Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Spirit in the Night: A Tribute Band’s Tribute to Clarence

June 26, 2011

Tramps Like Us onstage at The Stone Pony

The first time I saw Tramps Like Us was by accident. I was at the Newport Folk Festival last summer. After the Saturday lineup wrapped up, my friends and I ventured into Newport proper, to wander around and maybe find a good place to eat. We happened across a bar advertising “Springsteen Night” and (for me at least) the lure was irresistible. Inside, Tramps Like Us were playing on a small stage barely a foot elevated off the floor. I noticed their 50-60 song set lists taped to the floor. They were taking requests and that was their repertoire for the night. We arrived at the tail-end of their set, but I saw them do a rousing take on “Badlands” and close, like a good Springsteen set ought to, with “Born to Run.” I conceded that, for a tribute band, they were doing considerable justice to E Street.

Big Man memorials outside The Stone Pony

I live in New Jersey. When the Big Man passed away two weeks ago, it was regarded as a heavy loss to the rock n’ roll world – but to New Jerseyans, it was equivalent to the passing of a major head of state. Flags at half-mast, memorials, moments of silence, statements from politicians, etc. And many a newspaper tribute. (Who says the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all!) I read an article on the New York Times’ City Room blog about the Sunday after Clemons passed, when literally hundreds were drawn to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ for an impromptu vigil. The bar played a live version of “10th Avenue Freezeout” which people sang along to, cheering extra loud when Springsteen sings the Clarence-referencing lyric about a change made uptown and the Big Man joining the band.

Less than a week later, I found myself drawn to The Stone Pony as well. I had received an email earlier in the week about a Tramps Like Us show on Friday night. The band would be playing the E Street Band’s 1978 show at the Cleveland Agora in its entirety. Already considered a legendary set to Springsteen bootleg connoisseurs, the performance took on added significance due to its proximity to Clarence’s passing.

At the bar before the band took the stage, others in the crowd seemed to be there for the same reason I (and my sister, who drove) were. It just seemed like the right thing to do. There was a need to hear the music of the E Street Band in a live setting again, and if the band themselves could not be present, Tramps Like Us proved to be worthy stand-ins.

The Star Ledger (New Jersey’s paper of record) have called them the next best thing to the E Street Band themselves, and though no E Street bandmembers themselves have gone on record, the official E Street Radio has – calling them the best E Street tribute band out there. Mike Appel, former Springsteen manager and producer, has called their performances “second to none.” Hillary Clinton once introduced them, at a 9/11 memorial dedication called, fittingly, “The Rising.”

Unlike the hoary Beatles and Elvis tribute acts of Vegas and Branson, with their mop-top wigs and rhinestone jumpsuits, Tramps Like Us keep their dignity during their act. Their job is to sound like the the E Street Band, not to look like them. And to that point, they do a pretty excellent job. Mark Salore, founder, guitarist and lead vocalist, does a very credible Springsteen-voice (circa the late 70s or early 80s) without any kind of audible affectation taking place. Ken Hope, filling in for Roy Bittan and the late Dan Federici (AKA piano + organ) recreates both instruments with simultaneous gusto. Jonathan Sanborn’s bass, like Gary Tallent’s, is never the flashiest part of any E Street song, but it is consistently reliable and provides the all important backbeat whether you notice or not. Rudy Feinauer, who in the right light bears a striking resemblance to comedian Michael Ian Black, comes the closest out of anyone in the band in recreating the mannerisms of the E Streeter he’s filling in. He has a tendency to stare straight ahead with an almost emotionless look on his face, hitting his mark on song after song with machine-precision. Much like stone-faced Max Weinberg.

Finally, Brian Ognan, who has arguably the largest shoes to fill, in particular after the events of a couple of weeks ago. Looking like the logo for chocolatier Max Brenner, Ognan, called “The BO Man” (his initials) as a play on Big Man, absolutely kills every sax solo. For Tramps Like Us, playing their first show since Clarence’s passing, this was perhaps Ognan’s most critical time to shine. And shine he did, from the first sax solo of the night on “Badlands” through the Big Man’s finest hour in the solo from “Jungleland.” The band passed out little battery-operated candles before they played that one.

(A more cynical writer might make a joke about fake candles for a fake E Street Band. But first of all, the heart was real, and second, fire safety! The last thing the rickety Stone Pony club needs is a few hundred drunks holding real candles.) Anyway…

Before diving into the Cleveland Agora set, Salore came out to do a solo tribute to Clarence, a quiet take on “Incident on 57th Street” with Hope on piano and guest violinist Ellen Lipkind. It was a somber way to start off the evening, but the right thing to do before heading straight into the fun stuff. And if there is one thing the set from that Cleveland ’78 show is, its fun. Many Springsteen aficionados rightfully regard the Darkness on the Edge of Town tour as the E Street Band at the peak of their powers. Held up by legal troubles for three long years, it was a moment in time when the band was hungry to not only return to the stage, but to claim it as their own. Over 100+ shows, many of which have gone on to become cherished bootlegs, the E Street Band solidified their status as arguably THE great live band in rock n’ roll. Performing epic sets between three and a half and four hours in length, with a catalogue that even then must’ve felt like nothing but greatest hits, E Street was a force to be reckoned with.

Tramps Like Us founder/singer/guitarist Mark Salore

After the first few songs – a killer trio of Summertime Blues >> Badlands >> Spirit in the Night – it was clear that Tramps would have no trouble replicating the sound of the E Street Band in ’78. Mark Salore was even making winking references to some of Bruce’s actual stage banter from that show. Even more impressive however, was the band’s effort to interpret the sound of the E Street Band on the Darkness tour. That particular tour is my favorite era of the E Street Band live (second would be the Reunion tour), and one of the reasons is because the band would often stretch out some of their best numbers to truly epic length. If you’ve heard the E Street Band’s live album from the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975, you know they were more than capable of hitting Grateful-Dead-length on some tunes, IE the exhilarating 17-minute long rendition of Kitty’s Back. (Trust me, those 17 minutes go by quick.)

By the Darkness tour, Springsteen & the E Street Band had grown even more inventive with their live arrangements. In particular, throughout the Darkness tour, Springsteen would begin “Prove it All Night” and “Because the Night” with gorgeous, reverb-soaked soloing – revving the crowd up until the point where the song finally takes off and the crowd is in full-on frenzy mode. Mark Salore did a fantastic job recreating the soloing on those two songs, and indeed that was one of Tramps Like Us’s most effective means of recreating the sound of E Street in 1978.

I did wonder what the band would do during “Growin’ Up” though. In the Cleveland Agora set, Springsteen intercuts the song with a long tall-tale about his days as a wayward youth, and his and Clarence’s drive up to a dark hill next to a cemetery where they hoped to “meet God.”

Bruce: “Dear God, my father wants me to be a doctor. My mother wants me to be a lawyer. But all I got is this guitar”

The immortal’s immortal reply, three words, “LET IT ROCK.”

The band explodes back into action. Mass euphoria ensues.

Thankfully, Salore didn’t even try to recreate Bruce’s epic yarn – filling the lull instead with a story of his own about the time he met a God a little closer to home, the Boss himself. A few months ago, he and Tramps Like Us were playing the Stone Pony, recreating Bruce’s legendary 38-song-long New Years Eve 1980 show at the Nassau Coliseum. At some point during the show, Mark received word that Bruce was down the street at one of the boardwalk bars. They thought Bruce might walk in the backdoor of the Stone Pony and actually join them onstage – it never materialized. So after the show, someone invites Mark to come over and meet with the man he makes a living paying tribute to. They have an awkward exchange, and just as Salore is about to end it, he tells how he asked Bruce what he thought of Tramps Like Us and their recreations of classic E Street sets. Did the Boss approve? Again, three words: Let. It. Rock. Well played, Tramps.

For more photos of mine from Tramps Like Us @ The Stone Pony, click here.