"You're you going to the Australian Pink Floyd Show that's coming to Ruth Eckerd?" my buddy Justin asked.
"You mean that tribute band?" I shot back, rising from my barstool in righteous indignation (and almost spilling my beer). How dare he suggest such a thing?
Justin and I have been losing ourselves in the spacey psychedelics and neurotic prog-rock of Pink Floyd since we were in our early teens. Experimenting with illegal substances during high school and college only deepened our affection for the band — the real band, that is. Or at least something with Roger Waters or David Gilmour in the lineup, which is as close to the real band as we're gonna get since the two prima donnas refuse to bury the hatchet and bless us with a proper Pink Floyd world domination tour.
Justin experienced the band's mid-'90s show at old Tampa Stadium. He was part of a large group of us that attended the recent sold-out Roger Waters gig at Ford Amphitheatre. How could Justin, of all people, settle for a gang of impostors? I mean, does it get any less rock 'n' roll than sitting next to a bunch of baby boomers inside Ruth Eckerd Hall, watching some guys ape our music heroes?
"I saw them on PBS," Justin countered. "[Australian Pink Floyd] do the whole Pulse-style light show. They sounded just as good as the band Waters put together."
Like any self-respecting music critic, I've always taken a strident anti-tribute-band stance as a matter of professional pride. But the conversation with Justin got me thinking — plus, I'd just attended WMNF's "Set the Night on Fire: A Tribute to The Doors" at Skipper's Smokehouse and found myself liking it more than I'd expected. With tribute acts selling out Ruth Eckerd and Jannus Landing, how long before the best of them start playing big arenas like the St. Pete Times Forum and us snobby music scribes are forced by the will of the masses to pay attention to the clones?
I decided to expand on our beer-fueled debate and started asking around, talking to some of the area's top tribute bands. What's the appeal — not just for audiences, but for the musicians who perform?
UNCLE JOHN'S BAND: Grateful for the crowds
While attending the University of South Florida, I lived down the street from Skipper's Smokehouse and regularly attended the Grateful Dead night on Thursdays featuring Uncle John's Band. Good times. A couple months ago, I went to one of their shows with friends, and we had a blast: no surprises, just spirited versions of songs I've dug since childhood.
Uncle John's Band formed in Clearwater in 1990. That means they were playing while Jerry Garcia was still alive and the Grateful Dead were touring on a regular basis. Co-frontman Rich Whiteley joined UJB in the late '90s, several years after Garcia's death led to the end of the Grateful Dead (although the surviving members have since toured as The Dead).
"I don't think it matters" if a tribute band coexists with the actual band, says Whiteley. "People who really love a band, their band is not gonna be on tour all the time, even the Dead.
"A [tribute] band is only as good as the musicians who play the music," he continues. "People go to see [Uncle John's Band] love the [Grateful Dead]. But, at least with us, people also love what we're doing with it. We have a bunch of improv musicians who are able to put their own stamp on the material."
Unlike many tribute band artists, Whiteley is a respected solo act (he also plays original music with Earth Bombs Mars); his 2000 album A Dog or a Bicycle includes a clutch of self-penned beauties. He performs several of those songs — "Raise the Roof" and "Stargazer" come to mind — with UJB.
"We bring originals to Uncle John if it fits in context in any given night, if it's in a groove the Dead could've done," Whiteley says. "My songwriting is influenced by what I listened to growing up — and that includes the Dead."
Does Whiteley prefer performing under his own name or as part of UJB?
"Look, with Uncle John, the gratification of that gig is playing in front of 200 to 300 people, very enthusiastic people," he says. "The best original acts in town aren't drawing those numbers — and me either. I love doing my own stuff, but I also love playing in front of the crowd Uncle John's Band has every Thursday."
BOGUS POMP: For Zappa, with love
Like Uncle John's Band, the world-class Frank Zappa tribute band Bogus Pomp is based in Tampa Bay and has been around for more than a decade. I saw BP at WMNF's recent birthday bash, and they nearly stole the show with their spot-on renditions of Zappa faves like "Montana."