Covering cover bands

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Feb. 23—The first time I saw Brian Wilson in concert, in 1999 in Clearwater, Florida, his once-soaring voice was far from its prime. But accompanied by an orchestra and capable backup singers, he did justice to The Beach Boys' incredible catalog.

I was there to hear his genius material — the music few others in the history of humanity could have written. For me that includes the 1966 transformative album Pet Sounds as well as parts of later Beach Boys albums Holland, Friends, Sunflower, and Surf's Up.

The last time I saw Brian, in 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada, he didn't seem to want to be there. He performed Pet Sounds in its entirety — or, rather, his band did. When Brian managed to sing, which wasn't often, he quickly ran out of breath. The show was a downer, and the same could be said for the Mike Love-Bruce Johnston concert I saw a year earlier. They're members of a band that, for licensing reasons, gets to call itself The Beach Boys. I interviewed Johnston, a longtime member of the band, for my then-employer and wasn't impressed when he shared that he doesn't see himself ever stopping touring — because of the money he is making.

One of the most impressive concerts I wrote about in Las Vegas was The Australian Pink Floyd Show — the name of both the band and show. I saw ex-Pink Floyd leader Roger Waters a couple years later — something I wouldn't do now, knowing of his positions on Ukraine and Israel. The lights for Roger's concert were spectacular, but in truth, the tribute band put on a better show. When I saw the latter, I didn't have to hear any of the boring tracks from Waters' latest solo album. And I didn't feel conflicted about funding someone's cushy retirement.

It wasn't until the death of Fleetwood Mac keyboardist Christine McVie in 2022 that I fully understood an important truth about good pop tribute bands: In addition to inevitably surpassing the acts whose music they're playing, quality-wise these bands become the only way to hear that music live. In the past few years, I've become increasingly interested in classical music and hearing long-dead songwriters' works. I can appreciate the importance of great performances vs. the "authenticity" of having a song's originator on the stage.

I draw a thick line between tribute bands and cover bands. In my mind, the latter is always one song away from busting out a raise-your-beer, crowd-pleasing chestnut like "Don't Stop Believin'," "Hotel California," or "Old Time Rock and Roll." No disrespect to cover bands or to you, but I hate those songs.

I love The Monkees, so I don't claim to have impeccable taste. A decade ago, all four members of that band were alive. Now only Mickey Dolenz remains. It's a somber reminder that within a span of 15 years, no one with direct connections to classic 1960s bands such as The Beatles, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, Led Zeppelin, or Sly and the Family Stone will still be around, with the possible exception of Keith Richards. Tribute bands will be the only way to hear their music live.

In the next month, an impressive array of tribute concerts are set within an hour of Santa Fe: Start Making Sense (Talking Heads), featuring Albuquerque musicians; Mania (ABBA); Proud Tina (Tina Turner); Zoso (Led Zeppelin); Killer Queen (Queen); and Como La Flor (Selena).

Decades ago, it might have been reasonable to consider such performances as knockoffs, given they competed for fans' money with the bands they were honoring. I'm here to remind us all that they deserve our respect more than ever before — as long as they're only playing figurative old time rock and roll.