This One's For Neil

Lee Courtney reflects on tribute concerts past and present.

Rockin' in the Free World: A Tribute to Neil Young

Lee "Flee" Courtney is trying to remember how many tribute shows he's thrown in the Bay area over the last four or five years. He's pretty sure it's eight, then remembers another one; finally, he settles on the almost-certainty that this weekend's Neil Young-themed shindig at Skipper's Smokehouse is the 10th overall.

When asked if one stands out as his favorite, he mentions the Beatles show, then veers toward the Rolling Stones spectacle, an exhaustive endeavor that covered three days in three different cities — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota — a couple of years back.

"I don't know what I was drinking, putting that thing on," he says with a laugh.

Back in 2001, Courtney, who is musical director for Tampa community radio station WMNF-88.5 FM, took a cue from a string of sporadic but largely successful musician-organized tribute shows that went down at St. Pete's State Theatre throughout the second half of the '90s. He set up a tribute to Elvis Costello as a benefit for WMNF, enlisted a long list of local original bands to play, and staged it on the songwriter's 50th birthday. The event was a massive success, and Courtney's all-day, all-local-band benefit format became an instant tradition.

In the years since, the proceeds have gone alternately to WMNF and to the grassroots local-music support co-op that recently graduated to full-blown nonprofit status as the Bay Area Arts & Music Organization, or BAAMO. (They're the guys who take a handful of Bay area bands to Austin's South by Southwest music festival every year.)

This Sunday, for the first time, both entities will benefit equally from the same event.

Despite the scale and popularity of the shows, several of which have been sellouts, Courtney still operates in a decidedly low-key, do-it-yourself fashion. He has the final word on who will be celebrated and which bands will play, but is constantly asking local musicians to whom they'd like to pay homage, and what new, interesting or quality acts should be invited to perform.

And while the list of icons paid tribute definitely trends toward WMNF's hip-Boomer and roots-rock-fan listeners — the only non-Caucasian, non-guitar-centric one so far has been a Motown-themed gig — Courtney generally assembles as eclectic a bill of local artists as he can.

"What I try to do is get as diverse a collection of bands as possible, which isn't always easy — sometimes it's hard to find a hip-hop band that wants to play Neil Young," he says. "I kind of ask around, get advice form people — 'do you know any jazz bands that want to do this?' I still haven't gotten a polka band to perform, but I'm working on it."

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