, because whatever your feelings about the vocal stylings of Journey's Steve Perry or Mötley Crüe's Vince Neil, those hyper-tenors are not easy to imitate.

Still another remembrance took place recently at the Old Fashioned, the Wisconsin-themed restaurant and bar on the Capitol Square: a performance by Gimme the Car, the local group that pays tribute to Milwaukee's Violent Femmes. That trio made a critical splash in the early 1980s and then released a string of thoughtful albums.

Gimme the Car is made up of members of the popular Irish-rock group the Kissers: singer and guitarist Nate Palan, bassist Ken Fitzsimmons and drummer Joe Bernstein. The tribute act formed four years ago. But, said Palan wryly, as he eyed a diffuse crowd at the Old Fashioned, "We still haven't found our audience."

Fitzsimmons chimed in: "They still haven't found us."

Violent Femmes tunesmith Gordon Gano composes songs in a range of styles. Gimme the Car dipped into gentle country gospel ("Jesus Walking on the Water"), Velvet Undergroundish languor ("I Know It's True But I'm Sorry to Say"), even tango ("More Money Tonight").

But especially on their first, eponymous album, released in 1983, Violent Femmes sounded like no one else. That's why a bright spot in Gimme the Car's performance was the first song of the first set: "Kiss Off," from that debut album. One of the most familiar Femmes tunes, "Kiss Off" combines clever, anguished lyrics and the manic energy of punk - and, improbably, an arrangement of acoustic instruments better suited to the folk revival.

Although the Old Fashioned was busy, for a cold winter weeknight, not everyone was paying attention to the music. Seated at tables, some bargoers watched the band, while others talked and laughed. Even so, noted Palan, there are a lot of Violent Femmes fans out there. At every Gimme the Car appearance, he said, "There's always one guy at every table singing along."

Pop music is perpetually looking back. In the 1960s, blissed-out hippies grooved to the 1950s shtick of Sha Na Na, a hit at Woodstock. In the 1970s the Bee Gees interrupted a string of astonishing successes with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a dismal cinematic take on the Fab Four. Even Broadway has made a mint with rock-revival shows like Beatlemania, Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia!

Locally, the tribute-band scene also includes John Mellencamp lovers Pink Houses; disco peddlers VO5; and PROG, who play the 1970s rock of Genesis, Rush, Jethro Tull and Yes. There is a strong tribute component to the variety show Mad Cabaret, whose cast members impersonate Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra and Billy Idol. Also popular are one-off events, like the Kissers' regular performances of entire Johnny Cash prison albums.

What is the allure of all this living in the past? A great deal of it, presumably, is nostalgic. At the Badger Bowl, most of Cherry Pie's fans looked old enough to have lived through hair metal's heyday, and some wore era-appropriate fashions, like sheer mesh tops. Cherry Pie's effectiveness stems largely from the thrill of recognition, which was palpable when the Badger Bowl audience heard the indelible opening keyboard chords of Bon Jovi's "Runaway."

But nostalgia may not be the sole appeal. After all, the people at the Houses in Motion show were mostly not old enough to remember Talking Heads' Carter- and Reagan-era zenith. For these young fans, Houses in Motion's appeal owes, surely, to that marvelously canny songbook. David Byrne's elliptical lyrics, which veer freely between comedy and ominousness, sound as fresh as they did in 1983 - as do Talking Heads' arrangements, which ranged, as it suited them, from punk and funk to country and world-music sounds, among others.

The catalog is a magnificent and timeless body of work, in short, and Houses in Motion do it justice with note-perfect arrangements and appropriately frenetic singing. These have attracted that energetic young following - as have, presumably, Houses in Motion's own youth and energy.

Yet they are still playing someone else's music, a fact that can give some tribute musicians a pang. "I would much rather be in a band that would get popular playing our own songs," said Cherry Pie's Becker. "Then we could throw in some cover songs."

Gimme the Car's Nate Palan assembles musical projects as regularly as some people eat breakfast. His latest is Marcus King & Thee Royalty, a three-month-old, 11-piece band. In twice-monthly bookings at Cafe Montmartre, the group pays tribute to soul greats of the 1960s and 1970s.

Inspired by Brooklyn-based soul revivalists the Dap Kings, Marcus King & Thee Royalty boast a who's-who roster that draws from local acts like the Kissers (Palan, organist Mike Cammilleri), Smokin' with Superman (bassist Brett Farrey), Mama Digdown's Brass Band (trombonist Joe Goltz) and Mad Cabaret (singers Mark Gladue and Jessica Lee).

At a recent Wednesday-night set, men in the band wore dark suits, while Lee and Andrea Carter, another female singer, wore matching blue-patterned minidresses. The group is fronted by Gladue (in character as Marcus King), who impersonates Neil Diamond in the Mad Cabaret. Gladue's husky voice is well suited to the group's set list, which draws from Billy Preston, Sam and Dave, Al Green. Gladue is a seasoned performer, and he was at ease with both the songs and the audience.

The women took solo turns as well, as when Lee garnered appreciative hoots with the 1971 King Floyd track "Groove Me." The evening's biggest surprise was newcomer Carter, who brought intense emotion to chestnuts like Aretha Franklin's "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man." (At times, though, she belted so violently that I worried for her larynx.)

More than many local bands, Marcus King & Thee Royalty are attentive to details. At the cafe that night, the suits and dresses looked great, the horn arrangements were tight, and when Lee and Carter sang backup, they executed dainty dance steps and hand gestures. The band began and ended sets with punchy vamps, and Palan announced each singer extravagantly.

Even so, the crowd was subdued - perhaps because it was desperately cold outside, and perhaps because some of the tunes were unfamiliar. That's a tricky point for musical tribute acts. If they play music that is too well known, they risk devolving into a theme-park attraction. If, however, they delve too deeply into obscurities, they may not find an audience.

Local tribute acts would do well to look to Houses in Motion, who seem to have hit on something. They have connected with fans by drawing on a repertoire that is great and reasonably familiar - but not too familiar. Their act is narrowly conceived, and they play with tautness and professionalism.

All they were missing was that big suit Byrne wore in Stop Making Sense. At one point someone yelled a request for that, too.

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